ISWAP’s extortion racket in northern Cameroon experiences growing backlash from communities.

In November 2022, two prominent fish traders on Lake Chad’s Kanouma-Bargaram peninsula in Cameroon’s Extrême-Nord region were killed by militants, reportedly elements of Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).1 The killings were reportedly carried out by the violent extremist group as punishment for refusing to pay the taxes ISWAP impose on individuals and communities in the region. This meting out of violence in response to increased resistance to imposed rules appears to be part of a growing trend. In March 2023, across the border in Nigeria, ISWAP fighters killed at least 32 fishermen outside Dikwa, a village in the north-eastern state of Borno. According to a volunteer security official, the men were killed for fishing in a river that ISWAP militants had forbidden residents from fishing in.2

This rise in violence is a consequence of ISWAP’s increasing extortion of local residents. Whereas previously residents viewed some of ISWAP’s systemic taxation as legitimate, it appears that the rise in ISWAP’s tax demands broke that basis of legitimacy. In response, ISWAP has unleashed uncharacteristic levels of threats and acts of violence.

Since establishing themselves as the dominant faction of the group formerly known as Boko Haram, especially since the death of rival commander Abubakar Shekau in May 2021, ISWAP has tended to refrain from the levels of violence against civilians as carried out by the other Boko Haram faction, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, JAS).3 ISWAP has consolidated a considerable degree of governance capacity over the communities it controls in the northernmost part of Cameroon’s Extrême-Nord region – in and around the Lake Chad Basin – centred primarily on a taxation system, of both licit and illicit flows.

However, military interventions throughout 2022 inflicted considerable human and material losses on ISWAP in their strongholds of north-east Nigeria and northern Cameroon.4 In order to regroup and replenish, the group has increased taxes on communities.5 Although the taxation system had generally been a consensual relationship between ISWAP and communities, since April 2022 many communities have turned against the arrangement, arguing that taxes have risen to exorbitant levels.

In June 2022, many Buduma people, an ethnic group comprising predominantly fishermen and cattle herders inhabiting the Lake Chad area, fled their homes on the island of Kofia to avoid the taxes and violence.6 ISWAP’s increased financial needs, compounded by disruptions caused by the Nigerian naira (N) currency crisis toward the end of 2022 and consequent growth in taxation, appear to be damaging their relationships with communities. This may potentially impact ISWAP’s control over these areas and may have disastrous implications for levels of violence against civilians, which already appear to be on the rise.

ISWAP as alternative governance providers in the Lake Chad Basin

Since Boko Haram split into two rival factions, ISWAP has established itself as the most powerful of the two in northern Cameroon (as well as in rural areas on the Nigerian side of the border), repositioning itself in a strategically and economically advantageous location in villages around, and islets on, Lake Chad. While initially targeting more remote villages in the region, ISWAP then consolidated their hold over them and gradually expanded into new territories.

Lake Chad is a significant economic hub at the entrance to the Sahel region. Fishing, livestock and agriculture thrive on and around the lake, as do a vast array of illicit trades that have long operated in the region, predominantly premised on smuggling commodities – licit and illicit – between Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. Cumulatively, licit and illicit trade around the lake is worth billions of naira, attracting a number of traders and criminal actors to the area.7

The towns of Sagmé, Soueram, Darak, Kofia and Kanouma-Bargaram are among the most strategically important localities, given their positioning as key connectors of the four Lake Chad Basin countries – Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad and Niger. Maintaining a presence in these areas is crucial for the armed group to control their own supply chains as well as other trafficking flows such as fuel, tramadol, arms and fish.8 Boko Haram’s growing operations from 2014 initially disrupted pre-existing contraband networks. However, the group – and now primarily the ISWAP faction – then forged relationships with a range of smuggling and trafficking networks, taxing flows in exchange for protection (largely from their own violence).9

ISWAP has traditionally sought to maintain legitimacy among local populations while extracting revenue.10 A key pillar of this strategy is the provision of services, which began as soon as the group moved into Cameroonian territory around 2013. Offering protection to fishermen, herders and farmers – from the threat of violence often perpetrated by ISWAP militants themselves – is a core element of their governance strategy. ‘Services’ provided also included the instalment of water wells and boreholes, as well as the provision of medicine, in many towns and villages in the Lake Chad area, including Kanouma-Bargaram, Soueram, Sagmé and Kofia.11

Among the measures taken by ISWAP that were most beneficial to local communities was their financial support to the local economies. Between 2016 and 2020, fishermen were supplied with motorized canoes and other equipment to improve profitability, and farmers were given tractors and other agricultural input.12 Perhaps most importantly for many, ISWAP members ushered in a new era of justice, replacing traditional judgements from official authorities (perceived by communities as arbitrary) with a justice system based on Islamic (sharia) law. This move was welcomed by residents, who have described the militants as ‘angels straight from heaven’.13

From 2018 onwards, having entrenched themselves in villages throughout the region, ISWAP began implementing a system to allow them to profit from the economic activity they had partly contributed to developing. Reportedly with the population’s consent – crucial for their ability to govern effectively and sustainably – ISWAP claimed the exclusive right to purchase certain flagship agricultural products. Dried chilli is the most valuable, given its ubiquity in local cuisine.

Once the chillies have been harvested and prepared, ISWAP elements purchase them from the farmers (who are forbidden from selling to anybody else) at 1 000 naira per kilogram (approximately US$2.17). Until mid-2022, 25% (N250 [US$0.54] in the case of dried chilli), however, was withheld by ISWAP as zakat (almsgiving), leaving the farmers with only 7 500 Naira, 75% of the total value. Since ISWAP’s financial difficulties commenced, however, this rate – applied to many agricultural products – was doubled to 50%.14

These products, including dried chilli but also other staple goods such as peanuts, white beans and fish, are then sold by ISWAP, mostly but not always through intermediaries, to wholesalers across Cameroon, as well as in neighbouring countries including Nigeria, Niger and Chad. In doing so, they have assumed control of key agricultural industries profiting to the tune of hundreds of millions of naira (approximately hundreds of thousands of US dollars), while at the same time strengthening their positioning as providers of economic opportunities and regulators of local economies.

In addition to agriculture, livestock breeding is also among the most pivotal economic activities in the area. The Lake Chad Basin is the only body of water in the arid Sahel zone. As a result, its yaéré (a Fulani term for the floodplain around the lake used as pasture once the waters have receded) is a prime area for livestock production and attracts millions of head of cattle each year.15

ISWAP has also established a tax system within the livestock sector. Taxing cattle is a common activity undertaken by violent extremist organizations across West Africa.16 In Mali, for example, Katibat Macina militants impose herd taxes on whole villages or larger areas under their control in exchange for the herd owner’s protection.17

In northern Cameroon, herd owners are forced to give away part of their herd in exchange for access to the green pastures around the lake. Between 15% and 20% of each 50-head herd is taken by ISWAP militants.18 This levy is the highest that violent extremist groups are charging across West Africa and the Sahel that the GI-TOC is aware of. Although no data has yet been collected, it is likely that the levy has increased to even higher levels, mirroring the tax rises in other industries as described below.19

Although the principle of the levy is generally accepted by herding communities in northern Cameroon, there has been a discernible upset at the increase. Livestock belonging to anyone unwilling to abide by the system are forcibly confiscated and sold back to the owners.20 In other instances, the livestock are killed and the meat smoked, to be sold in local markets.21

Disruptions to ISWAP operations

It is complex to estimate revenues drawn by ISWAP from taxation activities; however, this is believed to be a significant source of financing. Estimates by the intelligence services of the Nigerian army go as high as approximately US$47 million, although it is not possible to triangulate this.22 ISWAP has reportedly used these funds to pay the salaries of recruits, to maintain them and to purchase supplies.

Continued military responses to ISWAP in 2022 heightened the group’s need for additional resources. This came in the form of Operation Lake Sanity, a sustained military offensive by the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) between March and August 2022. According to officers from Sector 1, the Cameroonian brigade of the MNJTF based in the town of Mora, the operation aimed at clearing the Lake Chad Basin of armed extremists and resulted in the killing of over 800 militants in its first three months.23

Items seized from ISWAP, including a motorbike, weapons and ammunition, by military officials from Operation Lake Sanity.

Items seized from ISWAP, including a motorbike, weapons and ammunition, by military officials from Operation Lake Sanity.

Photo: Multinational Joint Task Force, Operation Lake Sanity

Separately, Nigeria’s central bank announced in October 2022 that it would be redesigning naira banknotes and introducing ATM withdrawal limits, in part to disrupt terrorist and criminal activity.24

In response to this measure, Ibn Oumar and Malam Ba’ana Wali, the two ISWAP figures in charge of taxes and zakat in Cameroon’s Lake Chad region, issued an edict banning the use of naira in areas under their control (the ban on the use of naira was, however, also applicable across all ISWAP territory, including in Nigeria, Chad and Niger).25 To prevent naira entering ISWAP territory in Cameroon, only certain roads were permitted to be used for travel from Nigeria, which were under heavy surveillance, with ISWAP monitors conducting patrols to ensure obedience.

Despite the CFA franc being the national currency of Cameroon, in the country’s Extrême-Nord region, communities around the Lake Chad Basin mostly use the naira.26 However, since the policy announcement, only payment in CFA franc has been accepted by ISWAP for the levies and taxes imposed on fishermen, farmers and herders in the area.27 Not only has this caused delayed or missed payments because CFA francs are far less easily accessible in the area, but it has also completely devalued any existing cash held by ISWAP, which cannot be easily exchanged.28

Communities’ obedience begins to wane

Since around May 2022, shortly after the Operation Lake Sanity military offensives began, ISWAP nearly doubled tax rates on communities around the Lake Chad area. In response, populations have increasingly turned against the armed group, refusing to pay them. Despite an established social contract between ISWAP and communities that the former would refrain from targeting the latter, threats against civilians began to mount.

Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project suggests that after falling in consecutive years between 2018 and 2020, since the end of 2021, there has been an uptick in the number of civilian fatalities at the hands of violent extremist groups in Cameroon’s Extrême-Nord region.29

Violence against civilians in Cameroon’s Extrême-Nord region, 2016–2022.

Figure 3 Violence against civilians in Cameroon’s Extrême-Nord region, 2016–2022.

Source: ACLED

Since May–June 2022, many Buduma, an ethnic group composed mainly of fishermen and cattle rangers living in the Lake Chad region, have moved from their homes on the islets of the lake to avoid the taxes – and potentially violent retribution – from ISWAP militants.30

A group of people displaced from their homes on Kofia island reported: ‘We had never experienced the violence of the terrorists; we have always lived in harmony with their fighters. But since May or June 2022, with the military operations that have intensified in all the villages occupied by the violent extremists, the level of violence has intensified. Even civilians who were once spared are no longer safe.’31

This reported increase in violence from ISWAP against civilians may be linked to growing resistance to taxes from the communities they seek to control. A further drive could also be the mounting military pressure, which has triggered predation by ISWAP on civilians in the past.32

ISWAP’s differing approach to revenue extraction in areas where they have complete control, compared to areas that are more contested or where they have not yet earned populations’ full obedience, is also key. Maintaining legitimacy appears to be prioritized in the former, with violence more commonly meted out in the latter.33 Fractures in control, and growing threats from the military, may have shifted ISWAP’s approach to be more in line with that adopted for areas of contested control. If residents of the towns and villages in Cameroon’s Lake Chad area are increasingly reluctant to adhere to ISWAP’s imposed system of taxation, as it shifts from a consensual arrangement to one more akin to extortion, further escalation in the deliberate targeting of civilians in these areas is a real possibility.34 The likely resultant erosion of ISWAP’s legitimacy in the area also offers opportunities to break the group’s hold on regional criminal markets, and debunk its growing strength as an alternative governance provider.


  1. Interview with a Multinational Joint Task Force officer, Mora, 20 December 2022. 

  2. Abdulkareem Haruna, Terrorists kill 32 fishermen in northeast Nigeria, HumAngle, 9 March 2023,

  3. Reports of extreme brutality by JAS abound. For example, on 10 March 2023, a 75-year-old woman was brutally killed by suspected JAS fighters in the Extrême-Nord region border village of Zamga. See: Kiven Brenda, Elderly woman beheaded by Boko Haram in Far North Cameroon, HumAngle, 14 March 2023,

  4. See, for example: Timothy Obiezu, Nigerian military says over 250 militants killed in operation, VOA News, 9 September 2022,; Wale Odunsi, Nigerian military bomb ISWAP leaders Ali Kwaya, Bukar Mainoka in Lake Chad, Daily Post, 6 November 2022,

  5. Interview with a Multinational Joint Task Force officer, Mora, 20 December 2022. 

  6. Interview with a Multinational Joint Task Force intelligence officer, Mora, 18 December 2022. 

  7. Escalating Boko Haram violence since 2014 initially diminished both licit and illicit cross-border trade, and many traders fled south. However, as ISWAP’s power increased in the area, they began protecting new smuggling networks transporting illicit commodities, filling the void left by previous smuggling networks. Lucia Bird and Lyes Tagziria, Organized crime and instability dynamics: Mapping illicit hubs in West Africa, GI-TOC, September 2022,

  8. Antônio Sampaio, Conflict economies and urban systems in the Lake Chad region, GI-TOC, November 2022,

  9. See

  10. Antônio Sampaio, Conflict economies and urban systems in the Lake Chad region, GI-TOC, November 2022,

  11. Interview with a Multinational Joint Task Force officer, Mora, 20 December 2022; Interview with a local journalist, Kolofata, 15 December 2022; Interview with a Multinational Joint Task Force intelligence officer, Mora, 18 December 2022. 

  12. Interview with a local journalist, Kolofata, 15 December 2022. 

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Interview with a Multinational Joint Task Force intelligence officer, Mora, 18 December 2022. 

  15. Saïbou Issa, Les coupeurs de route. Histoire du banditisme rural et transfrontalier dans le bassin du lac Tchad, 2011, Paris, Karthala, p. 38. 

  16. Kingsley L. Madueke, Driving destruction: Cattle rustling and instability in Nigeria, GI-TOC, January 2023,

  17. Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa, Cattle rustling spikes in Mali amid increasing political isolation: Mopti region emerges as epicentre, Risk Bulletin, Issue 4, GI-TOC, June 2022,

  18. Interview with a Multinational Joint Task Force intelligence officer, Mora, 18 December 2022. 

  19. In Yobe State, Nigeria, insurgents collect one head per 40 cattle heads as tax from herders, whereas in Zamfara State there is no fixed number of cattle accepted as levy by bandits. In one district of Mali, the Katibat Macina armed group takes a one-year-old bull calf for every 30 heads of cattle and a heifer calf for every 40 heads of cattle as part of zakat. In 2021 in Benin, armed groups raised the zakat from the traditionally accepted toll of one head of cattle out of 100 to one animal out of 10. See Kingsley L. Madueke, Driving destruction: Cattle rustling and instability in Nigeria, GI-TOC, January 2023,; Flore Berger, Locked horns: Cattle rustling and Mali’s war economy, GI-TOC, March 2023,; Antônio Sampaio et al, Armed groups and conflict economies in the national parks of Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin, GI-TOC, forthcoming. 

  20. Interview with a local herder, Darack, 25 November 2022. 

  21. Interview with a local herder, Fotokol, 10 December 2022. 

  22. Interview with an intelligence officer from the Nigerian Army’s Operation Hadin Kai, Banki, 26 December 2022. 

  23. Interview with a Multinational Joint Task Force intelligence officer, Mora, 18 December 2022; Lac Tchad: plus de 800 jihadistes tués en deux mois selon la Force multinationale, VOA Afrique, 7 June 2022,és-en-deux-mois-selon-la-force-multinationale/6607102.html

  24. Godwin Emefiele (Governor, Central Bank of Nigeria), Press remarks on issuance of new naira banknotes, 26 October 2022,

  25. Interview with a Multinational Joint Task Force intelligence officer, Mora, 18 December 2022. 

  26. Some communities near the Nigerian border are not even aware of the CFA franc; anecdotally, individuals have in the past been wary of accepting CFA, thinking it is false currency. 

  27. Abdulkareem Haduna, ISWAP collects taxes in CFA as Nigeria government plans currency redesign, HumAngle, 12 November 2022,

  28. Although the deadline for exchanging old denominations for the new has been extended, individuals seeking to exchange large amounts of money are subject to checks, which may attract attention of the authorities. As such, ISWAP elements are unable to exchange their cash stocks. 

  29. Most local media outlets do not make the distinction between the two Boko Haram factions, ISWAP and JAS, and as a result it is not possible to compare the number of events of violence against civilians committed by each group. For more detail on ACLED’s coding methodology, see:

  30. Interview with a local herder, Darak, 12 December 2022. 

  31. Interview with a group of people displaced from Kofia, Darak, 25 November 2022. 

  32. Vincent Foucher, The Jihadi proto-state in the Lake Chad Basin, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 19 March 2020,

  33. Antônio Sampaio, Conflict economies and urban systems in the Lake Chad region, GI-TOC, November 2022,

  34. The ACLED Conflict Alert System predicts an increase, albeit limited, of 12% in the number of events of violence against civilians in Cameroon’s Extrême-Nord region. See ACLED Conflict Alert System,