After suffering its worst attack from a Boko Haram ambush last week which killed nearly a hundred soldiers, the Chadian army has declared Lake Chad borderlands a war zone, heightening fears that civilians will suffer an escalation in violence.
President Idriss Déby travelled to the region to announce the Wrath of Boma operation, named after the island where Boko Haram launched a seven-hour assault that Déby said was the worst the country’s military had ever suffered.
More than 2 million people have been displaced by violence in the Lake Chad basin, across its borders with Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, and experts have warned of more problems ahead.
Remadji Hoinathy, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies Africa, said the attack had dented the pride of a Chadian military that has been deployed across the region to fight militants.
“This image of a big army fighting extremist groups has been wounded,” said Hoinathy. “This may call for a more radical reaction from the state. What we fear is how far this reaction will go and what will be the side-effects of this offensive on the populations and communities living in the lake province, and on the islands within the lake.
Both Boko Haram and its rival, Islamic State in West Africa Province (Iswap), have established themselves in the transnational Lake Chad area, benefiting from its marshy landscape and operating across borders.
The Chadian military has reportedly already asked the local population to clear the area, which is likely to add to the 169,000 people already internally displaced within Chad. By declaring the area a war zone, the military also has more power to regulate traffic and search homes.
Hoinathy said communities in this area have already suffered from the conflict, facing violence and harassment from armed groups while military operations had restricted a local economy based on fishing and livestock.
Even before the current escalation, the US government’s famine early warning system cautioned that displaced people and host communities in Lak, the region covering Chad’s part of the lake, would struggle to meet their food needs through to September.
Chad’s defence minister, Gen MahamatAbali Salah, announced on television that the country had also sent troops to Nigeria and Niger to clear the islands on the lake.
More than 1,000 Chadian soldiers recently withdrew from Nigeria’s Borno state after months of fighting Boko Haram there, but more are reportedly being sent to Burkina Faso and Mali to battle militants active across the Sahel.
International powers have relied heavily on Chad’s soldiers to tackle militants in the region but last week’s death toll has raised concerns about whether the army, also fighting rebels opposed to Déby’s rule, is too thinly stretched.
Chad’s forces gained a strong regional reputation after joining France in battling armed groups that overran northern Mali in 2013. (Source: The Guardian)