Hunched up in the prow of his canoe, Mahamat simply watches time slip by, like dozens of boatmen in Guite on Lake Chad who no longer dare sail for fear of Boko Haram fighters. “We’re here, but we do nothing. We don’t have work any more,” the Chadian sailor says in a resigned tone, looking wearily over at a group of men seated on the ground, playing cards. The ruthless Islamists of the Nigerian sect have brought such insecurity to Lake Chad that most trade among the four countries whose borders meet there — Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger — has dried up for months.
The straw huts of storekeepers who used to import grain, sugar and rice from Nigeria are closed. “No more goods to sell, no more money,” sums up an old man who adds that the price of basic products has doubled for residents of Guite. Youssouf Yaya, a ferryman, used to make money from foreign visitors from the Chadian capital N’Djamena, two hours away by road, who wanted a leisurely weekend at the lake.
“There were French people, Americans, even some Chinese,” Yaya says. “I took them on my boat to see the hippos and the birds. But they’ve stopped coming. Now I grow food to feed my family.” “You see these empty alleyways? Before, they were thriving, but many inhabitants have gone to live in N’Djamena or in other villages,” he adds. The area has become dangerous because of comings and goings among the islands of the lake by Boko Haram, a fundamentalist sect that has seized tracts of northeast Nigeria and killed an estimated 13,000 people since 2009.
At the beginning of February, the insurgents caused uproar when they attacked Chadian territory for the first time, striking at the small Ngouboua peninsula where thousands of Nigerians had taken refuge. Two people were killed in the raid, while a whole village was razed to the ground and even the cattle were burned to death.
– Police, soldiers and spies –
Guite lies just a few kilometres (miles) from Nigerian and Cameroonian waters, held to be “infested” by Boko Haram fighters who get around on big motorised canoes painted in bright colours, like those used by traders. Chadian authorities have outlawed the use of such vessels by civilians, leaving the way open for military patrols.
Police, soldiers and spies for the National Security Agency keep a close watch on people in Guite, which is home to many traders and fishermen of Nigerian origin, who more often speak Hausa than the Arabic widely used in Chad. “Among the inhabitants, we’ve identified people who collaborate with Boko Haram,” a soldier in battledress with an assault rifle tells AFP, asking not to be named. “They give them information and sell them fuel.”
Hundreds of little islands are scattered across the broad surface of Lake Chad, making it very hard to monitor. In consequence, it has long been considered ideal for business by traffickers of all kinds, seeking to move their illicit goods from one country to another.
Weapons, drugs and other contraband items have been shifted around with little hindrance. A particularly popular product is Tramol, a strong painkiller that doubles as a stimulant. The drug is appreciated by Boko Haram fighters and has of late been increasingly used by poor, unemployed youths at the lakeside. “We’re trying to stop drugs coming from Nigeria, but the traffickers know to change tactics,” a Chadian police officer says. “We recently seized quantities (of narcotics) from the canoes of fishermen. They had gutted the fish and stuffed plastic bags of pills inside them.”