As the world slows down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, clashes among jihadist groups and governments in Africa are on the rise. The burdens of military engagement for Chad, one of Africa’s most formidable counter-terrorism partners, combined with nose-diving oil prices, could have significant and long lasting security consequences for the continent.
Jihadist groups in the Sahel and Lake Chad area linked to both the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have intensified attacks since March and instructed followers to “show no mercy” during the coronavirus pandemic. While it is difficult to link specific attacks to the coronavirus, increased violence and vulnerabilities are shifting security dynamics in the region. In Mali, the epicenter of conflict in the Sahel, the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) kidnapped and continues to hold political opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé. Meanwhile, Chad has increased a military offensive around its borders in retaliation to the deadliest attack in the country’s history by Boko Haram (the well-armed jihadist organization based primarily in neighboring Nigeria).
Chad is a prominent military actor in both of these critical security hotspots: the Lake Chad basin touching Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon and a major activity hub for Boko Haram, and the Liptako-Gourma tri-border area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, harrowed by JNIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Chad’s famed “desert army” is one of the most reliable in the region and contributes 3,000 troops to the Multi-National Joint Task Force against Boko Haram (MNJTF), 1,500 to the United Nations Multi-Dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and 1,000 to G5 Sahel joint force. Chadian contributions have played essential roles in accessing refuges for Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Northern Mali, and Chad’s capital N’Djaména is the site of the headquarters of the French Operation Barkhane operating in Mali and the greater Sahel.
While esteemed both as a critical force internationally and as an image of national unity, the Chadian military is experiencing escalating internal and external strains that could further degrade governance and unsettle regional stability.
The deadliest attack in Chad’s history
On March 23rd, as United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire, 400 fighters linked to Boko Haram boarded at least five motorboats to attack a Chadian garrison in the Boma Peninsula. The fighting lasted for seven hours as the fighters ambushed Chadian soldiers en route to reinforce Boma and resulted in the death of 98 Chadian military, the largest loss of life in any single attack in Chad’s tempestuous history, 40 wounded soldiers, 24 military vehicles destroyed and a significant recovery of arms caches.
Leader Ababakar Shekau released a video the following day claiming the attack for his Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lidda-Awati Wal-Jihad (JAS) faction of Boko Haram, which had demonstrated notable tactical and intelligence sophistication, striking just after the Boma garrison had been relieved by a cohort of less experienced troops.
It was the most comprehensive and successful operation of the group to date. Following a schism of Boko Haram in 2016, JAS — distinguishable for targeting civilians and employing female and child suicide bombers — was considered less threatening to the Lake Chad basin than its rival faction, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). The attack signals potential shifts in recruitment to JAS and the dynamic between the groups during a year of particularly violent internal disputes among ISWAP officials.
The “Wrath of Boma” and implications for the Sahel
Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno responded to the March 23rd attack with “The Wrath of Boma” operation from March 31st to April 9th. The operation neutralized 1,000 Boko Haram militants, took 58 prisoners, reclaimed arms caches and destroyed dozens of boats, the Déby administration claimed. Forty-four of the 58 alleged Boko Haram fighters captured during the Wrath of Boma died in jail from poisoning, an alleged mass suicide.
The widely publicized operation provided a critical political boost for the Déby administration. Chad’s military reputation suffered both an unpopular surrender opening negotiations with Northern insurgents and an embarrassing plea to France for air strikes on a rebel contingent marching on N’Djamena last year.
“You guys defeated at least 90% of Boko Haram,” Déby congratulated soldiers in a video on April 10th. “They will never come to Chad again.”
Boma could signal a turning point for counter-terrorism operations in the broader region. During and following the operation, Chadian officials made statements that the army would no longer conduct unilateral operations beyond its borders in the Lake Chad area and called for Nigeria and Niger to occupy and secure recaptured territory to enable Chadian troops to withdraw. Poor coordination among the Lake Chad countries, particularly notable during the 2015 Chadian operations in Nigeria’s Borno State, as well as in the tri-border region of the Sahel, has stymied joint security efforts. Nigeria launched air strikes against ISWAP in the Sambisa Forest of its Borno in the April 21st Operation Lafiya Dole and has made claims in the last two months of killing senior Boko Haram officers, in part in response to political pressure from Chad.
Déby, who has held office since 1990, is struggling to balance a need to confront internal vulnerabilities with external military engagements critical to his continued political longevity. Home to 60 million people from more than 200 ethnic groups, Chad is surrounded by conflict states — Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), as well as the Lake Chad states, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria. Against a highly variegated security landscape and a faltering oil-dependent economy, Chad faces internal insurgency and youth unrest. Elections for the national assembly have been repeatedly postponed or cancelled since 2015 with security concerns cited, and soldiers are increasingly frustrated with rampant corruption and ethnic discrimination concerning the payment of military salaries and access to medical care.
In light of recent events, N’Djamena is postponing commitments made at the French-led January 13th Pau Summit to send an additional 500 soldiers to the Liptako-Gourma triangle in order to bolster activities at its borders, yet France continues to pressure for their deployment abroad. Meanwhile, the US, a key technical and financial partner for Chad’s security operations is also re-evaluating commitments to regional security efforts in Africa with a temptation to look inward to security at home.
Militarization and increasing economic vulnerability
The pandemic and counter-terrorism efforts are dealing dual blows to internal stability in Chad, rocked by cycles of recession and austerity since 2015. Oil prices have plummeted to historic lows, even negatives, because of COVID-19, threatening to bankrupt Chad and neighboring Nigeria. The state of emergency in the Kaya and Fouli regions of the Lac Province has increased the province’s 169,000 internally displaced persons by another 20,000 since March, estimates the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. If Chad follows Burkino Faso, Mali, Nigeria and Niger in closing schools, it will be the second year for students whose educations were forestalled during mass strikes of the année blanche of 2016-17.
Restrictions on inter-city movement, which have increased because of the pandemic, are cutting off key markets in Nigeria for Chadian farmers and traders, while fishing prohibitions around Lake Chad had already lowered fishing productivity by 60% since last year.
“There are red zones for fishing and herding. Some of the consequences of this include a high cost of living, lack of fertile spaces, no grazing area for animals, and so forth. All activities — agriculture, livestock, fishing and trade — are affected by the security crisis because there is no free movement of people and their goods,” a 52-year old marabout attested during an interview on the Finité island of Lake Chad last year.
Trends in Chad’s counter-terrorism engagements point to the necessity for international partners to carefully consider socio-economic, judicial and democratic concerns in order to improve prospects for stability in and beyond Chad’s borders.
 Within a day of the Boma attack, insurgents from Boko Haram’s other faction, the Islamic State of West Africa Province, claimed to have killed 100 Nigerian soldiers in the Borno State.
 Analysis by the N’DJaména-based Bureau of Consulting, Training and Research Study (BUCOFORE), suggests the rise in Boko Haram attacks from 2013 in the Chadian provinces of the Lake and neighboring Kanem result directly from Chad’s engagement in Mali. Between 200 and 300 Boko Haram combatants were trained by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Northern Mali, and the 2013 deployment to Mali, researchers posited in field reports from the Kanem and Lac provinces, violated a non-aggression entente, which had allegedly offset attacks on Chadian soil. For more information about links among jihadist actors in the region, also see Sabine Cessou’s “Boko Haram and the threat of an African jihad”.
 Civil wars in Chad since 1965 enabled Boko Haram to procure its initial weapons.
 Military spending in Sahel countries increased from 2018 to 2019 for Burkina Faso (22%) and Mali (3.6%), but decreased for the Lake Chad states Chad (-5.1%), Niger (-20%) and Nigeria (-8.2%). In 2018, Chad spent $233 million on its armed forces.
 Political gains for Chad on the international stage since the 2015 counter-terrorism offensives include Chad’s first spot on the United Nations Security Council, Déby serving as chair of the African Union in 2016 and technical and financial partners pledging $20 billion for Chad’s National Development Plan in 2017.
 A 2018 survey distributed to 3,577 respondents in 22 provinces in Chad by BUCOFORE, in partnership with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and financed by the European Union, documented variations in security concerns. In addition to terrorism as a national threat, the provinces of Batha, Barh El Gazal and East Logone emphasized intercommunity conflicts, while participants in Moyen-Chari were concerned with armed groups linked to conflict in CAR, and in Ouaddai, with drug and arms trafficking near Sudan. A significant contingent of security personnel interviewed considered Chad’s security problems to be primarily imported from neighboring states.
 BUCOFORE’s 2019 field reports found deplorable living conditions for soldiers, chaotic remuneration disputes, harassment of female soldiers, unequal medical care, degrading treatment, fratricides (most commonly against superiors and recorded as mission casualties) and bullying. Poor equipping of military and security forces led to the borrowing of motorcycles and other equipment from local populations, further fueling community tensions. A female warrant chief said the following of favoritism among the ranks of military personnel deployed to Mali: “Our leaders managed food as they manage their pocket money. First, they give to relatives, that is to say, those of the same ethnic group (the Zaghawa brothers for the most part), then to those of the same religion (Muslim). It’s like that all the time.”
The interviews were conducted in partnership with SIPRI and funded by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
 The 2018 SIPRI-BUCOFORE survey found 34% of respondents knew somebody personally who had been detained without due process, and 57% of security personnel interviewed agreed with the statement: “I have the authorization to ignore judicial proceedings if necessary to fulfil my mission.”
 In a January 2020 report, Sahel expert Bruno Charbonneau commented on a trench in French military strategy to focus on tactics rather than political implications: “Military operations should not be viewed as technical activities distinct from the political sphere, which (according to theory) facilitates the development of a space and time for political action. Rather, military strategy must be considered in its action and its political consequences, at least if one hopes to understand its failure and its limits in Mali and the Sahel.”