The Boko Haram crisis in the Lake Chad Basin has harmed women’s livelihoods. Extremists and other armed groups have looted and destroyed markets, cutting off many women’s access to supplier credit lines.
The governments of the four basin countries – Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger – have taken measures to address the conflict, which has raged for over a decade. But these efforts have damaged the region’s trade economy. Examples include banning the trade of some goods in certain areas, such as solid fertilisers in Nigeria’s north-eastern states where they’re used to make bombs, and blocking specific transport routes.
On 27 March, Chad and Nigeria’s leaders met in Abuja to discuss the region’s conflict and humanitarian situation. Central to these talks was the ‘shrinking’ of the lake – and how an inter-basin water transfer would restore livelihoods and help tackle insecurity in the area.
Conversations about recharging the ‘shrinking’ lake have gained popularity among regional policymakers. This despite its estimated cost of US$23 billion and the fact that recent studies oppose the view that it is diminishing at all.
These studies, including a 2019 report by German think tank Adelphi, use historical data to show that although the lake’s water levels experience extreme fluctuations, they have recently been rising. Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research also shows that low water levels are not the primary concern of economically active people in the Lake Chad Basin.
Female traders have historically been marginalised in all four countries, reflecting the traditional gender roles and disparities that disenfranchise women. Women have also lost husbands to the violence, leading to single-income, female-led households. This undercuts child nutrition, literacy and well-being. Loss of livelihoods has also led to harmful coping mechanisms like survival sex.
Policymakers need a better understanding of how the Boko Haram crisis has compounded female traders’ vulnerability and the kind of support they need for livelihoods and reinforce their resilience. And although there are similarities, each country’s situation is different.
In Cameroon’s North and Far North regions, ISS research reveals that women are the demographic most affected by the crisis. Although they are engaged primarily in small-scale trade selling vegetables and other retail products, women have suffered similar economic shocks as large or wholesale traders. Some women traders have gone bankrupt, and others have been victims of looting. Several have become internally displaced by the insurgency, with no source of income.
In the Chadian regions of Lac and Hadjer-Lamis, many women have been forced to abandon their farms, homes, livestock and trade in pursuit of safety. Before the crisis, they were active traders and regularly sourced goods from across the borders in Nigeria and from Chad’s capital N’Djamena. They contributed substantially to the economies of the local markets, and their activities drove the profitability of river and road transport.
However, the crisis-driven decline in the demand for goods in Lake Chad Basin has reduced business profitability. Traders who remain active have been forced to source goods from local markets and revert to petty trade with lower margins. Women are also at risk of abduction and sexual violence, making markets an unsafe space.
The same situation is found in Niger. Before the crisis, women in the Diffa region were known for their commercial and entrepreneurial skills and their trade with Nigeria and Chad. The crisis has restricted their travel, leading some to abandon their work.
Women are also victims of kidnapping and forced recruitment into the insurgency, where they are sometimes used in suicide bombings. Women have had to flee their villages to camps for refugees and displaced people, where they face gender-based violence.
In Nigeria’s Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states, women are affected in similar ways to the other countries. Large-scale female traders report that their trade volumes have drastically reduced, and they cannot secure loans from banks. Many of them are widows, their husbands killed in the conflict. Being sole breadwinners, they worry about not being able to provide for their children.
Despite the grim situation, Lake Chad Basin women have found ways to improve their livelihoods. They have down-scaled their trading to avoid the dangerous roads used by their male counterparts. Instead of selling banned goods or those with declining profitability, women trade in food and household items. Some have received entrepreneurial and vocational training from non-governmental organizations and are pursuing alternative livelihoods such as dressmaking.
However, they are still faced with limited access to loans and credit facilities, persistent insecurity, and weak links to their markets, mostly due to poor road and transport networks and facilities.
State resources must make communities safer, rebuild and secure markets, fix trade routes, and underwrite debt and provide loans. Links should be restored between national and regional economies in the Lake Chad Basin region. Money should be spent on agribusiness storage facilities to keep goods fresh during long-distance transit and on road infrastructure.
This would be a better use of resources by the Lake Chad Basin region’s governments than an inter-basin water transfer. It is also in line with community-centered approaches to stabilization and would contribute to regional efforts such as those by the African Union.