By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
We’ve known for a long time that the artificially-created states in the Sahel region of northern Africa are in trouble.
Their virtually undefended borders are plagued by Islamist jihadis, tribal warfare, and Christian-Muslim animosity. Governments have little control outside the few scattered metropolitan areas.
This is certainly true of Chad, named for the Lake of the same name. Home to several African kingdoms in the 19th century, France conquered the area, called it Chad, and made it part of French Equatorial Africa.
The French focussed their attention on the forced production of cotton, in a fertile part of southern Chad that they referred to as “le Tchad Utile” --Useful Chad.
At the time, Lake Chad, which was dotted with hundreds of islands, was considered an ecological wonder. But things would change.
The French left their immense holdings in west and equatorial Africa in 1960, and a number of states, including Chad, emerged.
A gigantic country of 1,284,000 square kilometres, mostly desert, it is inhabited by just 13.6 million people, divided into more than 200 distinct ethnic groups.
Many Chadians couldn’t communicate with one another -- there were at least a hundred and twenty indigenous languages. Some people in remote areas were unaware that their villages now belonged to a state.
Libya’s dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, wishing to create a greater country, repeatedly invaded the country, which was propped up by French investors and advisers. Its rule hardly extended beyond the capital, N’Djamena.
Colonial administrators had drawn the boundaries of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger right through Lake Chad, causing no end of headaches regarding fishing and water use.
For the next two decades, the entire region was stricken with drought. The rivers feeding into Lake Chad dried up and by the end of the nineties the lake, on which some 30 million people depended, had shrunk a massive 90 per cent from what its size in the 1960s.
Its surface area has decreased from a peak of 25,000 square kilometres to approximately 1,350 square kilometres. Much of the northern basin was lost to the desert.
The lake and the Chari River, which flows out of it, constitute the most important water source in the region. The drainage basin depends on monsoon rains to replenish its water, and this rainfall has dropped dramatically since the early 1960s.
Drought, desertification, deforestation, in addition to climate change, have contributed to its drastic reduction in size.
The lake also slowly begn disappearing due to the overuse of water resources, poor enforcement of environmental legislation, and a weak capacity for water resource management by the countries bordering it.
Running along the borders of four countries and through varying cultures and ethnic loyalties, the diminishing resources of the Lake Chad water basin have led to humanitarian crises and social conflicts in the region.
Millions of people faced an ecological disaster as once plentiful fish stocks disappeared, and people started dying of hunger.
Worse was to come. The Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram, founded in 2002, sought to establish a caliphate in northeastern Nigeria. It began spreading out along the countries bordering the lake, including Chad.
Boko Haram began kidnapping entire villages, replenishing its military ranks and collecting new wives, children, farmers, and fishermen to sustain its campaigns.
Hundreds of thousands of people from the basin fled the violence, eventually finding refuge in Chad’s villages and camps, as well as in Niger and Cameroon. The displaced Chadians and refugees have further strained the lake’s resources.
To combat Boko Haram, each country bordering the lake supplied a few thousand soldiers to a Multi-National Joint Task Force.
In late July, the Chadian Army ordered an evacuation of people living in the southern basin, warning that anyone who was still there in a week would be considered a member of Boko Haram.
This was followed, in November, by a sweep further north. Altogether, some 165,000 people were forcibly removed. A month later, Nigerian soldiers arrested more than 400 people associated with Boko Haram hiding on islands in Lake Chad.
This year, the United Nations appealed for $121 million dollars in aid for the Chadian side of the lake, but only a third of that has been donated.
The military operations, combined with the advancing desert, make the lake’s future more uncertain than ever.