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Boko Haram: Cameroon must shift from military to development approach
Boko Haram: Cameroon must shift from military to development approach
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
Op-Ed / Africa

Boko Haram: Cameroon must shift from military to development approach

Originally published in The Mail and Guardian

Worldwide indignation has been spurred on by the actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria — from the 2011 bombings of the United Nations headquarters in the capital Abuja to the kidnapping of the 276 Chibok schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria in April 2014.

But, as a report by the International Crisis Group published this month details, not nearly enough attention has been paid to the damage inflicted by the jihadist group in neighbouring countries, particularly Cameroon’s far North.

The report shows that Boko Haram’s presence dates back to at least 2009, when the jihadi group crossed Cameroon’s border after the Maiduguri crackdown and started settling sleeping cells, caches of weapons and using the Far North region as a refuge for its logisticians. Far North traditional chiefs and people in Kolofata, Kousseri and Fotokol said: “We knew all that. Every time we alerted our local authorities they did not consider that seriously.”

Boko Haram’s long incubation is the result of the area’s structural vulnerability

Boko Haram’s long incubation is the result of the area’s structural vulnerability, underpinned by the deep geographic, socioeconomic, religious and cultural ties between North-East Nigeria and Far North Cameroon. The region is the country’s poorest, with the lowest levels of education and public service provision. These characteristics have allowed Boko Haram to recruit between 3 500 and 4 000 disaffected Cameroonian youth since 2011 through coercion, religious indoctrination, socioeconomic incentives and the promise of a rise in the social hierarchy, including through marriage.

When the Cameroonian army targeted Boko Haram’s remote rear bases, it responded with full frontal assaults from March 2014 to June 2015. Since then the Far North has experienced at least 460 attacks, causing around 1 500 deaths. The terror group’s bold military strategy and heavyweight arsenal surprised many. The group attacked multiple targets at once, with up to 1 000 combatants and even managed to briefly hoist their flag in towns near the Nigerian border, including Kerawa, Achigachia and Balochi.

In one instance, at 5am on July 27 2014 the residents of Kolofata in the district of Mayo-Sava in Cameroon’s Far North awoke to the sound of gunshots. Two simultaneous attacks by Boko Haram were underway. The attackers kidnapped numerous people, including the town’s mayor and his wife, as well as the Cameroonian vice-prime minister’s wife and 14 members of his family. Eleven civilians and two police officers were killed, their bodies left in the streets.

For the moment, the Boko Haram threat is contained, but it has not gone away.

The government initially reacted slowly. But following the rise in attacks, anti-terrorist laws were adopted and new military operations started. A ban on burqas, closures of borders, restrictions on motorcycles, bar curfews, and occasional police brutality have put strain on the population and have sometimes caused further radicalisation.

In 2014, army commanders were replaced with new local officers, new military bases were placed in strategic border towns and new military operations launched. Although numerous human rights abuses by the security forces have worryingly not been dealt with, these measures have increased security and improved the population’s view of the army.

International military co-operation has also helped in the fight against the militant group. In 2015, Chad bore the brunt of the insurgency as Boko Haram took control of roads through the Far North that are the main supply routes for Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. The Lake Chad Basin’s Multinational Joint Task Force was revived, and Chadian soldiers crossed the border into Cameroon, inflicting some heavy damage on Boko Haram units. Encouraged by local administrations, local vigilante and self-defence groups have also worked in collaboration with the army, manning security checkpoints, neutralising suicide attacks and engaging in direct combat. International partners have also supported the force, led in Cameroon by the United States and France.

The region should receive a fair share of development and investment funding

For the moment, the Boko Haram threat is contained, but it has not gone away, nor has its effect on people been dealt with. Any assistance provided to the traumatised population should build on existing community cohesion and avoid stigmatisation of any groups.

Awareness should be raised regarding religious radicalism while strengthening dialogue on tolerance and religious openness within families and communities.

Former Boko Haram members should receive a punishment relative to the degree of their involvement. At present a large number of Boko Haram suspects are in jail with little prospect of a trial.

Informants and low-level logisticians not suspected of being involved in serious human rights abuses could usefully receive restorative justice focused on social reintegration. Ideological leaders and resolute Boko Haram fighters must receive a more punitive justice. Distinguishing between the two and accelerating judicial action is critical to halting resentment building in the country’s overcrowded prisons.

To build long-term resilience among people living in the Far North, the region should receive a fair share of development and investment funding.

Providing legitimate opportunities for young people, reopening trade routes and promoting economic activity is key to shifting from a security-based approach to a development-focused strategy. This is vital to bringing back sustainable peace to the troubled region. —International Crisis Group

The International Crisis Group is an independent organisation working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world


Project Director, Sahel (Interim)
Senior Analyst, Central Africa
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Antoine Preel-Dumas
Intern, Central Africa
Podcast / Africa

France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Sahel experts Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Richard Moncrieff about France’s announcement it will pull troops from Mali, and what the withdrawal means for the fighting against jihadist insurgents.

On 17 February, President Emmanuel Macron announced he would withdraw all French troops from Mali after a deployment in the country of almost ten years. In early 2013, French forces together with Chadian troops ousted jihadists from cities and towns in northern Mali, which created space for a peace deal between Bamako and other, non-jihadist rebels. Since then, however, the French-led campaign against militants in the Sahel has struggled against local al-Qaeda and Islamic State branches. French operations have killed jihadist leaders, but militants have extended their reach from northern Mali to its centre and to parts of Niger, Burkina Faso and even Gulf of Guinea countries. Inter-ethnic violence has ballooned. Mali has also suffered two coups over the past couple of years. Relations between Paris and the junta currently holding power have deteriorated sharply, partly because Mali’s military leaders had agreed, mid-2021, to the deployment of Russian private military contractors to help fight jihadists. Popular anger toward France’s deployment has also mounted, seemingly partly fuelled by disinformation. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Richard Moncrieff, respectively Crisis Group’s senior Sahel analyst and interim Sahel director, about the French decision, its causes and its implications. They look at the collapse in relations between Bamako and Paris, the direction the junta is currently taking Mali and how other countries in the region have responded. They talk through what the French departure might mean for other forces, including the UN force in Mali and the G5 Sahel regional force. They also examine the repercussions for the balance of force between jihadists and their enemies in the Sahel and ask what a future French presence in the region might look like after the withdrawal from Mali. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

N.B. This episode was recorded before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Sahel regional page. For our analysis of African perspectives of the Ukraine War, check out our commentary ‘The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis’.


Executive Vice President
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Consulting Analyst, Sahel
Project Director, Sahel (Interim)