Cameroon: Confronting Boko Haram
Cameroon’s military campaign against the Boko Haram insurgency started late but has met with partial success. To consolidate gains and bring lasting peace to the Far North, the government must now shift to long-term socioeconomic development, countering religious radicalism and reinforcing public services.
For the last two-and-a-half years, Cameroon has confronted the insurgents of the Nigeria-born group Boko Haram. The conflict has already caused 1,500 deaths, and led to 155,000 displaced persons and 73,000 refugees. Although the first attacks occurred in March 2014, the jihadist group’s presence in Cameroon’s Far North region dates back to at least 2011. It has benefited from a network of local collaborators and has exploited vulnerabilities that the region shares with north-eastern Nigeria. While the first eighteen months of conflict were characterised by conventional warfare, the group has now switched to an asymmetric mode of attack. The Cameroonian government’s focus on a military response has been partly successful, but the structural problems that allowed this threat to arise have not been addressed. The fight against Boko Haram requires adapting and improving security structures, and long-term crisis resolution policies that will prevent a revival of this threat in a different form, and stop insecurity in the region reigniting.
The Far North is the poorest of Cameroon’s regions and has the lowest school enrolment rate. A combination of weak national integration and historic neglect by the state have for many years contributed to violence and the presence of smugglers in the region, with a proliferation of highway robbers, traffickers and petty criminals. It was vulnerable to this jihadist insurrection due to geographical and cultural overlap with north-eastern Nigeria, the presence of an intolerant version of Islam and the repercussions of the Chadian civil wars.
Boko Haram has exploited these vulnerabilities to make the Far North a logistics base, a safe haven and a source of recruitment. The group has particularly gathered support among disaffected youth in districts adjacent to Nigeria through the use of ideological indoctrination, socio-economic incentives and coercion. Cameroonian security forces, starting in 2013, dismantled hidden weapon stockpiles and arrested Boko Haram leaders, pushing the group to threaten and eventually attack Cameroon directly. In the last two-and-a-half years, the Far North region has experienced at least 460 attacks and about 50 suicide bombings.
Cameroon’s government was slow to react against the Boko Haram menace, due to historic tensions with Nigeria, an aversion to intervening in what it perceived as its neighbour’s internal problem, and a fear of becoming a target. Despite these early lapses, the government was later able to put in place an effective military response. This response disrupted the group and guided the reaction of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), the sub-regional task force with which Cameroon was reluctant to associate at first. Nonetheless, the weak point of the Cameroonian response remains the lack of commitment to development initiatives and the absence of counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation programs. Indeed, some measures adopted after the Maroua attacks in July 2015, such as the ban on full-face veils, the closing of the border, restrictions on motorcycle-taxis, and abuses by the military could radicalise a portion of the population, including women, and have already accentuated socio-economic vulnerabilities for many young people, leading some to join Boko Haram.
Despite the geographical distance, the war against Boko Haram has not only impacted the Far North. The conflict has reinforced President Paul Biya’s leadership and boosted the legitimacy of the nation’s defence forces with parts of the population. The war has nonetheless had a negative effect on the country’s economy and has created ethnic and social cleavages, as seen in the stigmatisation of the Kanuri people in the Far North, often indiscriminately associated with the jihadist group. More generally, the conflict highlights a deficit of representation; the gerontocratic political elite is increasingly challenged by a very young population, although without fundamentally threatening the legitimacy of the state.
The fight against Boko Haram is a test for security cooperation and sub-regional solidarity. The intervention by Chadian armed forces both in Cameroon, and, alongside forces from Niger, in Nigeria has reduced the group’s conventional military capacities. Despite some mistrust, the countries in the region have been able to establish the MNJTF and Nigeria finally accepted that Cameroon may intervene on its territory. This new multilateral force has slowed down the frequency of suicide attacks in Cameroon and is currently engaged against a dissident faction of the group in the Lake Chad Basin. However, the MNJTF lacks funding and logistical resources.
In order to consolidate military gains against Boko Haram and bring back lasting peace in the Far North, Cameroon’s government must shift from a security-based approach to focus on socio-economic development and countering religious radicalism. Due to heavy losses during confrontations with the Cameroonian army, Boko Haram has concentrated most of its efforts for the last three months in the Cameroonian areas of the Lake Chad Basin (Darak and Hile Alifa), where it controls part of the fishing economy and illicit trafficking and continues to stage suicide attacks. This shift in Boko Haram’s centre of gravity calls for a reinforcement of the security package around Lake Chad, as well as measures to counter the group’s financing in that area. A long-term solution should see the return of the state, which would build on the role of civil society and the youth, as well as local elites and external partners to rebuild public services in a long-neglected region.
To encourage development in the Far North, combat religious radicalism and reinforce state presence and public services
To the government of Cameroon:
Elaborate a development and economic relaunch program in the Far North by, as a priority: Improving assistance to internally displaced persons and victims of Boko Haram, as well as education opportunities and health infrastructure; Reopening the Cameroon-Nigeria border for heavy goods vehicles and traders, with security provided by military escorts, restoring and developing the road network and launching high labour-intensity construction projects; and Ensuring transparency and good governance of projects initiated in the Far North, in partnership with local populations, including youth and representatives of different ethnic communities.
To finance this program, allocate to the region a share of the budget of the triennial emergency plan and of the public investment budget proportionate to its demographic weight (one sixth of the national population), and coordinate with countries of the Lake Chad Basin to ask for support from donors.
Create a program of awareness raising against religious radicalism, and a program of de-radicalisation in prisons.
Encourage the security services and judiciary to distinguish among members of Boko Haram taking account of the seriousness of their crimes and their level of involvement in Boko Haram, understanding that categories can overlap; ensure that suspects and detainees are treated fairly and in accordance with international law; and support the creation of a “restorative justice” program, including a social reintegration component, for forced recruits, and informants and low-level logisticians, not suspected of serious human rights abuses.
Arrange an official visit of the president, leaders of the opposition and civil society, to the departments of the Far North targeted by Boko Haram, and organise the next 20 May national parade in Maroua. This visit will be an opportunity to launch a social cohesion and intercommunal reinforcement program to counter the stigmatisation of communities perceived as being Boko Haram sympathisers. To civil society, elected and traditional chiefs of the Far North:
Adopt a collective and inclusive approach to raising awareness on religious radicalism, including by taking into account cultural, gender and social particularities, and emphasising the need for dialogue tolerance and openness within families and communities and in public spaces such as quranic schools, mosques, markets and prisons. To countries of the sub-region:
Elaborate a medium-term development strategy for the Lake Chad Basin, coordinated with the Cameroonian development plan for the Far North and ask for support from donors for financing such plans. To Cameroon’s donors:
Encourage the government’s development projects in the Far North and coordinated initiatives in the sub-region for the development of the Lake Chad Basin by guaranteeing 50 per cent financing, assuming suitable guarantees of the proper use of funds. To improve the security response to the Boko Haram threat
To the government of Cameroon:
Cut off Boko Haram funding sources while closely monitoring the livestock market in the Far North and economic activity in the Lake Chad region.
Block Boko Haram recruitment: By improving cooperation between the Cameroonian armed forces and the local population. This can be achieved through civil-military operations and eradicating human rights violations perpetrated by security forces, notably by consistently sanctioning wrongdoers; By lifting, on a case by case basis, restrictions which currently affect economic activity such as that on motorcycles; and By putting in place a more efficient communication strategy through drawing on and supporting community-based radio stations, through the creation of awareness-raising shows on national channels, aired in local languages in the Far North, and through countering the promotion of violent radicalism on social networks.
Adapt security structures to respond to recent changes within Boko Haram, and improve the strategy against suicide attacks, via collaboration with local population and reinforced forward-looking intelligence.
Ensure better coordination between the three military operations in the Far North, including through the Multinational Joint Task Force, and reinforce cooperation with Nigeria and the other countries in the Lake Chad Basin.
Limit the usage of vigilante groups, and progressively demobilise them if Boko Haram continues to weaken.
Plan for the progressive return of better-equipped police and gendarmerie units along Cameroonian borders if Boko Haram continues to weaken. To Cameroon’s donors:
Co-finance the preparing of the Multinational Joint Task Force for operations, adding an important component of training about human rights in wartime, while possibly making funding conditional on respect for human rights by armies of the region.