By Udo Jude Ilo
The beauty of Niamey lies in the paradox of its peculiar landscape. On one side is the Niger River with its spectacular splendor, lush green boundaries, and crisscross of aquatic superhighways. And on the other side, the rugged terrain of dusty rocky fields – a stark reminder of the desert and its encroaching threat. These two opposite landscapes share an awkward handshake in Niamey. Perhaps this complicated landscape is symbolic of the story of Niger and its neighboring countries surrounding the Lake Chad Basin.
Rich in natural and human resources with immense potential for growth, the Lake Chad region has been mired in a seemingly intractable conflict that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions of people over the last 13 years.
Threats to civilians in the Lake Chad region continue to multiply. That’s why in late January 2023 I attended the Third High Level Conference on the Lake Chad region in Niamey, Niger. The conference was aimed at identifying regional strategies to respond effectively to the multi-faceted challenges the region faces, including humanitarian coordination, stabilization, and rebuilding the lives of communities throughout the area.
The numbers paint a grim picture of the toll the conflict continues to take on civilians in the Lake Chad Basin. Despite the waning attention on this conflict, more than 2700 civilian lives were lost in the region between 2019-2022 according to ACLED. These harrowing realities do not make headlines as they should, pushing the conflict in the Lake Chad Basin to the margins. However, the conference was a reassuring gesture of concern and interest to increase the momentum of intervention and evolve a holistic approach to the threats and challenges faced by millions of women, men, and children in the region. The reality is that the protection of civilians in this region is fundamental to the African continent.
At Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), our message at the conference was focused on ensuring maximum protection for civilians. There is a need to invest in the agency of communities in the Lake Chad Basin: learning from and listening to them, amplifying their voices, and providing space for a constructive civilian-military relationship. We emphasized the point that the protection of civilians needs to be at the center of the stabilization effort. A progressive policy on the protection of communities will need to mitigate harm to civilians, have mechanisms to track civilian harm as does the G5 Joint Force, and reinforce a system for amends as well as accountability.
There is also a need for countries in the region to learn from each other and share best practices to ensure communities in the Lake Chad Basin have optimal protection and can begin rebuilding.
Civilian harm is not an unavoidable consequence of armed conflict. To create an environment conducive to stability, the communities in the region need an inclusive and deliberative process that places their protection needs at the center of the conversations. Their voices must not simply be heard, they must be listened to.
During the conference, I was moved by a group of young girls from the community of Kanazi on the outskirts of Niamey. In an environment of glaring lack and difficulty, they exuded an unblemished happiness and hope. I saw in them the trapped potentials of a great country. Their eloquence and behavior spoke to a future that is bright, but also one that requires our collective effort to birth.
The meeting of the desert and the river in Niamey is nature’s eloquent testimony that our differences can find some convergence and that coming together as people, we can create the most beautiful things. In this case, it is protecting civilians in the Lake Chad region and beyond.
Udo Jude Ilo is CIVIC’s Senior Director of Advocacy