As Boko Haram’s deadly insurgency spills out of Nigeria’s borders, we sent James Schneider to one of the affected regions – Cameroon’s far north. In the first in our exclusive series, he looks at how Cameroon is fighting back.
Colonel Joseph Nouma, an imposing, yet friendly man in early middle age, stares into the dark, hot night and pauses for a moment. He is standing outside his office on the military base on the outskirts of Maroua, the capital of the Far North Region, from where he leads Cameroon’s fight against Boko Haram. A bat swoops too close for comfort; Nouma doesn’t react. “We were not prepared for the war. It came like that. And so, we had to adapt. We are still in that process of adapting,” he says.
Boko Haram started in Nigeria but is now Cameroon’s problem too. Boko Haram is the nickname given to the Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad. Since pledging allegiance to Daesh (also known as the Islamic State) on 7 March 2015, the group has begun to be referred to in its own and Daesh’s propaganda as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province.
Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic, Salafi Literalist preacher in his early 30s, founded Boko Haram as a radical Islamic sect in 2002. In 2009, Nigerian security forces extrajudicially killed Yusuf, an admirer and would-be emulator of Afghanistan’s Taliban, during a crackdown on his sect.
In 2010, the group bounced back under the more violent leadership of Abubakar Shekau, who had been number three in the organisation. Initially, Boko Haram mainly attacked prisons and police stations and robbed banks. However, over the course of 2011 and 2012, the group became more indiscriminate in its violence with a spate of bombings. From early 2013, the group began to spread into northern Cameroon, as well as some border areas of Chad and Niger. In February, Boko Haram, or splinter group Ansaru, kidnapped French tourists from Cameroon’s Far North Region.
Nigeria remains the centre of Boko Haram activities. However, the histories, peoples and cultures of much of northeastern Nigeria, the three northern regions of Cameroon, parts of western Chad and southeast Niger are deeply linked. Together, they form an area roughly the size of Ghana that, in many ways, has more in common with itself than with the rest of their respective nations.
With Boko Haram’s growth, it was bound to spill over these national, but not civilisational, borders. Over the course of 2014, Chad, whose capital N’Djamena is little more than 30km from Nigeria, and Cameroon were pulled into the fight. In late July, Boko Haram launched one of its most high-profile attacks by kidnapping the traditional ruler of the Cameroonian town of Kolofata and the Deputy Prime Minister’s wife (see pages 18-19). In August 2014, Boko Haram had overrun and declared an emirate in Gwoza, a Local Government Area (LGA) on the Cameroonian border. By now, the jihadists controlled a territory estimated to be the size of Rwanda. Cameroon had to act.
The battle against Boko Haram in Cameroon’s Far North Region, although far away from most of the country, is being given national prominence. Across large streets of the capital Yaoundé – over 1000km south of Maroua, the capital of the Far North – hang banners that read, “The fight against the terrorist group Boko Haram is a national cause.” (Other banners support the president and his wife: “Paul Biya, the wise man of Africa” and “Madame Chantal Biya, woman of compassion and action”.)
Cameroon’s political and military figures are under no illusions about the scale of the task they face. Other countries are helping Cameroon. Still, the country needs “a lot of money”, according to Louis-Paul Motazé, Secretary General to the Office of the Prime Minister.
In August last year, Cameroon’s Rapid Intervention Battalion, known by its French acronym BIR, began Operation Alpha against Boko Haram. BIR’s 2,000 special forces are joined by a further 1,000 regular troops and 600-700 police and gendarmerie in Cameroon’s Far North. This force is tasked with patrolling and protecting the 400km border with Nigeria, disrupting Boko Haram supply chains and targeting the group’s in-country leadership.
According to the military, it has been successful thus far. The Defence Ministry’s head of communications, Lieutenant Colonel Didier Badjeck, claims that Cameroonian forces have killed 2,000 militants. Nouma says around 600 fighters are in Maroua prison. Apart from hideouts in the Mandara Mountains, Boko Haram holds no territory in Cameroon.
This success has come at a cost of 14 soldiers killed in action and 31 wounded in the first five months of 2015.
A weakened Boko Haram hasn’t bred complacency in Operation Alpha. Patrols have been increased, as BIR believe that as Boko Haram loses its conventional capabilities, heavy equipment and territory, it will revert to irregular warfare.
Nlate Ebale, a BIR major, told New African that BIR is now focusing on preventing Boko Haram’s “infiltration [of Cameroonian territory] and [attacks on] specific targets”.
The BIR is targeted in its operations too. Not only do they try to capture Boko Haram leaders and recruiters through using their intelligence network, they now also target them on the battlefield. The average age of Boko Haram’s fighting force keeps dropping. Now, the majority of fighters are teenagers. In battle, Boko Haram tends to have only a small number of older fighters coordinating the militants. They are identifiable by their walkie-talkies or satellite phones. So, BIR developed an 8-week sniper course. Now, BIR aims to pick off the older leaders at the start of any engagement. This strategy has exposed Boko Haram’s battlefield reliance on young, often poorly trained teenage fighters.
Now, the Mandara Mountains – a range that straddles and forms the border between part of Nigeria’s Adawama and Borno States with Cameroon’s Far North – is the last refuge for many Boko Haram fighters in Cameroon. Nouma explains “many fighters…hide in the mountains.” The Mountains are a challenging territory for outsiders to operate in. The communities that live there have a more than 500-year history of resisting control by or meaningful integration into larger surrounding polities. So, BIR has to be careful. “It will take us time to clear everything. We are doing it step by step,” explains Nouma.
Despite Boko Haram presence in the Mandara Mountains, the group’s ideology wins little support there. Although surrounded by Islam for hundreds of years, the mountains remain mainly non-Muslim. Dieudonne Yves Bea-Hob, a BIR captain, describes the Mountains as “a natural obstacle to Boko Haram”. Further north, he adds, the terrain is flat and the population is more Kanuri – the largest ethnic group among Boko Haram fighters.
BIR is trying to win the confidence of the population so that people can return to their villages. In the worst affected areas, “there is nobody in many villages,” according to Ebale. “They are afraid to go there because in the past they have seen many people being slaughtered,” he explains. Nouma says he wants the population to “start having a normal life like it was before.” For that to happen, he says BIR has to do more than provide security.
BIR organised “two major health campaigns,” in May, according to Ebale. The troops also “distribute bibles as well as Qurans because we want people to understand that it’s not a fight by Muslims against Christians but it is the fight of Cameroonians against terror,” he continues.
Having the population on side also brings military benefits. “We focus on civil and military cooperation because the population is the heart of our operation. Without cooperation we are blind, we cannot see, we cannot move, we cannot do anything, we cannot target influential members of Boko Haram,” says Ebale.
Photo by Ben Kilb
Cameroon’s military has a number of international partners as well as local populations. Operation Alpha “cooperates deeply with American troops…[and] is advised by Israeli officers,” according to Nouma. France also assists with intelligence via its base in Chad’s capital. BIR receives equipment or training from Germany, China and Russia.
This international cooperation appears to be having the desired effect. BIR troops on a patrol New African rode with seemed disciplined, knowledgeable and well equipped.
Mercenaries, notably from South Africa, have supported Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram. Badjeck says Cameroon does not desire this kind of assistance. “Privatised war…doesn’t exist in Cameroon,” he says.
Relations with Chad are particularly close. In Fotokol, a Cameroonian village that is just 300 metres across a river from the Nigerian town Gambaru, BIR and Chadian troops live together on the same base, share meals and conduct patrols together, according to Nouma. Badjeck says the government “appreciates Chad’s support”.
Ebale is quick to praise this support from friendly nations, saying BIR “relies deeply on US cooperation” and that the “decisive involvement of friendly nations – Chad and Niger – has been invaluable”. One country is notable by its absence: Nigeria.
Relations between Nigeria and Cameroon seem strained. Badjeck says they are “more cordial than you might think” and that there are meetings at the Army Chief of Staff level. However, Nouma, who leads Cameroon’s campaign against Boko Haram, says that relations with Nigerian troops are “informal” and only take place “at the low level: company commander, battalion commander or on the field.” Ebale echoes his boss saying that when they come across a Nigerian officer, they try and coordinate with him and exchange information but this only takes place “on the field, from time to time,” rather than in any organised, formal manner.
This lack of cooperation between Nigeria and Cameroon is due to the “political situation”, according to Nouma, referencing the disputed Bakassi peninsula. As a result, Cameroonian troops may not enter Nigeria, even in hot pursuit. Nigerian troops cannot enter Cameroon either. Nigerien and Chadian forces operate in Nigeria, and Chadian troops operate in Cameroon.
This lack of cooperation and the Nigerian attitude towards Cameroon clearly exasperates BIR. One officer grumbles, “[Nigeria] used to call us “small Cameroon”. How has “small Cameroon” – and not Nigeria – been able to fight Boko Haram?”
BIR is hopeful for change under Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari but it isn’t getting ahead of itself. Nouma notes that during the Nigerian election campaign, Buhari “announced he would not accept [foreign troops on Nigerian soil].” The colonel wants Buhari “to accept the presence of foreign military in his country to help to fight Boko Haram”.
Nouma wants to see coordination at the highest levels between the two nations. This, he argues, would significantly strengthen the fight against Boko Haram.
The BIR officers are concerned that with Chadian withdrawal from areas of Nigeria they have retaken from Boko Haram, the jihadists may move back in and further threaten Cameroon’s border.
To compensate for the lack of intelligence sharing with Nigeria and BIR’s inability to cross the border, Nouma and his men have developed an extensive intelligence network. “We are using a lot of human intelligence. We have some Cameroonians we sent into Nigeria…We have developed an intelligence network in the Nigerian border area, around 10-20km inside Nigerian territory,” he explains.
BIR also have “a few drones” for surveillance. They use these to gather intelligence from over the border but they are careful to not stray too far into Nigeria, according to Nouma.
More than military
Although Boko Haram appear to be on the back foot following four months of concerted action against them, the threat continues. In Buhari’s first month as president, the militants reportedly killed 500 people. As the jihadists have shown in the past, Boko Haram is capable of shifting tactics and strategy.
Since February, Boko Haram has fielded no heavy machinery in battles against Cameroonian forces, according to Ebale. The jihadis have reverted to terror and asymmetrical warfare. Cameroon faces Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) on its territory for the first time.
Photo by Ben Kilb
BIR believes that, perhaps ironically, it was Boko Haram’s inability to continue to hold territory rather than its ability to do so that led to it pledging allegiance to Daesh. It was a sign that Boko Haram is weak, according to Nouma. The pledge of allegiance does not seem to have led to a marked increased ability to recruit or of equipment available to the group. Rather, it appears that their capabilities have decreased, or they have tactically withdrawn, “waiting for the right moment to re-emerge,” suggests Nouma. In some respects, the pledge of allegiance is a sign of partial victory by Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria.
Despite gaining the upper hand, BIR believes this battle will be a long one. Boko Haram will not disappear “in the coming weeks, coming years,” laments Nouma. “They never die so easily,” he argues, pointing to the example of Islamist militants in Mali.
Indeed, Nouma knows that the war against Boko Haram “can’t be won in classic military terms.” Regardless of the training, equipment, international support and hopefully greater intelligence sharing and cross-border cooperation, “the military alone cannot defeat Boko Haram,” he argues.
The military man argues that they alone will not succeed. They need governance, cultural change, economic development, educational advances and social progress too. BIR can only protect the nation and create space for those other elements to take place. Nouma says, “This will certainly take time.”
This article is part of a five part series on Cameroon’s battle against Boko Haram, written by New African senior correspondent James Schneider. For the other articles in the series, click the links below.