Boko Haram’s insurgency against the Nigerian state has devastated much of the Lake Chad Basin. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes in the region, which encompasses parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, and millions more face food shortages because of the collapse of local agriculture. In 2016, the World Bank estimated that the insurgency’s raids, bombings, and razing of communities throughout the region had caused $9 billion worth of destruction.

The crisis in the Lake Chad Basin has significantly altered the means by which families and communities get by. Less immediately apparent than the insurgency’s destruction are the ways in which the Nigerian government’s desperate attempts to starve Boko Haram of resources has placed an even greater burden on local populations by adding obstacles to the resumption of basic economic activities like farming and trade. In Adamawa State’s capital city of Yola, where Boko Haram has largely been flushed out, conversations with traders, smugglers, and displaced people illustrate the challenges facing communities as they try to rebuild and make do at a time when, regionally, food is scarce and insecurity is abundant. The already difficult tasks of merely finding safe land and sufficient capital to resume farming or trade have been made more difficult by government regulations.

Economic and social redevelopment in the midst of an ongoing insurgency is not easy. Even in areas where Boko Haram has been beaten back, people are struggling to rebuild their homes, restart their lives, and redevelop their economies. The Nigerian government’s advances against the insurgency have been uneven—in some places, control is contested and can change in a matter of days. In the Lake Chad Basin, Boko Haram has made farming difficult and at times impossible for three seasons in some areas, depriving many communities of their livelihoods. Trade routes, too, have been disrupted by the insurgency.

Economic and social redevelopment in the midst of an ongoing insurgency is not easy.

Responding to evidence that Boko Haram had integrated itself into lucrative local trade networks, including in smoked fish and cattle, the Nigerian federal government and others clamped down on these trades by more closely monitoring shipments of goods, closing routes, and even bombing suspicious caravans. According to Reuters, in February 2015 the Niger Air Force bombed a truck convoy carrying smoked fish to Nigeria in violation of a ban on this trade. In February 2016, Nigerian Army spokesman Col. Sani Usman accused traders in Borno and Yobe States of being “unpatriotic and selfish” in light of evidence that some markets in these states had been selling goods to members of Boko Haram. In response, he announced that the army intended to shut down “an unspecified number” of markets. In March 2016, the Nigerian government shut down the cattle market in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. According to a Reuters report at the time, the market’s closure “made hundreds of cattle traders, herdsmen, butchers, and laborers unemployed” overnight.

Musa, a middle-aged man in Yola, Nigeria whose name has been changed for this article, notes that, “the government is fighting Boko Haram with hunger.” The state’s decision to block trade routes is making it harder for everyone—not just insurgents—to access food. Musa, who was previously a driver, has worked for more than a year importing rice from Cameroon to sell in Nigeria, in violation of an import ban. He’s observed that “security is very, very tight” now, making even legitimate, legal trade difficult. Yusuf, a cotton trader in Yola whose name has also been changed, also expressed frustration with tighter border security and obstacles to legal trade. Given how important trade is to the region, it is unsurprising that crackdowns on the trade routes have led to an increase in smuggling.

Musa observes, however, that the increased security has not prevented Boko Haram from accessing markets or trading. Rather, the group has made use of preexisting and reinvigorated smuggling routes. Vendors are willing to sell to Boko Haram members, in Musa’s opinion, because the insurgents do not haggle over prices. “They have money,” he says, observing that the insurgents are “willing to pay nearly any price.” He has even seen insurgents pay vendors two or three times the going rate for goods like rice or petrol. 

For goods that are subject to more scrutiny, such as fuel, Boko Haram will often send women to the market because they generally arouse less suspicion. Although it is possible that these women are members of the insurgency, Musa recalls at least one instance in which Boko Haram paid women unaffiliated with the insurgency to purchase fuel at the market in Cameroon and carry it to the insurgents in a camp across the border in northern Adamawa. Musa reports that the women were paid between 25,000 and 50,000 naira (roughly $80–160) for every 25 liters of fuel—far above the going rate in Nigeria and a significant payment for these women.

Yola traders working at the city’s docks on the Benue River say that the government has asked them to report any sightings of Boko Haram. Security forces hung a poster of the most wanted Boko Haram members in a tent near the river’s edge to help raise awareness. A number of traders and smugglers I spoke with, however, said they would hesitate to report sightings of Boko Haram members for fear of attracting scrutiny from the government or retaliation by the insurgents. In 2015, when a market in Pela, Adamawa State, did report suspicious behavior, security forces lost track of the suspected insurgent, who had been paying nearly 75 percent more than the going rate for purchased goods.

When asked why he risked smuggling rice, given the frequency with which he sees Boko Haram insurgents and the tightening security, Musa shrugs. “I have kids in college; I have to earn money somehow.”

Governments in the Lake Chad Basin face a formidable task as they seek to promote local economies without allowing the insurgency to benefit from economic revitalization. The heavy-handed repression of trade and critical economic activities, however, mirrors other shortcomings in the Nigerian government’s counterinsurgency strategy, which has frequently levied punishment for the insurgency indiscriminately against civilian populations. The virtues of a hearts-and-minds campaign against terrorists and insurgents have been widely extolled, if inadequately adopted, by the Nigerian government. At the very least, policy makers in the region should recognize the importance of cooperation with and cultivation of local economies.

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  • HILARY MATFESS is a Research Associate at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a member of the Nigeria Social Violence Research Project at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
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