Joint Task Force Soldiers in Borno Image by Joe Penney

When a column of nearly 2,000 soldiers from Chad and Niger rolled into the north-eastern Nigerian town of Damasak on March 14, 2015 the impact their victory over the Boko Haram militants who had held the town for four months was felt from the sand covered streets of Niger’s laid back capital Niamey to the concrete behemoth of Abuja, Nigeria, West Africa’s most imposing capital city.

Occurring just two weeks before general elections in Nigeria, the offensive — carried out entirely without Nigeria despite an agreement between the three nations that Nigeria would be involved — badly embarrassed the Nigerian military and Jonathan’s administration just as they were making a last ditch attempt to change the narrative of their war against Boko Haram. The fact that the Chad and Niger, two weak and poor countries in comparison to Nigeria, were taking and occupying Nigerian territory while Nigerian soldiers were nowhere in sight put the final nail in the PDP presidency’s coffin.

But despite the impression that hardened Chadian fighters had engaged in long battles with Boko Haram to retake the town, Nigerien, Chadian and American military officials revealed to the Quramo Report that Boko Haram had fled six days before the troops rolled in, leaving the city utterly devastated with bodies of civilians killed by the insurgent group littering the roads. “We bombed select targets in Damasak with helicopters, and then Boko Haram left on March 8th. We arrived in Damasak on March 14th,” said Colonel Barmou Salaou, the senior Niger officer in charge of the country’s war against the insurgents. Salaou also confirmed that the fighters kidnapped almost all the women and children that remained in Damasak, numbering roughly 400.

According to Salaou, Boko Haram has retreated from most towns it held rather than engage national armies with greater firepower directly. While to a certain extent this means withdrawing from towns and cities to the Mandara Mountains and Sambisa Forest, the final battle with Boko Haram will take place in Lake Chad, which is an ideal terrain for guerrilla war composed of thousands of small islands and a steady food source in the lake’s fish. This is instructive for two reasons: firstly, it means that Boko Haram are not stronger than the Niger army, and thus secondly, that the Nigerian army, which is much stronger and better equipped than its neighbours Niger and Chad, simply chose not to meaningfully engage Boko Haram for six years as they rampaged across the northeast.

In the dry scrubland of Diffa region, “80 percent of the economy is from trade with Nigeria,” said Diffa vice-mayor Boukar Kolo. For decades, Diffa region’s closest major metropolis has been Maiduguri, and the town is much more connected with Borno state’s capital than it is with the capital Niamey, some 1700 kilometers west. The poorest region of the poorest country in the world, Diffa’s main exports are fish from Lake Chad and red pepper, both of which are mostly sent to Borno. Diffa imports almost everything else from Nigeria. The Komadugu Yobe river, which takes its source in Lake Chad, provides a natural border, though local residents say the people are so similar (majority Kanuri) that the only way to tell the difference between someone from Niger and someone from Nigeria is where his or her tuberculosis scar is located: on the forearm for the Nigeriens, further up near the shoulder for the Nigerians.

In the dry scrubland of Diffa region, “80 percent of the economy is from trade with Nigeria,” said Diffa vice-mayor Boukar Kolo. For decades, Diffa region’s closest major metropolis has been Maiduguri, and the town is much more connected with Borno state’s capital than it is with the capital Niamey, some 1700 kilometers west. The poorest region of the poorest country in the world, Diffa’s main exports are fish from Lake Chad and red pepper, both of which are mostly sent to Borno. Diffa imports almost everything else from Nigeria. The Komadugu Yobe river, which takes its source in Lake Chad, provides a natural border, though local residents say the people are so similar (majority Kanuri) that the only way to tell the difference between someone from Niger and someone from Nigeria is where his or her tuberculosis scar is located: on the forearm for the Nigeriens, further up near the shoulder for the Nigerians.

When Boko Haram took border towns in Nigeria (some were taken nearly two years ago; Damasak was taken in November 2014), the cross-border trade didn’t stop — the only thing that changed was who collected taxes on it. “They set up a small state where they controlled everything, and when you look at it closely, it is a commercial venture. Forget Islam, it’s a question of commerce,” Yacouba Soumana-Gaoh, the governor of Diffa region, told the Quramo Report. “Most of the fish trade is run by Boko Haram. They control many of the islands where the fishing takes place, and they impose a sum on the traders [who bring the fish to Nigeria],” Governor Soumana-Gaoh said.

Not only did Boko Haram make money off the fish market, they also stocked the traders on their way back to Niger with tonnes of stolen grains from villages pillaged across Yobe and Borno at low prices. The Niger-based traders then resold the foodstuffs on the market in Diffa, Zinder, Maradi and even Niamey and reaped large profits while Niger government officials looked the other way, said a top-ranking Niger military official who requested anonymity.

Niger has banned the sale of fish in Diffa region in order to cut off Boko Haram’s food supplies. But the harsh measure places great duress on residents, who are already among the most food-insecure in the world. As Boko Haram flees into the Lake Chad archipelago, they have already looked much more capable enemies to the regional troops, evidenced by a recent attack they carried out on Karamga island that killed between 40–70 Nigerien soldiers, the highest loss of life among coalition troops in a single day since the campaign began.

story and images by Joe Penney for The Quramo Report

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