Boko Haram and the myth of the “disappearing lake”

For several years, political leaders in the region and international bodies have been warning about the drying up of Lake Chad and the link between this phenomenon and the Nigerian jihadist insurgency. Some would even like to divert the waters of the Congo River Basin to remedy this. Yet scientists tell a very different story…

In 2018, the United Nations Environment Program released an article titled “The Story of the Disappearing Lake”1. The narrative was powerful: over the past sixty years, Lake Chad is said to have shrunk by 90% due to overuse of water, prolonged drought and climate change. The article noted that the jihadist insurgency commonly referred to as Boko Haram had further aggravated the situation. This narrative continues to spread in different forms in recent years. A problematic success.

In November 2022, Bola Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Nigeria’s ruling party (which was elected with 36.6% of the vote in the February 25, 2023 ballot), s This was echoed in a campaign speech, insisting that, if successful, he would materialize an old project known as « Transaqua »: the replenishment of Lake Chad by diverting part of water from the Congo Basin via a 2,400 km long canal.

The Transaqua project, whose current cost is estimated at around $50 billion, has been around since the 1970s. It was revived in the 2010s, and presented as a solution to the drying up of the lake and the jihadist insurgency. In 2018, this project was integrated into the policy of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), the regional intergovernmental body that brings together the States of the Lake Chad basin, and which saw its initial economic cooperation program extend to coordinating efforts to stem Boko Haram. In the political circles of the countries of the region, and beyond, the idea that this conflict is linked to a climate crisis whose most spectacular manifestation is the drying up of Lake Chad is very anchored. It is a case of what international relations scholars call “securitization”: the transformation of an issue into a matter of “security” through a series of discursive maneuvers, thereby giving it new relevance. This article deals with the discrepancy between the narratives of scientists on the one hand, and those of policy makers on the other.


The data is clear about Lake Chad: it is not currently drying up. As geographer Géraud Magrin has demonstrated, the « myth of the disappearing lake » is based on a remarkable ellipse: the promoters of this narrative compare the lake at its height in the 1960s, to its current situation, ignoring the decades intermediaries. They thus quite deliberately miss the fact that the lake was even lower in the 1970s and 1980s, and that it has been recovering since the early 2010s, as confirmed recently by Binh Pham-Duc and his colleagues. Long-term rainfall forecasts are a risky exercise, but when it comes to Lake Chad, they tend to show increased rainfall rather than drought. The account of the disappearance of the lake is thus based on an incomplete series of data.

Magrin and other geographers who have studied production systems around the lake have also questioned the idea that the (unquestionable) decrease in lake area from its peak in the 1960s was necessarily negative. It certainly affected fishing and irrigation, but it made very fertile land available to farmers, allowing a spectacular expansion of agricultural production in the region.


Since 2018, I have interviewed dozens of former combatants from both factions of Boko Haram in Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon3. Only one of them mentioned the climate as a direct factor. A young man from the Diffa region of Niger told me how, in 2012, in the early days of Boko Haram’s jihad, a terrible flood on the banks of the Komadougou, a river that separates Nigeria and Niger , destroyed a large part of his fields. Having lost everything, he thought joining Boko Haram for a season or two might give him the means to revive himself. A climatic disaster therefore played a fairly direct role in his decision to join jihad. More than drying up, the immediate problem of Lake Chad therefore seems to be the increasing variability of the climate: heavier but shorter rains, in particular, and which therefore do more damage.

The stories that most former jihadists tell of their affiliation with Boko Haram reflect the changing trajectory of the movement itself: a hard core of believers, who wanted to fight against the authorities in Nigeria whom they saw as corrupt, hostile and godless; children taken by a parent; students from Koranic schools led by their Koranic teacher; people forced to enlist under threat; young men from poor families who were promised money, a bicycle and a wife; others who hoped to protect their community from jihadists by joining them; still others, wrongly arrested by the security forces and who escaped during a jihadist attack on the prison where they were detained, and believed that their best chance of survival was to follow the insurgents…

Multifactorial, complex stories, testimonies of delicate navigations between overwhelming opposing forces… The climate crisis is one of them, of course, but it cannot on its own replace all of these multiple aspects of the crisis.


The fact that the lake-filling plan continues to be defended by many prominent political figures4 against what the data says is all the more ironic that there are good reasons to believe that, beyond the fact that it is a misguided allocation of resources (there is better to do with 50 billion dollars in the Lake Chad basin), the Transaqua project could be a factor of conflict rather than a solution to the conflict .

Flooding of fertile land would be a short-term disaster for farmers bordering the lake – they would have to relocate further afield to less fertile land, hoping that improved irrigation from the replenished lake will compensate for this loss. And the project comes with many other problems. The construction of the canals to redirect part of the Congo River basin would lead to massive land expropriations in areas of great political fragility, where the States – Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Cameroon – have a limited capacity to manage conflicts and tend to resort to violence for this.

Poor governance – a key factor in the Boko Haram conflict itself – is also said to be a problem in a project worth tens of billions of dollars and spanning a massive area, affecting the livelihoods of millions of people. people. Governance indicators for Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria are among the worst in the world. A $50 billion project could help transform the “lame leviathans” that rule the Lake Chad basin into more corrupt, clumsy, and cumbersome structures than they already are.


All of this begs a question: why does the shrinking lake narrative remain so appealing to policy makers, despite evidence of its inaccuracy and potentially harmful nature? Based on the work of Magrin and that of Gabrielle Daoust and Jan Selby5, we can identify several plausible reasons.

First, there is something specific about Lake Chad, something powerfully visual. In the middle of the Sahel, a gigantic lake… A striking spectacle. And it’s hard to look at a satellite image without thinking that the lake is an anomaly, that it’s going to be devoured at some point by the surrounding desert. Selby and Daoust suggest that the narrative in the context of Lake Chad is part of a view that interprets Africa as a continent still in crisis, unable to manage its environment, doomed to desertification and only able to be saved by intervention. massive exterior – a look that has a colonial history.

In relevant global institutions, there is also a strong preference for universalizing narratives, which operate on a global scale. The scholar James Scott has pointed out that the contemporary state is concerned with “reading” its environment in a simple way and therefore tends to standardize, to lose context6. This is probably even more true in contexts where multinational “machines” like the World Bank or LCBC are involved.

Globalized governance tends to favor “transferable” narratives, which can be easily transported from one field to another. The climate crisis is one such narrative, although its mechanisms and manifestations are always context-specific and can vary greatly from place to place. Because the climate crisis has often been summed up as global warming, it conveys ideas of heat and drought. This is how the climate crisis is manifesting itself in Western Europe at the moment, but the Lake Chad region will be affected in part differently, not necessarily less catastrophically.


Another factor is that states and international institutions are keen to find ways to cooperate without creating too much tension. The climate crisis is an uncontroversial narrative, which depoliticizes the conflict – a conflict that pits jihadist factions against Lake Chad states – and does not assign direct responsibility. It is much easier to talk about a climate crisis than to highlight governance, human rights or the global political economy, especially in a context where the States concerned are reluctant to criticize and quick to resort to the joker of sovereignty.

A final dimension deserves to be taken into consideration: the particular attraction of the “hardware” for political decision-makers. Infrastructures have a visibility, a materiality that makes them interesting and desirable. They can be both a powerful and enduring symbol of political intervention (and therefore a plausible way to gain legitimacy) and a wonderful opportunity to mobilize and spend big bucks. This can be interesting for many actors involved: for the companies which will build the project of course (the Italian company which developed the project in the 1980s is now associated with a leading Chinese construction company), but also for the Lake Chad riparian states that will be able to spend money that they otherwise probably would not have attracted – money that will trickle down in various ways, direct and indirect, legal and illegal, at least to their elites.

The moral of the story isn’t that there isn’t a climate crisis – there is a global climate crisis, and its signs are evident in the Lake Chad Basin, even if they don’t look like what we first imagine. The circulation of global narratives is a positive thing, as it can help create a political community better able to meet today’s challenges. But people, institutions and organizations interested in solving the Boko Haram crisis should resist the urge to portray it as a manifestation of the climate crisis. Rather, they should prioritize the complexity of the interconnected dynamics that lie at the very heart of the conflict – Nigeria’s history of inequality, injustice, violence and identity politics – and the aggravating factors – the response often very violent states, the lure and aid of global jihadist organizations (essentially the Islamic State at present), and cross-border connections that help supply jihadists.