Boko Haram Ramps up Violence in the Sahel: Chad braced for more misery

News that some 92 Chadian soldiers have been killed by Boko Haram in the east of the landlocked Central African country has gone under the radar. Not necessarily because of the global media’s preoccupation with Covid-19, but because this part of the world is generally seen as unimportant.

Chad’s army has fought a thankless campaign against Boko Haram

It follows in the wake of a Boko Haram attack on a Nigerian military convoy earlier in the week that left some 50 soldiers dead. So, despite intensive efforts, periods of success, and bold government pronouncements in the past couple of years, Boko Haram remains alive and dangerous.

Like many countries in the Sahel region, the Chadian population is fairly equally split between Muslims and Christians, with a few percentage points more of the former. Islam reached the land centuries before Christianity, moving from the Middle East after the time of the Prophet Muhammad into North Africa and then down on the caravan trails into the Sahara where it was adopted by some of the numerous ethnic tribes inhabiting the region.

From the 8th century until the French invasion, much of present-day Chad was ruled by the Kanem and Bornu Empires. Their fearless warriors converted to Islam around the 11th century

The French conquered Chad in the early 20th century and Christianity gradually spread during the colonial period, although it was not accompanied by any real modernisation. Muslims now predominate in the north and east of the country, with Christians more prevalent in the south and pockets of the west, where the recent Boko Haram massacre occurred.

Boko Haram is not particularly picky about its targets. Not just Christians but large sections of the Muslim population are counted as enemies, their fundamentalist Salafi faith running counter not just to Shia Muslims but many more ‘moderate’ Sunnis. With the polarising divide between Christians and Muslims, not to mention splits within these respective religions, in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Mali, the jihadists”holy war’ will not cease.

Boko Haram thrives along the border zone of the Christian and Muslim-majority countries of Africa

It was religious tensions that sparked the Chadian Civil War in 1965, just five years after the country had secured independence from France. Francois Tombalbaye, a southern Protestant, was severely mistrusted by the Muslims residing in the north of the country, who saw his policies as religiously-motivated.

Chadian troops with anti-tank weapons during the first civil war

It took until 1975 before Tombalbaye was eventually deposed and since then the country has effectively only had two rulers: Hissène Habré (1982-1990) and Idriss Déby (1990-present). Neither ruler has been particularly concerned with Chadian impoverishment or human rights, and their dictatorships have failed to stifle religious conflict, with Chad returning to civil war in 2005.

Déby has, however, been keen to eradicate Boko Haram from Chad’s borders, concerned of the impetus the terrorist group could receive from disenchanted Chadian Muslims.

There is no doubt that international concern over Covid-19 will be exploited by groups such as Boko Haram, who will seek to take advantage of the disruption – and general inattention towards the region – to further their warped goals. Meanwhile, any momentum gained by Boko Haram, or religious strife that their attacks promote, will cause the type of widespread panic and displacement that will ensure that Covid-19 spreads through the region quickly on its arrival.

We are awaiting the full affects of the pandemic to grip Africa and, when it comes, the destitute populace of Chad seemingly stands little chance.

Buhari Absence and the Fear of a Yar’Adua Repeat: Nigeria on the Brink

In November 2009 Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua left his country to receive treatment at a Saudi Arabian clinic for pericarditis. He would not return until May 2010 and within three days was dead. In the interim period, Nigeria had fallen into a political crisis that threatened to unravel into violence.

Yar’Adua’s ability to appease his testy regional governors through oil-fuelled patronage politics had preserved an uneasy peace and averted a potential Nigerian civil war. His long illness and exile left a void that his inexperienced and virtually unknown Deputy President, Goodluck Jonathan, struggled to fill.

Umaru Yar'Adua and Goodluck Jonathan
Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan

Various governors and regional warlords began to form cabals and jostle for position in the line of succession, their eternal hope being control of the petro-state, Nigeria’s economy of course being heavily dependent on the export of oil. 

Jonathan eventually assumed the presidency, in the process ending an unwritten agreement to rotate the highest office in the land between natives of the South and North of the country, a major issue for an ethnically and religiously-divided nation.

Nigeria is broadly divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north
Nigeria is broadly divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north

The only way Jonathan could be assured of retaining power was ‘to put the looting machine into overdrive and distribute the proceeds widely to compensate for his lack of authority’. (Burgis, p.78)

Jonathan’s presidency would be characterised by a level of corruption unprecedented even in Nigeria’s nefarious history. He bought off regional agitators by granting them oil concessions, stifling the equal distribution of wealth to entrench a self-serving elite reliant on his continued patronage. This in turn led to a disenchanted and economically disenfranchised populace, many of whom began to turn to other groups who promised to represent their interests, most significantly the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the IS-affiliated Boko Haram
Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the IS-affiliated Boko Haram

Knowing that control over the granting of oil exploration and exploitation rights was more important than popular support in a so-called ‘resource state’, President Jonathan neglected the needs of his countrymen. Infrastructure remained primitive, educational standards stagnated and the healthcare system was left destitute.

It is perhaps for this latter reason that many of Nigeria’s top – and by extension wealthiest – politicians seek any medical treatment they require abroad. It was the case for President Yar’Adua and is now also so for incumbent President Muhmmadu Buhari.

Despite railing against the ‘medical tourism’ of the Nigerian elite, President Buhari has spent the last couple of weeks undergoing unspecified ‘tests’ at a UK clinic, amidst speculation that his health is rapidly deteriorating.

Buhari's absence has drawn civilians to the streets of the capital Abuja to protest against poverty and corruption
Buhari’s absence has drawn civilians to the streets of the capital Abuja to protest against poverty and corruption

With the Nigerian economy suffering as a result of the drop in global oil prices, and the Boko Haram insurgency continuing apace despite some setbacks, this latest uncertainty has conjured up memories of 2010 when the country appeared on the brink of disaster.

Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, another relative unknown, has the difficult task of managing the inherent instability of his ethnically and regionally-divided country at a time when global economic conditions are unfavourable to him.

Multinational corporations must shoulder some of the responsibility for the vicious cycle within which the Nigerian people are trapped; namely the resource curse, or ‘Dutch Disease’. Shell has been pumping oil in the Niger Delta since the days of British colonial rule. Ever since, successive governments – whether civilian or military led – have courted the investment of these energy giants and split the proceeds between a narrow clique at the very summit of society.

In 1983, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote:

The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership. (Burgis, p.207).

Nigeria has suffered equally from colonial rule, corrupt post-independence leaders, exploitation by multinational corporations and the scourge of ethnic and religious division. If President Buhari fails to return then the final opportunity for true leadership will have arrived for Africa’s largest economy.

Who has the ability, or inclination, to exercise it, very much remains to be seen.


Burgis, T. The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth (2015)