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Q&A: Boko Haram in Cameroon
Q&A: Boko Haram in Cameroon
What Would Make A Woman Go Back To Boko Haram? Despair
What Would Make A Woman Go Back To Boko Haram? Despair
Interview / Africa

Q&A: Boko Haram in Cameroon

Originally published in Sustainable Security

In May 2014, Cameroon declared war on Boko Haram at the Paris Summit. Since then, Boko Haram has intensified its activities in the Far North Region of the country, making Cameroon the second most targeted country, in terms of attacks, by the sect. Hans De Marie Heungoup, Cameroon analyst at the International Crisis Group, provides insights on the rise of Boko Haram in Cameroon, the stakes for the country and efforts made by the Government to overcome the jihadist organisation.

How would you describe the rise of Boko Haram in Cameroon?

The penetration of Boko Haram in Cameroon took place gradually and in several phases. At each phase, the group has been able to change its modus operandi and adapt to the response of Cameroonian defence forces. While the first frontal attack of Boko Haram against Cameroon dates back to March 2014, the presence of members of the sect in the Far North was signaled as far back as 2009. In fact, in July 2009, after clashes between Boko Haram militants and security forces at Maiduguri in which more than 800 members of the sect were killed, including the founder Mohamed Yusuf, several members of Boko Haram found refuge in and/or transited through the Far North of Cameroon. But up until then, Cameroon had shown only little interest in the Islamist group.

Boko Haram’s interest in Cameroon grew between 2011 and 2013. This is an interesting phase because it is during this period that Boko Haram started spreading its religious ideology, mainly in the Logone and Chari and Mayo Sava divisions of the Far North, recruiting Cameroonians as fighters and using this part of the territory as a rear base or safe haven. Specifically, from 2011, in addition to seeking refuge on Cameroonian territory after attacks in Nigeria, members of Boko Haram regularly bought foodstuffs on different markets in the Far North. They also infiltrated former networks involved in trafficking, smuggling of motorbikes, adulterated fuel (zoua-zoua) and Tramol (drug) in the far north. It was also between 2011 and 2013 that they established most of their networks of arms caches on Cameroonian territory, with Kousseri serving as their logistics base. At the same time, like Chad, the Far North of Cameroon served as transit points for weapons bought by Boko Haram from Libya and Sudan. Fotokol in Cameroon has been one of the entry points of these arms into Nigeria.

While until 2012 the presence of Boko Haram in the Far North was rather passive and unknown to the public, despite a few targeted killings and abductions of Cameroonians in the Mayo Sava and Logone and Chari divisions, the practice of kidnapping of foreigners, adopted from February 2013, marks a shift by Boko Haram to a more active approach on Cameroonian soil. Between 2013 and 2014, the jihadist group abducted 22 foreigners (French, Chinese, Canadians and Italians) in Cameroon and released them each time after the payment of ransoms the total amount of which was at least $11 million and the release of about forty of its members detained in Cameroon. In 2014, Boko Haram moved from the active approach to a frontal approach with attacks on police stations and military bases. Thus, from March 2014 to March 2016, Boko Haram carried out more than 400 attacks and incursions in Cameroon, as well as about fifty suicide bombings that left 92 members of security forces dead, injured more than 120 others and  killed more than 1350 civilians.

Over the last two years, Boko Haram has been able to alternate between low-intensity attacks requiring only about ten fighters on motorbikes and conventional attacks that can mobilise more than 1000 fighters, as well as armored vehicles and mortars. Up to now, the abduction of the Vice-Prime Minister’s wife in July 2014, the thirty or so conventional attacks on Fotokol, Amchide and Kolofata in 2014 and 2015, as well as a series of suicide attacks that hit Maroua in July and August 2015 are the most spectacular actions carried out by Boko Haram in Cameroon.

After this peak period, Boko Haram, whose firepower was at its best between July 2014 and March 2015 when it also controlled more than 30 000 square kilometers of territory in northeast Nigeria, gradually declined from January 2015 following renewed engagement of the Nigerian army ahead of the presidential election, and then the coming to power of Muhammadu Buhari who overhauled the apparatus to fight Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Furthermore, the engagement of Chadian and Cameroonian troops, who inflicted huge losses and setbacks on Boko Haram, significantly weakened the group to the extent that, for the past nine months, it has not been able to carry out any conventional attacks in Cameroon and has lost most of the territories that it was holding in Nigeria (Cameroonian troops declare that they have killed more than 1500 members of Boko Haram in fights and arrested more than 900 suspected members. The Islamist group has also suffered huge logistical losses). Conscious of the new power balance, the jihadist organisation has resorted to purely asymmetric warfare, giving preference to suicide bombings and low-intensity attacks. From July 2015 to March 2016, Boko Haram carried out more than 50 suicide attacks in Cameroon, killing more than 230 people and wounding 500 others. This war has had an adverse effect on the economy of the Far North of Cameroon which was already the poorest and the region with the lowest school enrolment rate in the country before the war. It also led to an influx of 65 000 Nigerian refugees to Cameroon and caused the internal displacement of more than 93 000 people.

Why did Boko Haram start attacking Cameroon?

Boko Haram started launching a frontal attack on Cameroon because the Government strengthened the security apparatus in the Far North and dismantled about ten arms caches of the sect, as well as corridors for the transit of weapons. In fact, Cameroonian authorities were in an increasingly untenable situation at the beginning of 2014. Despite the head-in-the-sand policy adopted at the beginning which consisted of turning a blind eye on the presence of Boko Haram members in the Far North in the hope that they would not take on Cameroon, the sect continued to abduct foreigners and Cameroonians. Moreover, the Nigerian Government and press accused Cameroon of serving as a rear base and support for Boko Haram. Faced with such pressures and following the abduction of ten Chinese nationals at Waza, the only rational option for Cameroon was to declare war on the sect. Of course, once war was declared in May 2014, Boko Haram, in turn, increased its attacks in Cameroon to the extent that the country became the second major target of the Islamist group.

How effective are the Cameroonian government’s counterinsurgency efforts?

To combat Boko Haram, Cameroon has deployed two military operations, namely Operation EMERGENCE 4 made up of units of the regular army and Operation ALPHA comprising of units of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), the elite corps of the Cameroonian army. In addition to these operations, we have the multinational joint task force whose first military sector is based in Mora and comprises of 2450 Cameroonian troops. On the whole, about 7000 men have been deployed by Cameroonian defence forces in both operations they and the regional joint task force have efficiently warded off conventional attacks by Boko Haram. However, Cameroonian troops find it more difficult to thwart suicide bombings.

Moreover, the weakness of Cameroon’s response against Boko Haram is the absence of a policy and measures to combat radicalization and a program for de-radicalization. Similarly, given that this region is the poorest and has the lowest school enrolment rate in the country, and that these factors have facilitated recruitment and indoctrination by Boko Haram, the Government’s response on the socioeconomic development level in the Far North is still fragmented, poor and ill-adapted to the stakes.

How do you analyse the state of the regional cooperation against Boko Haram?

To address the threat posed by Boko Haram, the states in the region (Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin) under the aegis of the Lake Chad Basin Commission set up a multinational joint task force. The regional task force has been slow to put in place, but after several delays, the multinational task force was set up and only finally went operational later in 2015. However, the multinational force is witnessing financial and logistical difficulties that are affecting its full operationalisation and few donors have so far delivered on their pledges. As such, only the first sector of the force is operational as of now.

The other specificity of the regional response is that it has assumed more of a bilateral rather than multilateral orientation: like the military cooperation between Chad and Nigeria or Nigeria and Cameroon that, despite the bottlenecks recorded at the beginning, has improved significantly over recent months to the extent that the right of hot pursuit is now a reality. However, the major shortcoming of this regional response is that it focuses on military aspects. No serious brainstorming is done on development issues and the fight against radicalization at the regional level. In the same light, no reflection has been initiated on the ways to end this crisis now that Boko Haram is weakened.

What do you see as the future of Boko Haram in the region and what will this mean for counterinsurgency efforts?

The most likely scenario, in my view, is that Boko Haram will become a sort of criminal network with several small independent leaders. This network will comprise of fake religious leaders, real traffickers and criminals and remain in the area for several years until the states of the region resolve to adopt an African Marshall plan to boost trans-regional development: that will require investestment in social sectors such as schools, health centers; and development of high intensity labor force projects in the region to sustain fishing and agriculture around Lake Chad, to support the local industrial sector and build roads between and within provinces of the area. All these should be accompanied by a de-radicalization and counter radicalization project at the transregional level.

Op-Ed / Africa

What Would Make A Woman Go Back To Boko Haram? Despair

Originally published in The Guardian

In northeastern Nigeria, the militant group exploits a broken social system. There are lessons here for the rest of the world.

Zahra and Amina seem like lucky survivors of the scourge of northeastern Nigeria, the jihadist movement known as Boko Haram. Both were wives of fighters. Zahra escaped by agreeing to detonate an explosive vest that the militants strapped to her. After walking miles to her intended target, a government checkpoint, she turned herself over to soldiers. Amina fled with her three children after her husband was killed in battle.

Today, both women live in a camp for survivors of the conflict in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. When I met them on a recent research trip to the city, the last thing I expected to hear was that they wanted to rejoin the insurgents. Conventional thinking and security policies that aim to dissuade women from extremist groups tend to focus on ideology, presuming that only brainwashing could compel them to voluntarily join radical, violent militias. But here in the northeast, some women have largely been compelled to affiliate with Boko Haram by social and political conditions. Perversely, the group offers them respite from insecurity and the limited opportunities afforded them in a deeply patriarchal society riven by poor governance.

Zahra and Amina say that when they were with the militants, life was harsh and uncertain, but they had enough to eat. As voluntary wives of fighters, they were protected from sexual predation. They attended religion classes, the first formal schooling many had ever received, and their children went to school, learning literacy and religion. There were courts where women could report abusive husbands. In contrast, in their now emancipated lives in the camp, they often go hungry. There is little chance to work to buy more food, and shortages have contributed to sexual exploitation by the security forces who guard them. “Most Boko Haram women regret coming here, because life is just so hard,” says Amina.

These two women are just one small part of a massive humanitarian and security crisis that has been unfolding across the Lake Chad basin – the area where Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon meet – since 2014. Overshadowed by the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the scale of humanitarian disaster in the region is nevertheless vast: more than 2.4 million people displaced, 5 million in need of food and shelter, and half a million children at famine levels of malnourishment.

While the Boko Haram insurgency may not directly affect the west – it doesn’t contribute to migration flows and the militants are not involved in attacks in Europe – the experiences of Boko Haram women carry wide implications for our understanding of why people join such movements. While the group, like many others that self-identify as “jihadist”, deploys ideological rhetoric to promote its political goals, it is the deprived and fractious context in which it operates that best explains its appeal – especially to women.

Azadeh Moaveni (right) interviews a woman in northeastern Nigeria. CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Zahra and Amina, like many women in the northeast, joined the militants by choice. They left by choice, too – unwilling to marry other fighters appointed by the group after their own husbands had died. Their stories challenge the dominant narrative around Boko Haram, shaped by the global outcry over the Chibok schoolgirls’ kidnapping, which holds that women only join by force, and that, similarly, only those who were abducted can be regarded as genuine victims. Returning from Nigeria, I met a group of Swiss women who regularly spend their holidays doing freelance volunteer work with female victims of Boko Haram. “We only help the ones who were kidnapped,” one pointedly told me.

But the circumstances that propel women such as Zahra and Amina into and out of Boko Haram show the limits of the neat categories of victim and perpetrator. In the early days of the insurgency, many women found the movement appealing because it offered alternatives to the patriarchy endorsed by their conservative families. The group’s leaders supported lower dowries, which meant more young women could choose husbands from among their peers, rather than the greying, financially secure men they would be traditionally compelled to marry. And while the militants were only able to provide for them so generously by looting and pillaging, some women felt the Nigerian state’s corruption justified these abuses. Life in the forest felt freer and more dignified than living in the dust of an internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp, dependent on international aid groups for a meal a day.

While ending the insurgency and countering the militants’ appeal is obviously vital, it is also essential to recognise what precisely has guided women to join the militants in the first place.

Even now, Zahra’s and Amina’s thinking about the group – their belief that returning to the militants would improve their lives – is mostly a calculus of immediate survival. Dalori II, the camp where they live, like most in the city, is chronically short on food, and across satellite camps in the region groups such as Amnesty International have documented an epidemic of rape and sexual exploitation. Some progress has been made to curtail these abuses, and humanitarian groups have tried to adjust food distribution practices to blunt the potential for abuse, but this has only changed the dynamic of the exploitation. “You have to become a harlot to stay in the camps,” says Amina.

One reason Zahra says she was glad to leave the militants was because she saw that their blind rejection of teaching in English was harming her children: “It does not benefit them to stay home. It’s better for them to learn.” She assumed that in Maiduguri, her kids would be able to attend school. But camp managers in Dalori II dismantled the one school on its premises, claiming it was no longer needed since people would be returning to their villages. But nobody has gone home, and now there is no school.

The northeast Nigerian state of Borno is now a vast patchwork of towns and villages with few men, a whole sub-society of single mothers trying to cope as breadwinners in areas with collapsed economies without their husbands’ protection and support. Some reintegration programmes offer skills training, but embroidering and selling a cap a month neither enables a woman to feed three children nor does it protect her from rape after dark. Plus, some international groups devote funds and attention to what they call “countering extremism”, with extremism often conceived in an amorphous way that views ideology, rather than a complex patchwork of political grievance and social frustrations, as a root cause of the violence.

While ending the insurgency and countering the militants’ appeal is obviously vital, it is also essential to recognise what precisely has guided women to join the militants in the first place. This has wider implications for the whole of the northeast, not just displaced women in the camps, or former Boko Haram women, but all women, who are trying to cope with conditions so impoverished and limiting that, sometimes, joining a militant group appears to offer a way out.