Lake Chad: a forgotten crisis

The grave situation in the Lake Chad Basin may be a largely forgotten global crisis, but it also manages to capture the main challenges of our time. For in this region of Africa, conflict, climate change and poverty have aligned to produce an imminent humanitarian disaster.

The response to the crisis has been halting and inefficient. The army’s focus on defeating the insurgency has meant that the immediate needs of Boko Haram’s victims have not been a strategic priority. The United Nations has been criticised for failing to respond to warnings of food insecurity raised by aid workers in the region. What is more, despite chronic underfunding with to date only 25% of fundraising requirements met, a special UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants featured scant mention of the impending crisis facing millions of displaced people.

Across the Lake Chad Basin, nine million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Of these, seven million are to be found in Nigeria. In Borno State, northeast of the country, an estimated 2.6 million people have been displaced since the Boko Haram insurgency began. Crops have been left unplanted and migration to urban centres from those fleeing the violence has placed huge strains on the local population. In Maiduguri, Borno’s state capital, the population has more than doubled in the past few years, reaching 2.5 million people. Countless others, unable to be hosted in cities, have been placed in camps for Internally Displaced Peoples, often in atrocious, unsanitary conditions.



Refugee camp in Northern Nigeria |Photograph Immanuel Afolabi


Although the Nigerian government has pushed back Boko Haram in recent months, any victories have been tainted by the discoveries of malnutrition on a huge scale, as aid agencies begin to access previously cut-off areas. In June 2016, the government was forced to declare a nutrition emergency in Borno State, and UNICEF has estimated that 75,000 children will die in the coming months if they do not receive medical treatment. The critical situation has prompted United Nations assistant secretary-general Toby Lanzer to describe the depth of suffering in the area as unparalleled in his experience.

The barbarity of Boko Haram, the world’s ‘deadliest terrorist group’, is known to many. Notorious for its mass kidnappings, village burnings and beheadings under an Islamist banner, in the past few years the group expanded beyond its base in northern Nigeria into neighbouring Cameroon, Niger and Chad. Since 2015, its influence has weakened and a split in the leadership has created rival factions, with Abubakar Shekau now challenged by a rival with the backing of so-called Islamic State. Nigerian forces, with the help of other affected countries have capitalised on the internal turmoil and significantly reduced Boko Haram’s territory, although there has been a renewal of violence in recent weeks. However, the destruction left in its wake amplifies the pre-existing challenges already facing one of the poorest regions in Sub-Saharan Africa.


colour illustration of hooded men with missile-like weapons and explosion in the background

Boko Haram | Illustration AK Rockefeller


The massive economic disparity between the poor north and the richer south in Nigeria, along with poor governance, has created the conditions for insurgencies like Boko Haram to thrive. The group’s targeted recruitment of the almaijiri – the millions of child beggars in Nigeria forced to leave their family homes – is well known. However global warming has also played its part, adding to the periodic cycles of drought we have come to expect from the Sahel climate zone. In his speech at the UN Summit, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari drew attention to how, “the negative consequences of climate change have manifested in the drying up of our Lake Chad.” The result, he said, was that the livelihoods of an estimated 30 million inhabitants were now “severely threatened” and that the matter should be accorded “global attention”. Already inevitable food insecurity in the region has been drastically exacerbated by conflict.

The unfolding crisis in the Lake Chad Basin offers a dystopian insight into our near future. Conflict and instability are arising against the backdrop of chronic poverty and livelihoods already threatened by climate change. The resulting displacement and food shortages directly impact millions of those who are already among the world’s most vulnerable people. We can only hope that the world faces up to this new challenge, starting in Borno State, before it is too late.

Thumbnail image: Kri Kri, Niger, on the shores of Lake Chad (c) EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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