Erick Sourna Loumtouang, a 2020 APN Individual Research Fellow, recently granted interviews to Jeune Afrique and Africa Report and published an article in Kujenga Amani, in which he drew on his APN-supported research project titled “Governing Bodies in the Lake Chad Basin: Control, Repression, and Restrictions on Mobility in the Era of the Fight against Terrorism” to comment on the increased use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in Africa’s conflict terrain. In this interview, Natalie Bernstien, the APN program assistant, probes him further on the significance of this trend for Africa’s peace and security, and how his research can help shape peacebuilding policies and actions in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Natalie Bernstien: In recent interviews with the Africa Report  and Jeune Afrique, as well as your article in Kujenga Amani, you referred to the increased use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in Africa’s conflict theaters. What are the implications of this trend for Africa’s peace and security terrain?

Erick Sourna Loumtouang: This trend is partly driven by the continuation of the global fight against terrorism. It has been marked by an increase in the number of drone bases of foreign powers on the African continent following the emergence and rapid development of jihadist groups in the Sahel, the Maghreb, the Lake Chad Basin, and the Horn of Africa. The trend also highlights logistical and operational adjustments on the part of African armies. In several countries, we can note the gradual introduction of drones in their military operations. This new feature confirms a global trend toward the robotization of warfare that began at the end of the Cold War. In Africa, several states, such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, South Africa, and Libya, to name but a few, have UAVs in their air fleets to meet internal and external security challenges.

UAVs have also become an important part of the strategies deployed by some non-state armed groups on the African continent. In northeastern Nigeria, the jihadist group Boko Haram has used tactical mini-drones to monitor the positions of the Nigerian army and plan attacks. The death of Aboubakar Shekaou, leader of Boko Haram, and the influence of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) on former factions of the sect could also increase the use of these devices to conduct raids on the positions of national armies. Particularly in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has made drones a key weapon for carrying out attacks by equipping them with small explosive charges.

Rapid growth in the robotics and automation sector has democratized the purchase of this type of equipment. China, Turkey, and Iran, which are less subject to embargoes on drones, are increasingly exporting this equipment around the world, including to African countries. The desire to break the dependence on foreign drone manufacturers has also led several countries on the continent to develop and encourage local drone production. This is the case in Nigeria, Algeria, Cameroon, Rwanda, and South Africa, where progress is being made in this area.

The first use of an autonomous drone on African soil, which occurred in Libya, raises the question of responsibility. The power given to an algorithm to decide the life or death of a man tests the limits of sovereignty and violence. This situation also raises ethical questions related to the progress and use of science. In this context, Africa appears to be a field of experimentation where the modalities of deploying violence in the future are being tested. The chaos caused by the fall of the Ghaddafi regime in Libya has provided an opportunity for the arms industry to test the application of their robotic weapons of war. What is happening on African soil, therefore, carries serious risks of an authoritarian drift and a decline in democracy. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia, the use of drones has had consequences on the lives of local populations. Drone strikes have sometimes been marred by errors that have caused the death of many civilians without restitution. In Somalia, for example, several civilians were killed during raids by the US army on Al Shabab. The proliferation of drones in Africa is a real threat to peace and security, both through their use in the fight against terrorism and for internal security purposes.

Drones restore imperial logics by upgrading the technologies of violence that made colonial wars successful. The Nigerian army has admitted to conducting several raids on insurgent positions in the Lake Chad area by using satellite video images. So far it is not known whether these strikes have led to casualties among the civilian population. As interstate conflicts recede, we are progressively moving toward the irregularity of war and vague responsibility for war crimes. Conflicts on the continent will involve more non-state actors such as terrorist groups and private security companies. If drones are increasingly deployed, we are likely to see a trend of disempowerment in wars, as perpetrators are less likely to take responsibility for their actions. Targeted assassinations and disappearances without trial are examples of the negative aspects of the robotization and automation of weapons of war. In a context where the Covid-19 pandemic is disrupting lives everywhere, the trend toward the use of drones as a weapon of war will complicate the challenges in Africa’s peace and security terrain.

Based on your interviews and observations during fieldwork in the Lake Chad area, in what ways is the fight against terrorism affecting local communities in the region? Can you speak to the vulnerability and resilience of the people?

Data collected in the field show that most of the economy in the localities of the Lake Chad Basin is at a standstill. The war on terror has increased the economic vulnerability of the people in this region. While the restriction of mobility was a measure taken to prevent the movement of members of the Boko Haram sect, it has had adverse effects on the populations of the Far North Region of Cameroon, where survival activities are linked to mobility, itinerant trade, and pastoralism. We were particularly interested in traders living in localities such as Kousseri, Darak, Hilé Alifa, Blangoua Fotokol, Makary, Koza, Mora, etc. Interviews with them reveal that the majority have lost their trading capital. Unable to travel to Nigeria for supplies because of closed borders, they have turned to other income-generating activities.

In terms of social hierarchies, I was interested in the diverse trajectories of ordinary individuals who, in the context of the fight against terrorism, adapted by assuming new roles and survival strategies. An ethnography of the vigilante committees showed how the peasantry and ordinary citizens sought to protect their communities from Boko Haram attacks with crude weapons in the absence of the state.

Furthermore, the imposition of extraordinary measures by the state, such as the state of emergency, curfews, emergency laws, and the anti-terrorist law, have had serious consequences for the freedom of individuals and have given rise to abuses by law enforcement agencies against the population.

It has been observed that the use of women as suicide bombers by Boko Haram affected the perception of women among members of the security services and local vigilante committees. The violence reinforced prejudices about the danger represented by women’s bodies, making them vulnerable to being attacked. The war has accentuated violence against women in the communities of the Lake Chad Basin, which are essentially patriarchal and where the influence of monotheistic religions such as Islam is predominant.

Local populations have also developed strategies for building resilience. They now practice agriculture on a much smaller scale in areas close to army bases or IDP camps for fear of being attacked and killed by members of Boko Haram. Cross-border and long-distance trade, once at the center of the local economy, has been replaced by a subsistence economy based on activities like retailing, brokering, and assistance from humanitarian agencies.

Fieldwork made it possible to observe members of the security forces and vigilante committees engage in bodybuilding exercises. The re-emergence of cultural practices for fortifying bodies through protective techniques has become a fundamental element of this new government of the bodies. The daily interactions between security forces and vigilante committees have led to a form of co-temporality that manifests itself through the appropriation by vigilante committees for military and operational activities.

The context of insecurity marked by the fight against terrorism has brought to light community solidarity initiatives in areas affected by the conflict. When humanitarian needs were increasingly growing in terms of food and security elements for the vigilante committees, a solidarity operation was organized in Mayo Tsanaga to support local populations affected by Boko Haram attacks. The operation, which lasted from February 28 to April 30, 2020, raised 23,847,450 CFA ($42,752.44). This fundraising, which was organized on digital platforms, led to the distribution of food, clothing, and security equipment for the vigilante committees. The people who benefited from this support were based in 65 localities made up of 44 villages in the Mayo Moskota district, 5 villages in the Koza district, and 16 villages in the Mokolo district in the Far North province of Cameroon.

How can your research findings help shape policies and actions aimed toward promoting peacebuilding in the region?

The project findings will help shed light on the humanitarian and peacebuilding needs of the communities of the Lake Chad Basin and bring this to the attention of decision-makers and donors. In a context where terrorist movements continue to operate in the region, it is important to build the capacities of state/regional governments, local nongovernmental organizations, and community-based organizations to run resettlement and deradicalization programs. Another issue that requires urgent attention is human rights abuses, particularly those cases where Boko Haram and national security forces are perpetrating acts of violence against women. There is a need to conscientize and retrain security forces to respect the human rights of those living in conflict-affected communities of the Lake Chad Basin.