CHAD – Chad’s Escalating Fight against Boko Haram

Africa Center | Daniel Eizenga | April 20, 2020

On March 23, Boko Haram militants staged a complex attack on Chadian troops stationed at a base in Bohoma. The attack lasted for 7 hours and ultimately left 98 Chadian soldiers dead and dozens more wounded. The battle of Bohoma (alternatively spelled Bohouma, Bouma, and Boma) highlights worrying improvements to Boko Haram’s combat and intelligence capacities, given that the Chadian Army has been widely considered the superior regional force.

The attack follows years of insurgency waged by Boko Haram and its offshoot, the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), in the Lake Chad Basin. These have largely been concentrated in northern Nigeria but also in northern Cameroon, southeastern Niger, and western Chad. Within Chad, militant Islamist group activity has been concentrated in Lac Province, which encompasses all Chadian territory around and across the lake. The number of confrontations between insurgents and Chadian soldiers tripled from 7 in 2018 to 21 in 2019. Moreover, in an apparent change of tactics since the beginning of 2019, civilian communities in Chad have been targeted 15 times resulting in dozens of casualties and abductions.

The violence has displaced nearly 170,000 people in Lac Province, roughly one-third of the Chadian population in that area. It also has endangered livelihoods by hindering agricultural production and blocking cross-border trade, both contributing to the UN’s estimate that 5.3 million people in Chad will require humanitarian assistance in 2020.

After the March 23 attack, the Chadian military launched an offensive led by President Idriss Déby to clear the insurgents from Chadian territory. Boko Haram’s ability to accomplish such a devastating attack, along with the preceding increase in militant Islamist group activity in Chad’s Lac Province, however, raises the prospect that Boko Haram and ISWA have gained momentum and now pose a greater threat to Chad and stability in the wider region.

Boko Haram’s Activities in Chad

The scale and threat of Boko Haram and ISWA’s activities in Chad have fluctuated over the years. The January 2015 massacre of roughly 2,000 civilians at Baga Kawa, Nigeria (sometimes referred to only as Baga), an important trading hub and port on Lake Chad, prompted the mobilization of more than 1,000 Chadian soldiers into Nigeria to push Boko Haram out of its strongholds in Borno State, Nigeria. The operation was a success, but the fallout was swift. Boko Haram quickly planned and executed multiple suicide attacks in N’Djamena during 2015, and its dispersed militants set up camps across the many islands on the lake, including those in Lac Province.

This initial period from 2015 to 2016 saw an influx in violence for communities in Chad along the Cameroonian and Nigerian borders. However, by the end of 2016, the security situation on the Chadian side of the lake began to improve due to the military’s sustained presence and a containment strategy that discouraged encroachments on Chadian communities. At this time, most Boko Haram activity took place elsewhere in the broader Lake Chad region.

By late 2016, Boko Haram had split into two factions: one led by Abubakar Shekau and the other led by Abu Musab al Barnawi, becoming ISWA. The two factions separated over differences in tactics and ideology. For instance, ISWA is not known to conduct female suicide bombings, while Shekau’s Boko Haram is. Also, al Barnawi has renounced attacks on Muslim civilians, while Shekau freely targets non–Boko Haram Muslim civilians, declaring them apostates. Over time, the influence of each grew over different geographic spaces. Shekau’s faction established a stronghold in Sambisa Forest and the Mandara Mountains in northeastern Nigeria and parts of northern Cameroon. Meanwhile, al Barnawi’s faction maintained a presence along the Nigerian shores of Lake Chad and the Niger-Nigerian border.

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