Fr. Atta Barkindo

For the past one decade, there has been a rise in violent activities perpetrated by various extremist groups around the Lake Chad region and the Sahel. In February 2007, Jihadi forums, a Middle East forum for vital intelligence on Islamic terrorist organizations circulated an article entitled – ‘Al-Qaeda Organization and the African Continent: Past, Present and Future.’

The article provided in great detail a coherent analysis of Africa’s importance to Al-Qaeda’s view of global Jihad, outlining the group’s strategy on how to conquer the African continent using the Lake Chad and the Sahel as operational corridors.

Similarly, in November 2015, the Islamic State dedicated its monthly magazine, ‘Dabiq,’ issue 8 to Africa, entitled ‘Sharia alone will rule Africa.’Both Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), two of the world’s most ruthless and callous terrorist organizations, are perceived as products of radical Islam.

Today, the Lake Chad and the Sahel have become recruitment hubs as well as territorial targets for Al-Qaeda, IS and their affiliates such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Al-Murabitoun (those who sign with Blood Brigade); AnsaruAl-Deen (defenders of Islam) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Their networks span the North African region, straddling across the Sahel and the Lake Chad into East and West Africa. They co-opt local instruments, where they interface with local imams to control, influence or intimidate local Islamic sects with similar ideologies.

Experts and analysts have predicted the rise in violent activities of terrorist groups around the Lake Chad and the Sahel on Western intervention in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, Muslim majority countries. The activities of these groups are linked to the desire to exact revenge against Western nations whose goal is to dominate Muslim countries and undermine Islam.

Others argue that the violence of the terrorists around the Lake Chad and the Sahel is rooted in the structural and psychological causes of mass mobilization. In other words, various strains such as modernization disrupt social life and accepted routines.

Consequently, a psychological sense of isolation and impotence in the face of broad societal changes prompts individuals to violence. Terrorist activities then become escapist coping mechanisms through which individuals regain a sense of belonging, empowerment and identity.

Contemporary commentators on Islamist terrorism however believe that the atrocities committed by terrorists are substantially the product of social dislocation in many Muslim-majority countries.

The elites of such countries, soaked in corruption, frequently advocate Western values, leaving the vast majority of the people deprived and socially excluded.

Some choose to join extremist groups to feel a sense of belonging. Apart from the socio-economic foundations of the growth of extremist groups in the Lake Chad and Sahel, advocates of Islamist ideology link the activities of these groups to the doctrine ‘Salafijihadism’ doctrine.

Salafism comes from the concept al-Salaf al-Salih (pious predecessors or the first generation of Muslims) which includes the Prophet and his companions. It means that temporal proximity to the Prophet is associated with the truest form of Islam. Achieving this proximity indicates literal and total submission to the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet, sometimes even in mundane things.

How to return to this original Islam gave rise to different kinds of salafi groups. The salafijihadis believe in the use of violence,the salafi purists denounce violence, salafi activists encourage participation in political process and there are many other brands of salafism.

The salafijihadis to which all the extremist groups functioning in the Lake Chad and the Sahel belong, argue that legitimate political authority must be based on God’s revelation in the Qur’an. The sovereignty of Allah must be the foundation for all socio-political and economic systems, and society must be governed in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunna of the Prophet. This means that human beings must, individually and collectively, surrender all rights of lordship, legislation and exercising authority over others. No person, class or group can lay claim to sovereignty. Allah is the real law-giver and absolute legislation rests on him. Democracy is therefore seen as the rejection of Allah’s supremacy over his creation. It is the arrogance of humanity that allocates to itself powers that belong only to Allah, an effort to substitute the injunctions of Allah with humanly constructed institutions.

However, Africa is not the West, and Africa is neither Europe nor America and has not intervened in the Middle East. Again, the Lake Chad and Sahel are not the only regions infested with Islamist ideology, social exclusion and economic deprivation.

So why is the Lake Chad and the Sahel so attractive to the extremist? What is so unique about the Lake Chad and the Sahel regions that drive the mobilization and recruitment agenda of the extremist groups? Why are the two of the world’s most ‘expensive’ and ‘exotic’ terrorist organizations, IS and Al-Qaeda so obsessed with leveraging the Lake Chad and the Sahel regions?

To underscore the importance of these questions, another narrative that has been missing from the analysis on the activities of terrorist groups around the Lake Chad and the Sahel is the issue of environmental degradation and conflict. Environmental degradation is seen as a process whereby this physical and external surrounding is damaged or reduced from its original quality to a lesser value, affecting the lives of those within. This could range from the destruction of ecosystems to degraded fresh water supplies and arable land. It is fair to say that the role of environmental degradation as the cause of violent conflict is always limited and inconclusive. However, environmental degradation has facilitated violent conflict in different regions. For instance, some scholars suggest that environmental degradation will, on its own, ratchet up violent conflict because it will lead to hunger and competition over limited resources, where even food supplies can be used as weapon of war. Again, environmental degradation could lead to scarcity, which will result in corruption, clandestine economy, organized crime, resource capture by elites and the weakened legitimacy of governments in power, making the context prone to violent conflict.

This article does not claim that environmental degradation is responsible for the activities of extremist groups around the Lake Chad and the Sahel. Rather, it argues that scarcity, economic deprivation, poverty, clandestine economy and the weakened legitimacy of government around the Lake Chad and the Sahel due to environmental degradation have combined to foster the activities of these groups.

There is enough evidence to demonstrate the level of environmental degradation and its consequences around the Lake Chad and the Sahel. Lake Chad region is made up of the areas of northeastern Nigeria, southeastern Niger, southwestern Chad and northern Cameroon,covering 2,434,000 (km²), and the current population is estimated to be 37 million. The Sahel is the region between Maghreb (North Africa) and Western Sudan (known to Arabs as Bilad al-Sudan, land of the black). It refers to the band of countries dividing white and black Africa, a band which cuts through Mauritania, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea. The agro-economic activities of these regions employ more than 80% of the large number of illiterate people, primarily in agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing and pastoralism.



Recently, evidence suggests that environmental degradation around Lake Chad and Sahel stems from shortage of rainfall, deterioration of rangeland, deforestation and desertification. The Lake Chad Basin Commission’s report indicates that the Sahel has experienced the most substantial decline in rainfall recorded anywhere in the world in the last four decades. In the early 1960s the lake had an area of more than 26,000 square km. However, between 1966 and 1997 it has shrunk to less than 1,500 km2 and between 1994 and 2004, it retreated further, covering just an area of some 532 km. Today, the lake is not only a shadow of itself; experts suggests it may disappear within 20 years.


Figure: Showing the Disappearance of Lake Chad



This shows a time-lapse sequence of maps, sourced from satellite imagery, illustrating the decline of the Lake 1963 to 2007

Another area of environmental degradation is the deterioration of the range land due to loss of surface and ground water which has resulted in the drying up of rivers, streams and ponds, with constant loss of forest cover. These have drained the surface water intensively and destroyed the little land left for agricultural activities, including the implementation of surface water projects, dam stability, boreholes and water storage reservoirs. The total area of land cultivated annually fell dramatically in both regions with the loss of about being 62 % of cultivable area of land. At present, less than 115,000 hectares are usually irrigated out of the potential 1.16 million hectares in the lake’s drainage basin because of falling water levels.  Furthermore, the decline in the ground water and vegetation cover destroyed the number of large trees and woody species, which led to aggressive desertification.

Also, there emerged an increase in deforestation due to a rise in domestic consumption of timber, lack of alternative energy sources and the search for firewood. Beyond this, the landmass increasingly becomes waterless, treeless and barren as land and agricultural activities are damaged

The effects of environmental degradation have had a massive socio-economic impact on the livelihood of the region’s inhabitants. First, came droughts, then the famines of the 1990s, the abandoning of irrigation projects due to low rainfall. Parks, dams and game reserves have been closed which has led to the loss of jobs.

For instance, the Tiga and Challawa Gorge Dams, located between Niger and Nigeria, meant for irrigation and water supply on the Komandugu  Yobe basin, are closed, with workers looking for alternative jobs. Most of the inhabitants around the Lake Chad and Sahel have turned to poaching, illegal movement of goods and organized crime.

The emergence and growth of terrorist activities around the region has given them a new lease of life. Environmental degradation has provided the terrorists with the fertile ground for mobilization and recruitment.

In July 2014, Cameroon’s Defense Ministry announced that terrorist groups around the region were recruiting over 15,000 to 20,000 members linked to poverty and joblessness. Others suggest up to 50,000 members.


While considering socio-political, economic and religious factors in the growth of terrorist activities around the Lake Chad and Sahel region, it has become necessary for the issue of climate change and environmental degradation to take the centre stage as well. Understanding the role of environmental degradation will better equip policy makers with the policy strategy needed in countering violent extremism in Africa.

This is more so, considering the fact that today’s leaders of terrorist organizations across Africa, have nomadic backgrounds. For instance, Iyad Ag Ghaly, the so-called “Lion of the Desert” and chief of Ansaru al-Dine and MokhtarBelmokhtar, the one-eyed former AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) commander are all former nomads.  It means they have all become victims of environmental degradation and terrorism became an attractive alternative.



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