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Lake Chad success in turning citizens from terror groups provides critical lessons for African nations

Lake Chad success in turning citizens from terror groups provides critical lessons for African nations
Lake Chad Basin countries have seen counterterrorism success through implemented disarmament, demobilisation, repatriation, reintegration and resettlement programmes. (Graphic: Amelia Broodryk/ISS)

Nearly a decade of experience managing Boko Haram defectors is invaluable for West Africa and the Sahel. 

Terror groups in the Sahel are becoming more resilient, making it hard for governments and their partners to degrade them. As the region explores options besides military operations, efforts to demobilise and reintegrate those who leave violent extremist groups could significantly reduce the threat. 

For over five years, Lake Chad Basin countries have implemented disarmament, demobilisation, repatriation, reintegration and resettlement (DDRRR) programmes. They can provide lessons to ensure that when other affected Sahelian and West African coastal countries use this approach, they succeed.

Since 2016, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria — the four countries of the Lake Chad Basin affected by Boko Haram — have addressed insecurity through both military and non-military strategies. This has been necessary since military operations alone have proven insufficient for defeating Boko Haram and its factions.

An important feature of the non-military efforts, which has been largely effective, is to incentivise disengagement and defection from Boko Haram through DDRRR. This approach has also helped to deplete the group’s fighting force, particularly the Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (JAS) faction. 

Since the death of JAS leader Abubakar Shekau in 2021, over 70,000 people have left the group. This follows previous episodes of disengagement across the region, with former members and associates now long out of the group’s reach and control. 

While Shekau’s death was a key trigger for the latest round of defections, other reasons precipitated previous waves. These included the conduct of military operations, ideological disillusionment with Boko Haram, and unfulfilled economic aspirations for joining the group in the first place. Equally catalytic were intra- and inter-faction dynamics, which resulted in the 2016 Boko Haram split, and leadership rivalries.

Reasons for joining extremist factions

Understanding these dynamics is as important as managing exits from the group, and enables stakeholders to apply tailored responses. Research into why individuals join, and their roles in the group, can guide other affected West African countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire in formulating and implementing programmes that directly address these trajectories.

For example, in Lake Chad Basin, not everyone joins Boko Haram for ideological reasons. Some participate for economic purposes, and others seek protection from the group and from security forces, for themselves and their loved ones. Boko Haram often kills those who refuse to join when approached. And security forces have been known to arbitrarily arrest young men of ‘fighting age’ — accusing them of being terrorists. Joining terror groups means they can escape and access weapons when threatened by soldiers.

Other members are forcibly enrolled. Some are enlisted by family members or through peer pressure. These recruits play distinct roles in Boko Haram, ranging from forced unpaid labour to participation in attacks.

Research findings can also help to develop appropriate messaging and identify dissemination channels for reaching members to facilitate further exits. In all four Lake Chad Basin countries, community radio stations were widely used by governments to spread messages in local languages. Members were promised safety, non-imprisonment, rehabilitation and reintegration, and respect for human rights if they left Boko Haram. Many left the group because of these broadcasts. Family members and community leaders can also help get messages across.

Challenges faced

Despite successes, managing exits in the Lake Chad Basin has come with several challenges that neighbouring countries should try to avoid repeating. These include inadequate laws, insufficient gender sensitivity, coordination problems and unfulfilled promises to former associates undergoing DDRRR. Besides the skills former members learn, they are promised empowerment (cash, equipment, etc.) as part of their reintegration into society and to restart their lives. Often, these promises aren’t kept or are only partially fulfilled.

Poor local engagement can also be a problem. From the start, affected communities should form part of the strategy, and their needs and expectations must be taken into account. They not only bear the brunt of violence perpetrated by extremists but receive former associates during and after DDRRR. Excluding them from the process is often counterproductive and limits the prospect of success. In Nigeria, in earlier times of Operation Safe Corridor, some graduates were rejected by their communities. 

Another lesson for West African countries relates to the issue of female Boko Haram members. It is important to understand their functions and avoid treating all women as victims. Research shows that they play essential parts in terror groups — including active combat roles like volunteering as suicide bombers and working as spies, recruiters and enablers of their husbands’ activities. 

The globalisation of violent extremism calls for cross-border cooperation among countries to complement national responses. Given that terror group membership cuts across borders, the Lake Chad Basin Commission-led Regional Strategy for the Stabilization, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected Areas is a good example for the Sahel and West African countries to follow. 

Individually and collectively, governments in the region must also ensure that their policies and programmes have institutional and legal backing. Problems can be avoided if relevant laws are passed to ensure the smooth running of DDRRR programmes. 

DDRRR in combination with other approaches could effectively address violent extremism. But it must be done efficiently. To get it right, West African countries have the advantage of looking at how their Lake Chad Basin neighbours have fared. Given their geostrategic positions connecting the Lake Chad Basin and West Africa, Niger and Nigeria could play a vital role in sharing lessons learnt from DDRRR implementation. DM

Malik Samuel, Researcher, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.

Read the full policy brief on lessons from Lake Chad Basin here.

Research for this article was funded by the governments of The Netherlands and Denmark, and the Bosch Foundation.

First published by ISS Today.


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