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15 Nov


15 Nov 2022

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Urban areas in the Lake Chad Region are critical sources of revenue for violent extremist Islamist groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). This study shows that armed groups tracing their origins to Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement, of which ISWAP is one, systematically prey on small but growing towns and the roads that link them to their agricultural hinterland. This network of towns connected by trade and social corridors comprises an urban system, whose weak points are regularly targeted by insurgent groups for both political and economic purposes.

Although insurgents rarely retain control of any towns, their parasitism disrupts food and other economic supply chains in a way that harms the region as a whole. Such predation severely affects the economies of large cities such as Maiduguri (Nigeria) and Maroua (Cameroon), which pay a heavy toll in terms of lives, reduced trading activity and higher costs for transportation and supply chains.

This report examines the role of urban areas in the illicit economies linked to armed conflict in the Lake Chad Region. It is part of the project ‘Promoting Stabilisation Through Crime Sensitive Interventions in West Africa’, funded by Germany’s Federal Foreign Office.

The report’s main focus is on north-eastern Nigeria’s Borno State and Cameroon’s Far North region. Whereas numerous studies have explored the individual funding sources linked to Boko Haram and its breakaway factions, this research focuses on the ways that urban areas, both large and small, have been exploited by insurgents and criminal networks to generate this funding. It also analyzes the socio-economic impact of the conflict on communities throughout the urban system, investigating the ways in which cities, towns, roads and rural hinterlands are interconnected.

The challenges identified in this report are made even more urgent by rising urbanization in the Lake Chad Region, with population growth in towns far outpacing the global average. Nigeria, for instance, is forecast by the United Nations to contribute the world’s third largest increase between 2018 and 2050 (after India and China), with 189 million new urban dwellers – a trebling of the urban population in 2018.

Urban population growth will continue in the region. Armed conflict, if anything, generally accelerates the trend due to population displacement. At the same time, illicit economies linked to Boko Haram/ISWAP, based on predation and smuggling, have continually looked towards the region’s expanding settlements for resources. This sharpens the need for policymakers, development agencies and humanitarian actors to study the vulnerabilities not only of individual communities but of the wider system they make up. This study has shown immense socio-economic damage due to disruptions in vulnerable parts of the region’s economic chains. Improving stability and security in key parts of this system – selected routes and major towns, for instance – could be a first step in allowing communities to build resilience and gradually rebuild their lives.