Despite community resistance, the Islamist extremist group has gained a foothold in the security void.
Cameroon’s far northern regions have endured a steady increase in Boko Haram-related violence over recent years.
– Militants often utilise kidnappings, mutilations and forced conversions to terrorise vulnerable villages
– Considerable political, social, and economic problems enable the group’s protracted presence in Cameroon
– Chad’s recent withdrawal of its 1,200 soldiers from the Multinational Joint Task Force set up to counter Boko Haram will weaken counterterrorism efforts
Boko Haram attacks in Cameroon have steadily increased in recent years. Most of the attacks since 2017 have been concentrated in Cameroon’s northern departments bordering Nigeria. In an address on January 9, 2019, President Paul Biya proclaimed that Boko Haram had been “pushed outside” Cameroon’s borders, referring to the organisation as a “residual threat”. However, contradicting his claim, Amnesty International research showed that in 2019 alone, at least 275 people were killed and many others were mutilated or kidnapped. At a recent community-convened meeting in the city of Maroua, residents reported over thirty people dead in villages around Mora, Tokombere, Kimani, Kolofata, and Ashigachia.
SECURITY GAPS AND RESPONSES
A complex web of political, economic and security shortcomings enable Boko Haram’s persistent threat in Cameroon. The group’s leadership split in 2015 following a pledge of allegiance to Islamic State. One faction loyal to Abubakar Shekau retained the name Boko Haram (abbrev. JAS), while a splinter group, dubbed Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), formed under Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The faction loyal to Shekau has attracted the majority of Cameroonian extremists.
Villages and towns in Cameroon’s far north, such as Gakara and Tchakamari, have suffered the brunt of insurgent attacks. In Gakara alone, residents claim that they have lost count of the number of times that the group has attacked their village. In Tchakamari, nine people were killed in house fires during a raid on April 18, 2019. These are not uncommon stories for the region. Members of Boko Haram are notorious for kidnapping villagers, looting, forcing conversion of non-Muslims, and mutilating civilians — recently JAS fighters cut off the ears of three women in Gakara village. On top of this litany of crimes, Boko Haram also regularly targets members of the state security service, with six soldiers recently killed when the group attacked a military outpost at Soueram in the Lake Chad area.
In an effort to curb the violence inflicted by the extremists, community vigilante groups have emerged in affected areas. Varying in size and composition, they primarily act to monitor the movement of people coming through their villages and inform relevant authorities of suspicious activity. As community-based structures, these groups are well situated and play a critical role in preventing violent extremist attacks. However, government agencies have been mixed in their support for these groups, sometimes providing logistical support and other times offering little in return for assistance, leaving some members cynical of the security services. Despite their usefulness in providing intelligence and local knowledge, some members of vigilante groups have been accused of collaborating with Boko Haram. For example, locals were reported to have acted as scouts in an attack on a security outpost in Darak, Lake Chad on June 10, 2019, in which 37 people were killed. Additionally, some vigilante members have been alleged to provide operational and economic support to the group, sharing the location of military personnel and providing cover for the sale of plundered livestock and goods.
A lack of security presence, inadequate or misappropriated material support, and a reduction of Cameroonian military operations in Nigeria are the main factors enabling Boko Haram’s protracted presence in Cameroon. The insecurity in far northern Cameroon was recently exacerbated by the withdrawal of troops from troublesome outposts after a string of successful Boko Haram attacks. Despite the military benefits of consolidating its main bases, the pull-back has left local civilian populations considerably more vulnerable to attack. The military’s reluctance to fight in the dark also means that jihadists are virtually free to attack well-researched targets in the evening, rarely being confronted with military intervention. These deficiencies contribute to the feelings of abandonment often expressed by Cameroonians living in affected areas. The lack of material support by the government and allegations of its misappropriation by local authorities or chiefs also lower the morale of communities and vigilante groups.
In terms of regional security, a drop off in bilateral military operations between the Nigerian and Cameroonian militaries in Boko Haram-affected areas of Nigeria has contributed to the accumulation of Boko Haram cells along the border. In looking for more expansive solutions, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a defunct cross-border force from 1998 comprising of troops from Benin, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and (previously) Chad, was reactivated and authorised by the African Union to combat Boko Haram in 2014. Although the military successes of the MNJTF have been mixed, its presence throughout the Lake Chad Basin has bolstered local security efforts.
DETERIORATING SECURITY AND A PRIORITY DEFICIT
The threat of Boko Haram is unlikely to cease in the near future. The sense of abandonment felt by Cameroonians residing in the far north is reportedly palpable. The basic incongruence of Boko Haram hiding and attacking in bushland while soldiers reside and protect more urban regions means that soldiers are often too late to protect civilians or prevent further casualties following attacks. Civilians cannot be protected if fundamental security shortcomings continue. This sentiment was expressed by citizens at protests in Tourou (July 17), Tolkomari (September 11) and Mosaka (November) — protests that, although acknowledged by authorities, led to no outcomes that satisfied protesters.
Community demands are unlikely to be satisfied while there is a lack of media and political focus on the group’s activity. If Boko Haram attacks remain underreported, communities will continue to feel isolated. Law-abiding citizens and even Boko Haram members have been alarmed and intimidated by security service violence, which has included burning villages, looting communities, and using torture. Such actions will not only undermine community trust in the security services but it will also discourage Cameroonian members of Boko Haram from defecting due to fears that they might face torture or execution upon their surrender.
Chad’s recent recall of its regional military mission dedicated to the uprooting of Boko Haram and the consequent removal of its 1,200-strong force will have an adverse effect on Cameroon and neighbouring countries. The MNJTF will now have reduced counter-terrorism capacity and the untimely withdrawal could present serious consequences for the region. Boko Haram cells will now have greater freedom to operate in the Lake Chad region, with the potential for the accumulation of cells in the security void where the MNJTF might have operated prior to Chad’s withdrawal.
The separate territorial crisis in southern Cameroon, driven by Anglophone demands for independence from the Francophone-majority state, is likely to continue sapping government attention and resources from Boko Haram insurgents in the north. The so-called independent state of “Ambazonia” declared independence in September 2017 and since then over 500,000 people have been displaced, pushing Cameroon close to a civil war. In terms of priorities, the Anglophone crisis occupies the lion share of government attention due to its considerable threat to the Biya administration’s authority and the territorial implications of succession. As this dynamic continues to play out, the government will likely endow greater priority to the conflict in the Anglophone regions, as it constitutes a greater existential threat to Yaounde’s authority.
The confluence of these factors — a lack of security force integrity, a deficit of media attention, Chad’s withdrawal from the MNJTF and the territorial crisis — indicates that the threat from Boko Haram is unlikely to cease in the near future.