The year that just passed bestowed many crises on the world, some covered extensively in the press, others less so. An example of the former was the siege of east Aleppo, which, with almost no international media on the ground, somehow generated endless headlines in Western newspapers. A prominent example of the latter was the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the four countries surrounding Lake Chad in Central Africa: Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, speaking in Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital, a few weeks ago, “This is one of Africa’s largest displacement crises and the world cannot afford to brush it under the carpet. The suffering and desperate conditions in the Lake Chad region are among the harshest I have seen. Refugees, returnees and host communities who have survived violence and trauma by the Boko Haram insurgency urgently need help.”
The UNHCR has asked donor countries for $241 million to alleviate the growing crisis this year, as compared to just under $200 million for 2016, which was only a little more than 40% funded.
This funding shortfall is typical of international efforts to help ordinary Africans. The continent that’s given and continues to give so much of its wealth to other nations, especially former colonial powers, usually provokes a shrug from Western policy makers and pundits. Besides, it seems the press can only handle one refugee crisis at a time and the one roiling Europe, even though it’s smaller in scale, is the one that receives the most attention.
This is especially true when the reasons for widespread famine and insecurity are complicated enough to defy easy explanation. Although the Nigerian Salafist group Boko Haram (which has since rebranded itself as an ISIS affiliate and split into at least two groups) gets most of the blame for the suffering and displacements around Lake Chad, a shrinking water and food source and an encroaching desert bear primary responsibility for the food crisis that has left as many as 8 million people “teetering on the brink of famine.”
It should be noted that the lake, on the edge of the Sahara, is believed to have waxed and waned in terms of its size over thousands of years, so there is very little agreement among scientists over the role of climate change in this particular case. Nonetheless, a long-term drought may be one of the consequences of this global phenomenon in Central Africa, which includes the Lake Chad Basin.
Some commentators posit that part of the reason for the diminishing lake is the damming of two major rivers, the Jama’are and Hadejia in Nigeria, that traditionally feed it. Unlike many environmental crises, the impact on the lake over time can be easily described: it’s now 2,500 square kilometers (1553.4 sq. miles) in size as compared to 25,000 square km (15534.2 sq. miles) fifty years ago.
As Muhammadu Bello, a Nigerian fisherman, told the BBC a decade ago, “I don’t know what global warming is, but what I do know is that this lake is dying and we are dying with it.”
The human component of the problem shouldn’t be dismissed in discussing the crisis. A fast-growing population of more than 30 million living in and around the lake, conflict between herders and farmers for land and unsustainable practices over time have all contributed to the worsening conditions. The increasing problem of displaced people has only aggravated these issues.
One possible solution that has been proposed by the Chinese government among others, is to bring water from the Congo River Basin, large amounts of which flow out to the sea, to replenish the lake.
This plan, called Transaqua, shows China’s increasing role in Africa based primarily on infrastructure building and resource extraction. The infrastructure projects will, if they succeed, at the very least, endear them to governments throughout the continent. What their consequences will be for ordinary people is difficult to say and I am absolutely sure that there will be many displaced people and others hurt by these big projects as they progress.
Still, this does seem a more intelligent and mutually beneficial long-term policy than the increasingly militarized approach of the United States, France and the UK.
Militarism Marches On
As reported by Nick Turse on The Intercept, documents released after an FOIA request showed that the United States is building a drone base to the north of Lake Chad in Agadez, Niger, at an estimated cost of $100 million. It will house Reaper drones, a larger, more lethal class of unmanned vehicle than the Predator drones already active in the continent, especially in Somalia. This huge investment only scratches the service of the growing U.S. military presence in Africa.
The same reporter, writing in The Nation, claimed that the U.S. now has at least 60 bases of operations, from small ‘lily pads’ to the massive Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, in 34 African countries. Needless to say, some of the countries hosting American troops, many of them engaged in training local forces, have terrible human rights records.
While it is easy to point the finger at the United States for its increasingly militaristic approach to Africa, France, the former colonial master of three of the countries surrounding Lake Chad, including its namesake, Niger and Cameroon, is engaged on a similar scale. It also still has control over the currencies of these three countries and recently negotiated military cooperation with Nigeria, which, due to its neglect of the Muslim majority in the north of the country, should bear a great part of the responsibility for the destabilizing rise of Boko Haram.
As reported by the Japan Times at the end of April, the two countries’ armies, “signed an operational cooperation document detailing 28 areas to be tackled before the end of the year (2016), including training against improvised explosives and combat rescue.”
One of the oddest things about the so-called ‘War on Terror’, most visible in the Greater Middle East because of better media coverage, is that increased military spending, overt and covert, almost always seems to lead to greater insecurity in the countries where these vast sums are spent. This usually produces yet more spending or outright intervention.
A purely African example of this occurred in Mali (on Niger’s western border) in 2012, where a U.S.-trained Army officer, Amadou Sanogo, led a coup d’etat against the central government prior to the French-led mission in the country, which itself had been destabilized by the previous NATO intervention in Libya.
The crisis afflicting the Lake Chad region requires a dedicated international response and, with the security situation improving throughout the region, there is no excuse for richer nations to continue to ignore it. The compassion that some of these countries have shown for their displaced neighbors, though they are poor themselves, sets an example that shames most of the world.