Rebuilding local economies devastated by Boko Haram requires government flexibility and fiscal focus

The crisis-driven decline in the demand for goods in Lake Chad Basin has reduced business profitability. Traders who remain active have been forced to source goods from local markets and revert to petty trade with lower margins. (Photo: EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie)

Securing livelihoods in Lake Chad Basin is vital for communities to resist and recover from the conflict. 

The devastation caused by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin is not limited to deaths and displacements. It includes severe disruptions to economic activities. And it’s not just the violent extremists who are making it difficult for communities to sustain their livelihoods — but also the government’s measures to counter the insurgency.

New research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) found that the Lake Chad Basin had thriving fishing and agro-pastoral activities before the conflict. It also had a vibrant transborder trade sector, exchanging goods produced in and outside the region. Today the work of fishers, farmers, traders and transporters is hampered by both Boko Haram and the government’s responses to terrorism. 

The ISS study covered Cameroon (North and Extreme North), Chad (Lac and Hadjer-Lamis), Niger (Diffa) and Nigeria (Borno, Adamawa and Yobe). These areas were already marginalised socio-economically before the conflict, and the uneven presence of the state and government services enabled Boko Haram to appropriate economic activities for its benefit. 

Lake Chad Basin regions affected by the Boko Haram crisis

Violent extremists came in and destroyed farms, killing or displacing farmers. Fishing areas became no-go zones after locals were murdered or displaced. And the burning and looting of markets by terrorists has thrown traders into bankruptcy. The work of important networks such as traders’ unions was disrupted, cutting off their members from access to capital or credit.

The general decline in economic activity affected those providing transport services, leading some to close their businesses or scale down operations. Due to the constant threat of attacks, some major trading routes became inaccessible, cutting access to customers and suppliers or making access difficult and costly.

State measures taken against Boko Haram inadvertently affected communities in different ways. The closure of some markets to prevent violent extremists from using them harmed innocent producers and traders who had to find alternative ways to sell their goods. 

Police and military checkpoints along specific trading routes were abused by some government officials who extorted merchants and transport providers, increasing their transaction costs. Although most bans on the trade of goods such as peppers and fish have been lifted, their initial enforcement caused producer and trader revenues to plummet.

Women have been particularly affected by the conflict. They have historically been marginalised by prevailing gender norms and were already operating at a smaller scale than their male counterparts by for example, working in retail rather than wholesale. The Boko Haram crisis compounded their vulnerability to economic shocks and livelihood disruptions. Their dire financial situation also exposes them to sexual and other forms of exploitation.

Communities have tried to cope with these changes in different ways. Many traders and business owners have reduced the scale of their operations, moving from wholesale to retail, for example. Goods bought and sold have shifted to those with accessible supply lines and sufficient local demand.

Some people have moved away from economic activities rendered unprofitable by the conflict. The surge of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) into the region to help deal with the effects of violence has created new livelihood opportunities — albeit short-term and precarious. 

Lake Chad Basin residents have found ways to benefit from the ‘NGO economy’ as employees or contractors. However, many have been completely stripped of their livelihoods and are now entirely dependent on governments and NGOs for their basic needs. Some live in camps for internally displaced people, while others stay outside camps in urban areas.

Some people have resorted to negative coping strategies due to the dire economic situation. To continue producing and trading, transactions are undertaken with Boko Haram directly or in areas under its control in return for payment of taxes. Some community members now participate in the economy of violence by selling intelligence to Boko Haram or helping with the group’s logistics.

To help communities resist and recover from the Boko Haram conflict, their lives and livelihoods must be protected. People living in Lake Chad Basin told ISS that securing farms, markets and transport routes would help them revive their economic activities. They also need low-cost or interest-free credit to enable them to regain their losses.

The excesses of government officials need to be curbed, and extortion by security agents must be addressed decisively. Taxes levied by governments on business owners and traders should be reviewed to ensure they are not stifling local commerce.

The Regional Strategy for Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected areas of the Lake Chad Basin has made some progress in providing grants and rebuilding markets and roads. However, to sustainably reverse the losses in the region’s economy, responses must be tailored to people’s economic sectors, gender and social status.

Farming and fishing are still the dominant commercial activities in Lake Chad Basin, and measures should be taken to improve productivity and add output value. Communities need education and upskilling to participate in the growing services economy — such as hospitality, food delivery, transport and logistics and business services. This should happen while recognising the temporary nature of the ‘NGO economy’.

Rebuilding local economies will address some of the underlying causes of the Boko Haram conflict and make communities less vulnerable to co-option by violent extremists. This is a crucial step in the Lake Chad Basin’s war against insurgency. DM

Teniola Tayo, Researcher and Remadji Hoinathy, Senior Researcher, Lake Chad Basin Programme, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Dakar.

This article is published with funding from the Government of the Netherlands.

First published by ISS Today.



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