Cameroon has sharing intelligence with Nigeria and other neighbours in an attempt to thwart the activities of the terrorist group Boko Haram in the north of the country where more than 2,000 innocent lives have been lost to the extremists. But this is but one of Cameroon’s security challenges, as Stephen Williams reports.
Cameroon’s President Paul Biya has spoken of his resolute intent to confront all threats to his country’s security. Speaking in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in June 2014, Biya stated: “My country is well-positioned to fathom the scope of the danger. Threatened from the west by Boko Haram incursions and from the east by the impact of events in the Central African Republic (CAR), it [Cameroon] is currently at the frontline.
“But I would like to point out to brotherly nations that with such an adversary, distance is no guarantee of invulnerability. So I think that what is happening now in Mali, northern Nigeria and Kenya concerns us all. It is high time we stopped the advance of these invaders.”
In response, in early January, Boko Haram released a video that directly addressed President Biya and threatened the state. One of a band of heavily armed men, reading a pre-prepared script warned:
“I advise you to desist from following your constitution and democracy, which is un-Islamic. The only language of peace is to repent and follow Allah, but if you do not then we will communicate it to you through the language of violence.”
In mid-January 2015, suspected Boko Haram fighters launched an early morning attack that targeted the small village of Mabass near Mokolo, and several small settlements in the area, destroying 80 homes and abducting 30 adults and 50 children.
These abductions in Cameroon came just days after Cameroon’s army said it had killed 143 Boko Haram militants who had attacked one of its bases at Kolofata, near the Nigerian border.
Days later, about 24 of the group snatched from Mabass were released as Cameroonian soldiers, aided by a contingent of Chadian soldiers who had come to assist the Cameroon military, gave chase to the fleeing terrorists.
It was as President Biya had characterised the situation: “I would like to highlight the global nature of the threat facing us,” Cameroon’s president had stated. “Those who tried to enslave Mali, those who occasionally fire shots over our nation’s soil, those who are probably behind some of the factions in the Central African Republic, and those who have caused chaos in Somalia, are all pursuing the same goal – to impose their will over the Sahelian belt, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, and to install their obscurantist and ruthless regime. A global threat needs a global response. It must be the international community’s response.”
Nigeria is often thought of by its neighbours as a country that should be able to resolve its domestic security issues by itself, hence co-operation has been poor.
But a Paris summit on 17 May 2014 saw the leaders of Niger, Cameroon, Benin and Chad pledged to share intelligence with Nigeria and co-ordinate their activities against Boko Haram. In terms of Boko Haram posing a regional threat, Cameroon remains Nigeria’s most vulnerable neighbour. Many claim that northern Cameroon serves as a recruiting ground for Boko Haram and that Cameroon has been intimidated into taking a relatively soft stance against the terrorist group. However, both statements by Cameroon’s President Paul Biya and military action taken by Nigeria’s neighbour would seem to put that opinion in serious question.
For not only did Cameroon send air strikes at the end of last year, successfully targeting Boko Haram’s military training camps, but Cameroon joined Chad and Niger to launch a regional response to the cross-border threat that Boko Haram fighters from Nigeria had been posing.
Brutal raids, massacres, suicide bomb attacks and kidnappings by Boko Haram have claimed at least 13,000 lives and driven an estimated 1.5 million people from their homes, mainly in the arid northeast of Nigeria. All four states, whose borders converge at Lake Chad, have formed a military alliance to take on the insurgents, but Cameroon in particular has been critical of what it sees as the Nigerian authorities’ passivity in the face of these brutal insurgents.
According to Human Rights Watch, Boko Haram has abducted more than 500 women and girls since 2009. These abductions have intensified since May 2013 when Nigeria imposed a state of emergency in areas of the country where Boko Haram is most active.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has called Boko Haram activities “a crime against humanity” on the basis of evidence from the towns in northern Nigeria, and northern Cameroon.
In a sign of increasing regional co-ordination against the terrorists, Chad has sent a large number of troops to Cameroon. President Paul Biya said Chad’s President Idriss Deby Itno has sent Chadian armed forces to “help the Cameroonian Armed Forces facing repeated attacks from Boko Haram.”
When in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea in June 2014, President Biya had referred to the crisis situation in the east of the country, along the border with the Central African Republic, he was talking about the surge of refugees fleeing to his country to avoid the fighting there.Over the last year, violence has continued to plague the CAR despite multiple ceasefire agreements and attempts to end the conflict.
Since mid-December ’14, fresh outbreaks of inter-communal violence have broken out across the CAR, prompting thousands of people to flee, many westward across the border to Cameroon.
The UN says the number of refugees entering Cameroon has now reached more than 1,000 a day. The Cameroon Red Cross reports the new refugees generally need urgent assistance as they are increasingly suffering from malnutrition. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are now more than 200,000 refugees from the CAR in Cameroon.
This adds strain to the country’s resources and there is always the danger that among the newcomers will be criminal elements and deserting members of the two militias – Seleka and Anti-Balaka.
Cameroon security forces have been deployed to stop the rebels crossing the border and the CAR’s deadly conflicts spilling over into its territory.