Lake Chad is dotted by hundreds of small islands at the centre of the ongoing jihadist insurgency and military campaigns.
The colonial transboundary line between Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger was drawn through these patches of islands known as Tumbuns or Tunbuns.
In November, the Air Task Force of Nigeria’s counterinsurgency operation conducted a series of aerial bombing raids on Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) fighters and logistics bases in Tumbun Allura, Tumbun Rego, Tumbuma Baba and Doron Naira on the fringes of Lake Chad.
The military previously despatched fighter jets and helicopter gunships to target ISWAP bases in areas such as Tumbun Gini, Tumbun Sale, Tumbun Fulani, Tumbun Barorowa, Tumbun Nbororo, Tumbun Kayoma, Tumbun Kayewa and Tumbun Hamma.
HumAngle understands that the islands serve as a rear base, logistics hubs and staging ground for attacks.
According to the military, the November 24 airstrikes were conducted after surveillance aircraft identified a position in Doron Naira used as a staging area to launch recent attacks against troop’s locations in and around Baga, a town close to the shores of Lake Chad.
According to a source, a glimpse of light and life is visible at night on an island close to Baga.
Many years back, the islands and their natural resources were sources of economic opportunities for migrants and local fisherfolks, traders, herders and farmers mostly Fulani, Shuwa Arab, Kanuri, Hausa and Buduma.
The fishing and processing industry provided income for the inhabitants and the wild grasses around the lake foreshores were used as fodder and raw materials for artisanal handicraft.
The lake area is special because it holds an extraordinary wealth in natural resources for fishing, farming and cattle-raising. Also, because the lake stands at the junction of four states, it creates interesting trade opportunities, notable but not exclusively, contraband that profits from differences in tax levels. A lot of people live thanks to these opportunities, Vincent Foucher, a consultant with the International Crisis Group, said.
The island has also been a cause of border disputes and tension among some of the countries surrounding the lake.
In the early 1980s, Nigeria fought a war with Chad after an encroachment into Nigerian islands. The two countries have also clashed over Nigerian fishermen and activities of Chadian rebels.
The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) was established in 1994 to curb trans-border banditry and activities of Chadian rebels.
As the Boko Haram conflict which began in 2009 escalated with territorial and military expansion, the group moved into some of the islands and raided others.
In 2014, the African Union Peace and Security Council revamped the task force to stabilise the region and conduct regional counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations concurrently with operations by national militaries.
Since 2015, thousands of people living in the island settlements have been displaced by activities of the terrorists and military response.
In 2015, the national militaries fighting Boko Haram began to introduce policies that led to evacuation and relocation of islanders to pave way for large scale military operations.
A split within Boko Haram into ISWAP and Jama’atu Ahl al-Sunnah Lil-Dawa wal-Jihad(JAS) factions resulted in ISWAP becoming the dominant non-state actor in the area.
Foucher told HumAngle that the jihadi factions on the lake – ISWAP and Bakura’s, a subgroup of JAS, live off the wealth produced and circulating to and from the Tumbuns.
“ISWAP tries to maintain decent relationships with civilians, imposing moderate taxation, providing law and order. Bakura’s faction seems more inclined to raiding, ransom taking and plundering,” he says. “But the wealth of the Lake – and the Tumbun and the shoreside – is key for both. Certain Tumbuns seem to host the core of ISWAP members on the lake – the ‘rijal’, the adult male affiliates, whether they are fighting or not – and their family, .” Foucher said.
HumAngle previously reported on how ISWAP has exploited the local economy and natural resources using levies and taxation policies.
In response to the growing threat posed by ISWAP, the military escalated artillery and aerial bombardments of islands and fringes of the mainland.
Foucher said the Nigerian military seemed to rely a lot on airborne attacks with which they stand a better chance to surprise insurgents on the lake who otherwise disperse and hide in the maze of the marshes to escape ground offensives.
“But a reliance on air attacks, while it may reduce the capacity of the insurgents, can probably not end them. And it may come with collateral damage, as there are civilians trying to maintain their economic activities in the area of the Lake,” Foucher noted.
Satellite imagery of the Lake observed by Humangle shows badly damaged and deserted island settlements.
HumAngle learned that MNJTF operations such as Gama aiki and Yancin Tafki were designed to neutralise enclaves in the island settlements. The operations involved ground, air and amphibious components.
The importance of riverine capability led to the bolstering of the MNJTF 7 Brigade headquarters in Baga by a gunboat company of Nigerian Army’s amphibious forces
In August, Borno State governor Babagana Zulum requested for naval presence in the state during a meeting with the Nigerian Navy Chief. The navy pulled out of Baga town following a daring ISWAP attack on the MNJTF and Naval outpost in December 2018.
Establishing state presence in a form of military bases, law enforcement and social services is believed to be a vital part of ensuring sustainable security and utilisation of the enormous potential of the Tumbuns.