Lake Chad Basin: Humanitarian Bomb or Demographic Dividend?

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Abimbola Akosile examines the development potential in the Lake Chad Basin and the roles the youth can play, as captured in arguments and suggestions by various stakeholders, especially the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) West and Central Africa region

The Lake Chad Basin (LCB), which comprises four countries namely Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, has long captivated and eluded the attention of development practitioners.
For some, this sub-region is now a slow, simmering humanitarian explosion in the making; while for others, it presents an opportunity for action, to materialise what the Africa Union in its roadmap coins “the Africa We Want”, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and ultimately show some of the poorest and most neglected youth in the world, that ‘Youth Matters’.

Demographic Context

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) agrees with the latter camp and argues that it is a matter of demographics. In an argument spearheaded by the Regional Director for the UNFPA West and Central Africa region, Mr. Mabingue Ngom, the agency shows how the huge youth bulge in these countries offers a unique opportunity for countries to capitalise in the available work power and reap the Demographic Dividend.
In order to better understand the reasons why the LCB situation stirs such opposing views, there is need to look at the geographic context, environment, economic and security of the region.

Lake Chad Basin
The Lake Chad Basin is part of what is called the Sahel, to the south of the Sahara Desert, encompassing an area of more than 2.3 million square kilometres. Owing its name to a vast lake with its origins in the mountains/forest of Central Arica Republic/The Congo, the lake attracted and served populations from surrounding countries, acting as a trade and exchange pole uniting peoples from the North and South of the Sahara.
Over the years, a combination of climate change and uncontrolled population growth has reduced the water basin to barely ten per cent of its 1960s levels from 25,000 square kilometres to about 2,000 square kilometres today, while the population grew four to six-fold.

Besides traditional economic activities like fishing, animal husbandry, agriculture and trade, are the emergence of new economic resources, oil, petrol, uranium and industries, attracting newcomers; all compounding to create a demographic, geo-politic and economic crisis, with the ensuing tensions.
In view of the economic importance of the lake’s water body, a six-member “LCB Commission” is in place comprising the above four countries plus Libya, Egypt and the Central African Republic. However the current focus of the discussion is on Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

Conflict Impact
According to experts, the ever-diminishing resources are at the origin of communal and cross-border conflicts among the four countries since the 1980s, the most notorious being the Darak region between Cameroon and Nigeria.
Since 2002 the crisis rose to new heights with the emergence of the insurgent group Boko Haram lurking in the region recruiting disenfranchised young people and creating havoc that has captured the headlines in the last few years.

The ensuing insecurity affects in excess of 25 million people with over 2.7 million displaced. Of these, only 14 per cent have reportedly found shelters in official displaced camps, the remaining scattered among host communities putting further pressure on scarce resources.

Despite efforts invested by the Governments of countries surrounding the Lake Chad, the increasingly indiscriminate insurgency is having strong effect beyond the region and is negatively impacting human security. It is devastating communities, destroying public infrastructure, triggering humanitarian crisis including severe food insecurity, malnutrition and health crises, and is in breach of numerous fundamental human rights and international humanitarian law.
This is already reversing decades of development progress and preventing countries from reaping the social and economic benefits of the demographic dividend offered by their bulging youth populations.

Next Steps
On the one hand, for those seeing a looming humanitarian crisis, the solution would call for a purely humanitarian and security/political solution. Going this route would focus interventions on providing immediate life-saving assistance, extending IDP and refugee camps, and escalating a military action against Boko Haram.
UNFPA and a few others, argue that the root causes of this crisis is a population growing at alarming rate that outpaces Governments’ ability to provide quality social services like health and education, and for the labour market to absorb new potential entrants.

Lack of job opportunities render the fast growing youth population vulnerable to extremists’ false promises, drug-lords, guns business and human trafficking. The population growth rate in this sub-region is among the highest in the world, ranging from 2.5 per cent in Cameroon to 4 per cent per annum in Niger.

Just as in other African countries, the sub-region also saw marked reductions in infant mortality. However, unlike elsewhere and contrary to conventional classic demographic transition theory, a corresponding reduction in fertility did not occur, with Niger and Chad still registering 6 to 7 children per woman. This phenomenon is attributed to one of the highest rates in child marriage in the world, coupled with a perceived preference for large families.

A closer look however, points to the weak status of women in society and to a poor or no access to family planning. Girls married before the age of 15 and 18 face tremendous family and societal pressure to “produce” babies, causing a high incidence of fistula and other hidden morbidities among women.
Such a complex problem calls for an inclusive solution, that brings together development, humanitarian actors with affected communities to design a comprehensive programme that includes immediate humanitarian assistance while addressing long-term development issues.

Because of the fundamentally cross-border nature of the basin population’s social and economic structures, the crisis calls for a regional, holistic and long-term approach to tackle the challenges posed to livelihood and the stability of states in the Lake Chad Basin. Young people can play a catalytic role as agents of Action for Positive Change.
Governments will have to make strong investments in human capital through a rebooting of the education and health sectors, but also in the creation of employment. Education will need to match the business sector needs and include vocational training skills to stimulate entrepreneurship.

Creating an enabling environment for an educated and healthy young people will avert catastrophic consequences and pave the way for the LCB countries to reclaim their image and space on the world stage. Immediate and right policies and actions to capitalise from the high youthful population in the LCB can be a strong contributor to the African Union goal of the “Africa We want”.

It is largely the lack of opportunity and hope that renders young people vulnerable to recruitment by extremists; they also fall prey to unscrupulous middlemen with false promises of a rosy life in Europe, thus risking their lives across the Desert and the Mediterranean sea.

Member States of the Lake Chad Basin and Benin are undertaking efforts to fully operationalise the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to combat Boko Haram. The UN Security Council has recognised the need for international support to complement the regional military and security operations to “promote education and job creation, facilitate stabilisation efforts and economic recovery as well as ensure the protection of human rights, particularly those of women and children”.

Vital Recommendations
According to experts, investing in human capital development is the single most notable factor for sustainable development. Education, including comprehensive sexuality education, and health, especially sexual and reproductive health services, are the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality, and lay the foundation for an inclusive, sustained economic growth.
The demographic dividend agenda offers a unique framework for all stakeholders to operationalise shared agendas and to achieve peace and stability and a more inclusive and equitable future.

This time-sensitive agenda, especially for African economies, offers a framework for integrating policies, investments and programmes across sectors and to forge alliances between governments, the UN system, international financial institutions, civil society organisations, private sector and, most importantly, participating communities. It creates space for strong partnerships around and with the Youth.
There are some proposed solutions which are crucial to attain the desired ‘Africa We want” and the Sustainable Development goals.

There is need address the root causes of the inequalities, alienation and humanitarian crisis; engage and encourage young people from the Lake Chad Basin and those on the move to stay and contribute to community development: Youth Empowerment for Peace by providing access to quality basic services + generating economic and social opportunities;
There is also need to protect local populations and people ‘on-the-move’ especially adolescent, girls and women by addressing the needs of the most vulnerable: GBV/SEA by providing a supportive environment for women and adolescent girls; and to provide quality SRH services, including family planning, comprehensive sexuality education in the targeted communities of the LCB including among young people and young married women.
The countries of the lake Chad Basin need to have in place strong policies and development plans that are informed by their respective countries demographic trends/projections and understanding of the impact on their desired development/economic outcomes.

There is also the need to integrate gender equality in order to promote roles for young women and girls in construction of peaceful and sustainable development solutions.
Concerned authorities need to urgently invest in and scale-up sexual and reproductive health programmes and increasing access to family planning services; and there is an urgent need for a concerted effort to put in place concrete programmes focused on investments in young people – particularly investments in health, education, skills development/vocational skills training.

The relevant authorities need to develop programmes focused on de-radicalisation and re-integration programmes for young people including engaging the young people in gainful community/economic development.
They also need to engage communities, gate-keepers, men and mothers in-law to stimulate a positive individual and social behaviour change that would lead to improved gender norms and ending long-held harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriage and unplanned families; and to invest in quality education for girls and boys.
Africa and the Lake Chad Basin have all the potential to be turned into a success story – but action is needed and it is now – with young people at the centre. That is a worthwhile goal.