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In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
Crisis Group Yemen Update #3
Crisis Group Yemen Update #3
The local vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup
Our Journeys / Africa

In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon

Two years ago, the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram. Despite some progress, the group’s violent impact is still seen and felt deeply in the remote north of the country. 

In March 2016, Crisis Group Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup travelled for four weeks into an insecure area only few researchers are given access to: Cameroon’s Far North Region. He was escorted three days by the military between the front-line towns of Ldamang, Mabass, Kolofata, Amchidé and Gansé, before he went on to travel alone across the region: to Maroua, the Minawao refugee camp, Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri and Goulfey. During the four weeks he spoke to a wide range of people, including traditional chiefs, local inhabitants and administration staff, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), vigilante groups, local NGOs, humanitarian actors, academics, the military, former Boko Haram members, former traffickers, and others, some in presence of the military but the vast majority on his own. He completed his research in April and May 2016 with additional interviews in Kerawa, Bargaram, Fotokol, Makary, Hile Alifa and Blangoua. Read Crisis Group’s in-depth report on the crisis in the area.

This is the story of his journey.

Cameroon's Far North district. CRISIS GROUP

At 8 o’clock in the morning, I hear seven vehicles stopping in front of my hotel: two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and five four-wheel-drive vehicles. Sitting inside are over forty Cameroonian soldiers, who are here to take seven journalists and me into Cameroon’s Far North district – a region that has severely suffered under Boko Haram, and still does.

I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram.

I am joining this convoy because I want to find out how Boko Haram operates in this area, and how strong it is, two years after the government started to clamp down on the insurgency. I want to see how the people living here are affected, understand if Boko Haram still recruits fighters in the Far North, and hear how large its network of sympathisers remains. And I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram. I am especially curious to learn about the so-called “vigilantes”, local self-defence groups that have gained a certain fame in this Cameroonian war on terror. What can these groups really achieve?

The starting point of our trip is Maroua, a buzzing city of 400,000 inhabitants and capital of the Far North region. The region has never gained the sad notoriety of Nigeria’s Borno state, but it gradually became an important refuge for Boko Haram fighters in the 2000s. And it has suffered immensely under the insurgency over the past years, particularly since 2014 when Boko Haram entered into open confrontation with the Cameroonian government.

The Alpha escort of the BIR in Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The group’s tactics then changed quickly: smaller incursions and occasional kidnappings soon grew into larger raids on towns and villages as well as strategic attacks against the Cameroonian army. In just two years, the insurgency staged more than 500 attacks and incursions, and around fifty suicide bomb attacks in Cameroon, making it the second most targeted country after Nigeria. According to Cameroonian soldiers, they fought fourteen fierce battles in Kolofata, Amchidé, Fotokol and Bargaram in 2014 and 2015 against sometimes hundreds and even up to a thousand heavily equipped Boko Haram fighters from mainly Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.

In total, in two and a half years the insurgents have killed at least 1,300 civilians, 120 soldiers and abducted an estimated thousand people in Cameroon. They have burned down hundreds of schools and businesses and forced thousands to flee. Today, there are over 190,000 internally displaced Cameroonians in the Far North and around 65,000 refugees from neighbouring Nigeria, according to OCHA figures.

Before we leave Maroua, one of the soldiers gives me a helmet and a bullet-proof vest. This will be my outfit for the entire journey, the standard equipment for everyone travelling in this once peaceful area whose broken tracks are now sown with mines and improvised explosive devices (IED). These were laid by Boko Haram to block the government’s way into the territory. More than 50 incidents have been recorded since October 2014, with 22 of the mines killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding many more.

SABC News: "Boko Haram Has Leveled a Threat at Cameroon and its President Paul Biya"

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatens to step up violence in Cameroon. In a video posted online, Shekau threatens the people of Cameroon and its president, Paul Biya. SABC News

I climb into a mine-resistant armoured personnel carrier (APC). But our safety has a price: despite air conditioning it’s over 45 degrees Celsius inside. With sweaty faces, the journalists and I look at each other, suddenly understanding, at least slightly, the physical challenge that the soldiers patrolling the region experience each day.   

Twenty kilometres outside of Maroua the roads become bumpy. And then there are no roads at all. But the driver finds his way toward the north east and after four hours we arrive at Mabass, a village right at the Nigerian frontier. Mabass and the neighbouring towns of Tourou and Ldamang were repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram in 2014 but the insurgents never managed to fully occupy them.

We stop at a rocky plateau overlooking the vast sandy frontier area with Nigeria where the local commander, Captain Ticko Kingue, points at a lake in the distance. “You see the lake over there?” he asks. “That’s the Nigerian town of Madagali. This entire frontier area is plagued by the insurgency. Even last night there were attacks. We cannot go into Nigeria, not here, we’re not allowed to. So what we do is we prevent the insurgents from coming in”.

A soldier belonging to the Emergence 4 Unit deployed at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

It is crucial that the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies cooperate in the fight against Boko Haram. But for a long time, the two country’s historically difficult relations painfully slowed down their military coordination. Today, two years since the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram, there’s still a great need for better exchange of intelligence. But at least cooperation between the two armies has improved significantly within the context of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force – partly operational since November 2015 with the aim of crushing Boko Haram.

Here in Mabass, we are very close to the Nigerian army base near Madagali. “Sometimes they come to us, especially if we can help them with equipment”, says Captain Ticko Kingue. “And they inform us how things are going on their side”.

On the other side of the frontier, most border towns are still held by Boko Haram. “It’s been a long time since they managed to occupy new territory”, Captain Kingue says. “But they keep trying. They usually come in large groups of 200 fighters or more. We call this a ‘combat de masse’. Usually they come at night in a surprise attack. Sometimes they pretend to attack a larger village or town to divert the army’s attention while they try to seize smaller villages”. Although Boko Haram use indiscriminate violence, they also sometimes target these smaller villages to seize supplies or preach to the population, as happened on 15 December 2015 in Kerawa, where Boko Haram members rounded up the population to preach to them for hours in Kanuri, Haoussa and Arabic.

At Poste de Mabass.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with local army commander Kingue at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Boko Haram’s firepower reached its peak between summer 2014 and spring 2015. In the face of Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian military pressure since then, Boko Haram had to change its tactics and appears to be in decline. The jihadist group lost much of the territory it occupied and has much less military equipment than it used to. The army claims it has dismantled most Boko Haram cells in Cameroon, killed about 2,000 members in fighting and arrested more than 1,000 suspects since 2014. Today, Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated. It still goes after smaller targets, and increasingly relies on suicide bombers.

Contrasting with the army’s success stories, a recent Amnesty International report documents severe failings and human rights violations in the Far North counterinsurgency campaign. According to Amnesty International, many of the army’s arrests were arbitrary, the rights of detained suspects were “routinely denied” and they did not receive fair judicial treatment. The Amnesty report has been widely criticised and rejected by the government, the military, civil society and the majority of local media. Crisis Group research raised similar concerns as Amnesty’s, but when speaking to a wide range of people it also found a high degree of local support for army actions in the face of Boko Haram’s bewildering violence.

Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated.

We continue our journey into the Mayo Tsanaga district toward the only refugee camp in the Far North. The camp near the village of Minawao is run by the UNHCR and hosts almost 57,000 people. Most of them are Nigerians from the border areas. More than 190,000 Cameroonians were also displaced, mostly fleeing to other villages and towns of the Far North.

When the camp was built in 2011, living conditions were extremely poor, but that changed, thanks to combined efforts by the UNHCR, other humanitarian agencies and the Cameroonian government. Housing is simple but resembles how people live elsewhere in the Far North. Refugees receive three meals per day, which is more than many ordinary Cameroonians get to eat. Children of all ages can go to school. Nonetheless there is still much room for improvement. The UNHCR claims that not even 10 per cent of the funds needed to care for all refugees have been provided. Because of that, sanitary conditions in the camp are still not up to adequate standards.

A child going to school at Minawao refugee camp. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Another problem is that refugees have nearly no opportunity to work. For security reasons – especially the fear of suicide bombers – refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. The UNHCR is currently trying to come up with social activities to help the fact that many refugees feel condemned to doing nothing.

The psychological burden is hardest on those who came to the camp traumatised by the atrocities they saw or experienced during the insurgency, particularly women and girls who suffered abuses. There are only a couple of psychologists in the camp providing care for the newcomers – not enough to give permanent psychological assistance to the thousands who need it.

Most refugees tell me that they want to return to their homes as soon as the security situation allows it. But nobody can estimate when that will be. Many find it hard to believe that they will be safe again in the near future. One refugee from the Nigerian town of Pulka in Borno state says, “I may have many complaints, but nonetheless we are fine here in Minawao. I won’t go back”.

Our convoy returns to Maroua before night falls. Situated 100 kilometres away from the border, Maroua is out of Boko Haram’s reach and therefore one of the safest places in the Far North. But it too has suffered violent attacks. In July 2015, Boko Haram sent four young girls as suicide bombers to four public places in Maroua. When they blew themselves up, they killed over 37 people with them and wounded 114 others.

Youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes.

My tour with the military over, I meet with one of the survivors, 13 year old Kevin, who tells me what happened on the night of 25 July: “It was night and I was with my friends. We wanted to buy candy from a shop close to the Boucan bar. There was a queue with six or seven people ahead of us. And then suddenly, a girl who was sitting right next to the vendor blew herself up. I remember hearing the detonation of the bomb before I passed out. I only woke up later at Maroua hospital. It was there that I realised that one of my legs was completely burnt. There were lots of small splinters in my belly, chest and neck from the explosion. The government paid for the surgery and I could leave the hospital about a week later, but I wasn’t the same. They had amputated the lower part of my burnt leg and I learnt that one of my friends had died during the attack. My other friend is alive, but they amputated both his legs and his face is burnt. I had never seen the girl who had blown herself up in the neighbourhood before. After we left the hospital, neither the government nor any of the humanitarian NGOs followed up with us on what had happened. A Catholic priest passes by from time to time at our house to speak with my mother and help my parents buy medicine”.

Luckily, the horrors of the attack have not taken away Kevin’s hope for the future. When I ask him if he still goes to school he says: “Yes, I have passed the first trimester. My teachers are very happy with me. When I finish school I want to become an engineer”.

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a victim of a suicide bomb explosion. Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans de Marie Heungoup

65 per cent of Cameroon’s population of 23 million is under 30 years old. Children and youths are the most vulnerable in this war. Many are traumatised by the violence they see or experience at a young age.

At the same time, youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes, like the four girls in Maroua.

Recruitment is helped by the fact that many young people are unemployed, poorly educated, belong to a part of the society that is not well integrated or don’t see a future for themselves for other reasons. Local authorities and traditional chiefs in Maroua as well as in Mokolo and Mora told me that Boko Haram has lost its appeal and capacity to recruit almost entirely. Very few youths are still joining the movement voluntarily. Nonetheless, forced recruitments still continue in the border areas. As Boko Haram indiscriminately killed Muslims and Christians, fundamentalist Muslims distanced themselves from the movement, stating that Boko Haram represents neither Wahhabi nor Salafi Islam. Many Imams and Muslim clerics told me that the war against Boko Haram has actually limited the spread of fundamentalist trends of Islam as hard-line preachers are now afraid to speak up in public. 

The Far North is the poorest of Cameroon’s regions, with 70 per cent of its people living on less than one dollar per day. During the past three decades, the influence of conservative Salafi Islam has increased in the region and many children grow up exposed to radical religious viewpoints. There is an urgent need for the state and public institutions to care for these youths and make sure they do not radicalise in the first place – and if they do radicalise, offer them help to leave the group and be fully re-integrated into society.

Maroua has a big prison, and the vast majority of suspected Boko Haram members arrested in Cameroon, almost 900 of them, are detained here. What is sorely missing is a de-radicalisation program, one that teaches a more tolerant Islam and re-integrates into society those who were recruited by force and are willing to abandon the movement. 

When speaking to the regional administration, I learn that there are also no public counter-radicalisation programs outside of the prison aimed at keeping young people and others away from extremist groups. The only efforts made in this direction come from civil society groups and the churches. Cameroon’s Association for Inter-Faith Dialogue (ACADIR) has set a positive example by organising conferences and meetings that have brought together religious leaders of different strands of Christianity and Islam. But these initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem. They don’t reach those who are the biggest threat to religious dialogue in the Far North: radical Islamist leaders.

If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

If the government is to turn a security-focused approach into a long-term political strategy against radicalisation, there is still much to do. If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

Last year, when the government launched an emergency development plan with a budget of roughly $10 million per year, hardly anyone believed that this could make a big difference. Most experts estimate that the current plan covers only about one per cent of what is needed to significantly improve the situation in the country’s least developed region. With $10 million, you cannot construct a road network in the Far North, develop public services in all areas, like health and education, help business owners get back on their feet, create employment opportunities and pay for preventive programs to keep especially the youth away from radical groups.

It might be possible for Cameroon to find other funding to do the job, but a correct assessment of the needs is necessary. Only then can the government show that it has understood the scope of the problem and can hope for help from its international partners.

Members of the BIR in the Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. PHOTO/Erwan Decherysel

I leave Maroua a second time to go up to the Mayo Sava district. This time, I am picked up by soldiers of the BIR, “Bataillon d’intervention rapide” (rapid intervention force). Of the approximately 8,000 soldiers deployed in the Far North, 2,400 belong to this well-trained and equipped elite unit. They take me to a place that has become a symbol of the war: Amchidé.

We are confronted with the sight of a ghost town. Formerly inhabited by 30,000 people, Amchidé is among the hardest hit places in Cameroon and the stage of three long battles between the army and the insurgents in late 2014 and early 2015.

Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The BIR camp of Amchidé has been baptised “Le Palais” (the Palace), not just because of its palace-like shape but also because it was one of the insurgent’s key strategic targets in Cameroon. Despite a dozen of conventional attacks, including three where Boko Haram mustered 800 insurgents, the city only fell for one day, on 15 October 2014. But the military base never succumbed. 

In Amchide.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with Captain Kiki, commander of the BIR military base of Amchide, Cameroon, in March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The entire population of Amchidé fled during the fighting and only 10 per cent have come back – to an almost dead city. There are no businesses in Amchidé anymore, since the fighting has cut all Amchidé’s supply lines.

Most of those who came back are men, and about 40 of them joined forces to form a vigilante group. These vigilante or community defence groups are nothing new. In many Cameroonian towns and villages, unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency. They are groups of normal citizens – always men – patrolling their villages to make sure everyone is safe, especially at night. 

Members of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

As the Boko Haram threat increased, the government realised how these vigilantes can help in the fight on terror. It provided equipment, such as rifles, torches and night vision gear, and worked with traditional village chiefs who handpicked the most “suitable” men of their village to be part of the vigilante group. Vigilante groups have since played an important role against Boko Haram. They identify strangers they believe could be potential suicide attackers. And sometimes they even fend off smaller Boko Haram attacks. In the past year as well as this year, the Amchidé vigilante group and similar ones in Limani, Kerawa and Tolkomari have been involved in low intensity fights with small groups of about half a dozen Boko Haram fighters. In some cases they were able to surround smaller Boko Haram cells or win a fight against attackers. In other cases, they were not successful – and suffered casualties.

A member of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Although they are praised by the government and local authorities, the vigilante groups are not exempt from criticism. Sometimes, vigilantes have denounced local inhabitants as members of Boko Haram just to settle private accounts. In other cases, vigilantes have been suspected of providing information to Boko Haram and were therefore arrested by the army. 

In the case of Amchidé, the first vigilante group formed by the BIR had only Christian members, who harassed and extorted money from the local Muslim majority. Following complaints, the BIR dissolved Amchidé’s first vigilante group and formed a new one with Christian and Muslim members. 

Unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency.

The last stop of my four weeks’ research trip is Kousseri, an old market town in between the Chari and the Logone rivers. You only have to cross a bridge to reach the metropolis of N’Djamena, capital of neighbouring Chad.

In economic terms, Kousseri is the most important city in the Far North. It has strong links with Chad to the east and Nigeria to the west, especially the Nigerian town of Maiduguri. In the past two years, it has been flooded with Cameroonian IDPs and Chadian refugees. Its population has grown from 200,000 to 280,000. Many of them come from the city of Fotokol, 100 kilometre to the west on the Nigerian border, where Boko Haram caused most casualties suffered in the country during the main phase of the war between May 2014 and March 2015.

For a period of several months in 2014 and 2015, Boko Haram staged almost daily attacks on Fotokol. One especially heavy battle took place in Fotokol in early February 2015. For two days, about 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents were fighting against Cameroonian BIR forces and Chadian soldiers, killing 81 to 400 civilians, seventeen Chadian soldiers, seven Cameroonian soldiers and 300 attackers, according to various reports. 

One woman from Fotokol tells me that Boko Haram killed her husband. Another woman describes how Boko Haram raided the village asking: “Where are the Christians?”. Some IDPs in Kousseri tell me that they feel relatively safe now, but the violence they have seen is hard to forget, and life remains hard for them. They receive only limited support from aid organisations like the World Food Program and no support from the state. They have to find their own housing or stay with friends and relatives. Opportunities for work are scarce and the local economy has suffered from the fighting. Tens of thousands of merchants relied on cross-border trade. When the Nigerian border was closed due to insecurity, many of them were left without work. Aya, who used to own a large shop in Fotokol, lost everything. She tells me: “There is no possible turning back for me and my children. We have been chased from our village, our house was burnt; we have to make our life here in Kousseri”. 

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a displaced family from Fotokol in Kousseri, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

After four weeks in the Far North, when I return to the capital Yaoundé, the main concern resonating in my head is that people cannot imagine that security will be restored soon. The military battle against Boko Haram is ongoing and despite some successes it is far from won. At the same time, the military’s performance is tainted by accusations of human rights violations against the population, including arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances - allegations which the military mostly denies. During our discussion, the spokesman of the Defence Ministry replied to similar claims: “Cameroon’s army is republican and professional. We systematically investigate all human rights abuses cases and sanction. As you should know four soldiers in the Far North have been discharged a few months ago for committing grave acts against the honor of the army”.  

While his claim that all abuses are investigated is clearly an exaggeration, and it is not clear that all sanctions concern Human rights abuses, there has been some progress. Disciplinary measures have been taken against some officers and soldiers  in the Far North, who have been removed from operational assignments to administrative posts or dismissed. Some judicial investigations into rights abuses are underway. 

Still, efforts made are far from sufficient and the defence ministry’s focus on sanctions is too narrow. There are no financial or material compensations for victims of the families of victims that suffered human rights violations. Neither has the military officially apologised. The government should pursue a stricter and proactive sanctions policy against soldiers who committed abuses, publicise its sanctions and put in place measures that can rebuild communities’ confidence. If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency, as parts of the population may radicalise and take the side of the insurgents. At the same time, Western countries might withdraw their support for the army, as happened in Nigeria when there was a rash of human rights abuses by Nigerian army.

If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency. Parts of the population may take the side of the insurgents.

As much as security efforts are crucial to curb the insurgency, Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad also need to shape new policies that can prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups. More and more, the central authorities seem to understand that. At the ministry of defence and at the ministry of external relations, I meet several senior officials who recognise that a sustainable victory is impossible without development in the Far North. But then, they all add “the priority is to defeat Boko Haram militarily first”. Otherwise, the sad example of Chinese development workers who were kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram while building roads in the Far North could be repeated, they say. 

Boko Haram is much weaker today than in 2014. Nonetheless, the government must not delay proving to its population that it cares for its needs, and that it is trying to give those who feel neglected by the state new hope for their future. 

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research. 

IDP camp in Yemen, 2018 CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury

Crisis Group Yemen Update #3

This is Crisis Group’s third weekly update published as part of our Yemen Campaign. The trend we identify in this edition is new hope for a political compromise to end the four-year-old civil war and ease the country’s grave humanitarian crisis.

Trendline: A Shift to the Political in 2019?

After a year of unrelenting military pressure along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, there are some indications that the Saudi-led coalition may be pivoting toward a greater recognition that a political compromise is needed to end the war. Military pressure succeeded in bringing the Huthis to the table, the coalition argues, but a different toolkit will be needed to end the war.

The language marks a shift from the rhetoric of mid-to-late-2018, when United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia officials argued that the only way to end the war in Yemen was by removing the Huthis from Hodeida port and city by military force, sparking fears of a battle for Hodeida that could cut off the flow of some 70 per cent of all goods shipped into the heavily import-dependent country.

Opinion within the coalition is not uniform and not all signals point in this direction. UAE officials express particular concern that Huthi ceasefire violations are wearing down trust and straining the forces it backs on the ground. One UAE official signalled that coalition patience could run out by late March or early April, if the current impasse on mutual redeployments from Hodeida cannot be overcome. Still, the pivot appears to be at least partially credible, and both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seem to have concluded that the Stockholm Agreement serves their interests better than military action in Hodeida – for now.

The shift comes as the result of a combination of factors. International outcry from humanitarian organisations in late 2018 highlighted the risk of famine. The U.S. and other coalition allies increased their scrutiny of Saudi behaviour after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul in early October. And UN negotiations in Sweden reached a deal that served the coalition’s primary objective in Hodeida of removing it from direct Huthi control. Under the Stockholm Agreement, Huthi and rival coalition-backed Yemeni forces are meant to pull their main frontline units back from the vital Red Sea trade corridor, including a redeployment of Huthi forces from Hodeida, Ras Issa and Saleef ports.

The coalition and the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi appeared reluctant backers of the Stockholm Agreement. But Saudi and Emirati officials have since come to play up its importance as a potential game-changer in the war. In an optimistic telling, both countries’ officials say they hope the agreement’s implementation would lead to a cascade effect accelerating broader negotiations between the Huthis and the Hadi government, and then a widely inclusive political process.

For their part, the Huthis remain suspicious of the coalition’s intentions, believing that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are more interested in changing perceptions and public narratives than the conflict’s trajectory. The group has been the major proximate barrier to implementing the agreement and helping open a humanitarian corridor, but Huthi insiders argue that the blockages are either misunderstood or being deliberately misrepresented. With no agreement on which “local forces” will control the ports and eventually Hodeida city within the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) it is functionally impossible for the Huthis to redeploy, they argue, beyond replacing frontline fighters with Huthi-aligned security forces (a distinction that is hard to make or verify). And the group’s military leaders are leery of reopening the Sanaa-Hodeida road to the east of the city, as they believe doing so will make them vulnerable to coalition attack. The group alleges that coalition-backed forces have violated the ceasefire as many times as the Huthis – a claim that, absent a full UN monitoring mission, is impossible to judge.

In implementing the Stockholm Agreement, the UN should remain alert to the risk of spoilers and ensure that any newly arising political questions are addressed through diplomacy.

What happens next will be defined, at least partially, by the outcome of discussions that took place on a ship anchored just off Yemen’s Red Sea coast between 3-6 February. Representatives of the Huthis and Hadi government to the RCC gathered on board to find a way forward in implementing the Stockholm Agreement’s demilitarisation of Hodeida. The UN announced on 7 February that the two sides had reached an agreement in principle, but that their political masters would need to give the go-ahead. If Lt. Gen. Michael Anker Lollesgaard, the newly-installed UN chair of the RCC, can convince the parties to at least partially break the deadlock in the coming days and weeks, UN officials and diplomats argue that the progress could serve as a bridge to a broader political process. The redeployment plan is expected to be finalised within the coming seven days.

Bottom line: If the Stockholm Agreement can be made to stick and Hodeida demilitarised, there will be increasingly little territory for the coalition to fight for with game-changing consequences. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as the government of Yemen and the Huthis, should reiterate their support for the UN process and work to properly implement the ceasefire if they do not wish to prolong the conflict indefinitely at growing cost for Yemen’s people. And in implementing the Stockholm Agreement, the UN should remain alert to the risk of spoilers and ensure that any newly arising political questions are addressed through diplomacy, rather than scuffles behind the scenes.

Political and Military Developments

Gen. Patrick Cammaert, the UN’s point man in Hodeida, handed over his responsibilities to his successor and the head of the newly-constituted UN Mission to support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA) Lt. Gen. Michael Anker Lollesgaard on 5 February with talks over the port and city at a crucial juncture. Cammaert had arranged for the Huthi and Hadi government delegates to the RCC to meet on a World Food Programme vessel moored in the Red Sea. (After two initial meetings in Huthi-controlled territory, the Huthis refused to cross the frontlines into coalition-held areas. This forced Cammaert to shuttle between the two, a process that yielded diminishing returns.) His plan was to negotiate a compromise that would keep the Stockholm Agreement alive by having both parties redeploy forces, the Huthis from Hodeida, Ras Issa and Saleef ports, and the government from key positions to the east of Hodeida city and around the main Sanaa-Hodeida highway. If a deal can be brokered, UN officials expect it to translate into almost immediate movement on the ground.

Lollesgaard’s next task will be to deploy the people he needs for the newly-initiated UNMHA, including a team of up to 75 monitors and support staff. Beyond the usual logistical constraints, this will also require the Huthis to show more flexibility on visas to UN staff and UN movement around Hodeida than they have done to date.

Meanwhile, the prisoner swap agreed as part of the Stockholm Agreement is “hanging in the balance”, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Huthi and Hadi government delegations met in Amman on 5 February, with the ICRC struggling to verify the lists of up to 8,000 detainees provided by the two sides. Each says it has a “significantly lower” number than listed; further complicating matters, the ICRC does not have full access to detention centres in Yemen and Saudi Arabia where detainees are held.

Beyond Hodeida, the often-ignored competition for control of state institutions – and the legitimacy they bestow – between the Huthis and the Hadi government heated up this week with a series of tit-for-tat moves aimed at demonstrating control of Yemen’s House of Representatives. On 1 February, the newly-appointed head of the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum (SCER) in Huthi-held Sanaa announced plans to hold elections to fill “vacant seats” in the House of Representatives.

The Huthi move came in apparent response to Hadi’s long-rumoured attempts to convene the House of Representatives in Aden. Hadi insiders claim that he has enough MPs to pass new laws, including an extension of his presidential term. On 3 February, Hadi announced that he was relocating the SCER headquarters to Aden in an apparent attempt to undercut Huthi manoeuvring.

The Yemeni riyal, which had regained some steam at the end of 2018 after falling to a record low of YR800 to the U.S. dollar in September-October, has started to decline again, falling this week to YR600 to the dollar. Crisis Group contacts blame a mix of currency market manipulation by traders and an ongoing spat between Hafez Mayad, the head of the powerful Hadi-appointed Economic Committee, and Mohammed Zammam, the Central Bank of Yemen governor. The decline of the riyal, coupled with ongoing logistical constraints – particularly access issues around Red Sea Mills (see Crisis Group Update #2) – is likely to edge the humanitarian situation closer to famine.

The Huthis continue to crack down on civil society and non-governmental organisations in northern Yemen, meanwhile, detaining Awfa al-Naami, the country director of Saferworld, a peacebuilding NGO, on 28 January, after a series of threats against her. This tracks a wider campaign of intimidation.

Bottom Line: As the chances of UN-led political dialogue in 2019 increase, political and institutional manoeuvring between the Huthis, Hadi government and other political and military players is likely to become more pronounced, as are efforts to control territory (see Crisis Group Update #2) and the public narrative. The UN and international diplomats, who will make a critical contribution to the success or failure of a political process in the longer term, should show they take these machinations seriously by seeking to prevent further gamesmanship of this kind in the coming months.

Regional and International Developments

Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, was in the U.S. last week, meeting with U.S. officials, Congress, UN officials and others in Washington and New York. Gargash was clear in messaging that the UAE position has changed, that the UAE sees Stockholm as a turning point, and that if implemented it will mean a “transitional 2019” that sees the war give way for a UN-led political process. A touted end to major Saudi and UAE combat operations in Yemen would not necessarily mean an end to the conflict: other local battlegrounds could be revived, and neither country has any intention to stop backing the – often competing – armed groups they have been cultivating since 2015.

Meanwhile, the UN was active in the Gulf. On 29 January, the Resident Coordinator of the UN in Yemen, Lise Grande, held meetings in Riyadh with Saudi and Emirati aid authorities to discuss aid distribution and access concerns. On 30 January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss Yemen. The Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent a letter to Guterres on 31 January reiterating support for the Stockholm process while asking the UN to expand its reporting on ceasefire violations to include attribution of responsibility.

Scrutiny of coalition activities in Yemen continues unabated. On 4 February, Amnesty International and CNN both ran stories on the UAE and Saudi Arabia supplying arms and other materiel to allied Yemeni armed groups, which subsequently have leaked into the local and regional arms market, and at times have ended up in the hands of the Huthis.

In New York, the UN Security Council published a press statement on 4 February stressing the importance of implementing the Stockholm Agreement, including redeployments around Hodeida and prisoner swaps, and expressing concern at ceasefire violations. Council members told Crisis Group that the statement reflected frustration at the agreement’s slow pace of implementation, and growing pressure from the coalition on the UN Secretariat to identify the parties breaking the ceasefire and blocking implementation. With Lollesgaard now in place, and UNMHA scheduled to issue its first report on 14 February, it is possible that the UN could take a more critical line in the coming weeks.

Negotiations on the renewal of the Security Council-imposed sanctions regime in Yemen are due to begin soon, with a renewal scheduled by the end of February. Members of the Council’s sanctions committee on Yemen have largely endorsed the latest UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen, but the U.S. and others are likely to attempt to add language on Iran. 

In Washington, Congressional activity around Yemen is once again gathering momentum. The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on 6 February on U.S. Policy in the Arabian Peninsula, where Yemen was a principal topic of debate. The committee discussed a resolution introduced by Representative Ro Khanna aimed at using the War Powers Resolution to force a removal of all U.S. forces from a direct or indirect role in Yemen, and agreed to pass it out of the committee for discussion among all House members, in a vote that broke down along party lines, 25-17. It is unclear when the full House will act on the bill. The Senate passed a similar bill in December but a vote was not held on the legislation in the House of Representatives before the new Democratically-controlled House was seated in January. The Yemeni parties, meanwhile, will keep a close eye on a U.S.-organised meeting on the Middle East in Warsaw on 13-14 February, which will reportedly focus on Iran’s role in the region and will be followed by a discussion by the Yemen “Quad”: the U.S., UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Bottom Line: With negotiations over Hodeida finely poised, statements by the UN Security Council, White House and Congress can have important knock-on effects on the ground in Yemen. Congress in particular has an important role to play in maintaining pressure. All efforts should be concentrated on seeing the Stockholm Agreement implemented.