[By Jean Bourdache]


The rapid diffusion of motorcycle transport has positive effects on the lives of Africans, both in urban centers and in the countryside, as noted in our previous article. But the ubiquitous Chinese motorcycle has also increased jihadist’s nuisance capabilities, especially the infamous Boko Haram sect. Very active in Nigeria (where it was founded in 2002), Boko’s abuses have spilled over to neighboring states of northern Cameroon and Chad. The Mandara Mountains have long been a haven for the Boko Haram bases, from which flash attacks into Cameroon began. The Cameroonian army, backed by Chad, forced direct clashes with the jihadists, who then moved further north to Lake Chad itself.

The mobile unit of Boko Haram consists of three men: the pilot sits very far forward on the tank; in the middle, the “navigator” is also supplier of ammunition of the third, the gunner. We can see the advantage of the enclosed secondary chain guard as well as the extended footrests [Christian Seignobos]
The tactics of the jihadists have been described by Christian Seignobos, director of studies at the Institute for Research for Development (IRD). He spent about fifty years between Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon, and in his latest book on the subject – ‘Des Mondes Oubliés’ (‘Forgotten Worlds’; IRD Parenthesis Editions) – he’s illustrated his text with drawings made with with a feather dipped in Chinese ink. Many of his remarkable drawings depict what he calls “the motorized Cossacks” of Boko Haram.

The Mandara Mountains (averaging 900m /2700′) are in tan. In light gray, the theoretical shore of Lake Chad, and in dark gray what is left in summer (a seasonal shift) [Bourdache]
Christian Seignobos explains; “Currently their elements, always mounted on motorcycles, are stealing and harassing. The Chadians, with their columns of Toyota Land Cruisers, believed themselves the undisputed masters of the war of movement. But they cannot pursue the bikers of Boko Haram, who disappear into the savannah’s brush, following animal trails.”

Cattle herders bring their cows to Lake Chad, where decreasing water levels have exposed new grazing land. One of the largest lakes in the world, central Africa’s Lake Chad, is drying up. After four decades of rising temperatures, diminishing rainfall and soaring population growth, a lake that once covered some 9,000 square miles- roughly the area of New Jersey- has shrunk to less than 2 percent of its original size. Today the lake would barely cover Brooklyn and Manhattan [Shashank Bengali/MCT]
The armies of Chad and Cameroon are suspicious of the loyalty of villagers, who are promised benefits by Boko Haram (contraband, rewards for ‘services rendered’, and even regular wages), especially when they share a common religion. In order to curtail the movements of jihadists, the Chadian army has launched an operation of requisition and destruction of ‘suspicious’ motorcycles.

A 15meter long boat as used by fishermen in Lake Chad, adapted for use by Boko Haram as highly mobile amphibious transport, when motorcycles are added. [Christian Seignobos]
Such radical measures have killed many innocent motorcyclists, writes Christian Seignobos, because “Between Nigeria and northern Cameroon, there are countless tragic misunderstandings of people killed on their motorbikes while traveling to distant fields… By carrying a bag of rice, one can be accused of going to supply a Boko Haram faction in the bush. For more than two years, this paranoia has been economically paralyzing entire regions.”

Aerial view of a village in the Chad basin, now deserted by its inhabitants [Bourdache]
By moving to the complicated and ever-changing shores of Lake Chad, the jihadists have secured a territory conducive to their fight, while moving ever further from their home base in the Mandara Mountains, and the surrounding plains. From Lake Chad, they direct multiple terrorist actions, using girls and boys (especially girls) as suicide bombers, who blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces and cafes.

Various iterations of the Boko Haram moto assault vehicles [Christian Seignobos]
Lake Chad is shrinking from year to year, but with an area of 2500-8000 square kilometers remaining, it offers plenty of space for jihadists who know how to use strategic opportunities. They move from one island to another in long dugout canoes that can carry twenty fighters and a few motorcycles. They thus become amphibious, hunting their prey on the earth and the water.

The Nigerian military fights fire with fire, with moto units of their own [Bourdache]
Boko Haram’s boats are modeled on those used by lake’s fishermen, measuring from 12 to 17meters long (36′ to 50′), and motorized by 25 to 40hp engines.  The largest boats can carry nearly a hundred jihadists along with a dozen motorcycles, according to Seignobos.  Protected from view by the abundant plant life bordering the lake, and covered with camouflaging foliage, their boats merge with the scenery, are invisible from the sky, and sneak through the maze of shallow channels surrounding the islands in Lake Chad.

The carcasses of confiscated motorcycles in Nigeria: every motorcycle is suspicious in areas bordering Boko Haram strongholds, and motorcyclists are shot without cause for simply being on wheels. The effect is crippling the economy [Bourdache]
On the mainland, Boko Haram finds it difficult to refuel its motorcycles with gasoline provided by smugglers in Nigeria and Cameroon.  And recently, all two-wheelers are systematically destroyed by the army with each clash.  Boko Haram has quickly adapted to the loss of their motorcycles, with the jihadists  moving onto horseback or camels, especially during the rainy season which floods the lowlands, prohibiting the movement of any motorized vehicle.  The response of the military has been to forbid the population to ride on horseback!

The fastest means of transport for regular Cameroonian and Chadian armies is the Toyota pickup, which was also the choice of the jihadists … after the motorcycle! [Bourdache]
The Nigerian government has created its own motorcycle units to fight Boko Haram on its own terms. The BIR (Rapid Intervention Battalion) of the Cameroonian army also patrols Lake Chad aboard large, heavily armed Zodiacs. But for a daring soldier, the most effective and unobtrusive solution has been to use a motorcycle taxi ‘requisitioned’ as required.  The risk for the ‘volunteer’ rider is whether to die refusing, or die as an accessory to a terrorist act.

A moto-taxi commandeered by a Nigerian regular soldier on the lookout for Boko Haram insurgents. It’s the Devil’s bargain – die resisting the the army, or the insurgents? [Bourdache]
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