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In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
The local vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup
Commentary / 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. An in-depth Crisis Group report on the crisis in the area will be published soon.

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. 

Internally displaced Somalis carry their belongings as they flee from drought stricken regions in Lower Shabelle before entering makeshift camps in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, on 17 March 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Briefing 125 / Africa

Instruments of Pain (III): Conflict and Famine in Somalia

Chronic conflict is preventing effective response to Somalia’s prolonged drought and humanitarian crisis. This special briefing, the third in a series of four examining the famine threats there and in Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria, urges Somalia to improve governance and promote countrywide clan reconciliation to end the war.

I. Overview

History is at risk of tragically repeating itself. Once again, conflict-wracked Somalia is faced with mass hunger, just six years after a man-made famine took the lives of 250,000 people, mostly children, and 25 years after another killed 300,000, triggering a U.S. and UN intervention without which many more would have perished. An estimated 6.2 million people – half the country’s population – are in dire need; over three million are in a “crisis” or “emergency” situation, faced with death due to hunger and disease. While governmental and international responses have been relatively swift and relief efforts better coordinated (in part, because of lessons learned from the 2011 famine), many former limitations and challenges remain. Today, Somalis are starving because funding is insufficient and because access denial and insecurity impede delivery; most of all, they are starving because chronic conflict has destroyed their savings and ability to cope with periodic drought. The government and its international partners must tackle these immediate impediments and do more to stabilise the country lest yet another famine loom in the not-too-distant future.

Somalis are starving [...] because chronic conflict has destroyed their savings and ability to cope with periodic drought.

As in 2011, the epicentre of the current humanitarian crisis is south-central Somalia where Al-Shabaab, a violent Islamist insurgency, and localised clan conflicts have compounded the drought’s impact, undermined subsistence farming and cereal production, and led to crippling inflation and skyrocketing food prices, as well as mass displacement. Pockets in northern Puntland and Somaliland have also been badly hit, though the situation is far less grim than in the south.

Greater international assistance is urgently needed but will not be enough. A central cause of the crisis is access restrictions, provoked all at once by Al-Shabaab-orchestrated violence and insecurity, increased numbers of checkpoints on major aid supply routes, bureaucratic impediments and hefty illicit fees that both limit reach and increase delivery costs. Muslim community leaders and clerics should seek to persuade Al-Shabaab to allow access to areas under its control. But access restrictions are also the work of clan militias and disgruntled government and federal state forces engaging in predatory behaviour and routinely erecting barriers on major highways to extort money. The federal government and federal member states need, therefore, to pressure them too: through negotiations with clan militias if feasible, by considering military options to dismantle the checkpoints and provide armed escorts to relief convoys if necessary. And the federal government and federal member states should ease official impediments and red tape, which further constrain access. With a massive number of vulnerable people on the move in remote areas, the federal government and federal member states will need to do more to assist them and, in particular, curb rampant sexual violence in displaced peoples’ camps. These are all important steps, but to get beyond palliatives and find a more sustainable solution, the government will need to tackle the conflict itself, which remains the principal trigger and contributor to this unfolding humanitarian catastrophe: by improving governance; taking steps to address the division of power and resources among the central government and member states in a permanent constitution; and promoting countrywide clan reconciliation.

II. Conflict, Drought, Displacement, Access Denial and Hunger

A. An Acute Humanitarian Crisis

Since the central state’s collapse in 1991, Somalia has been wracked by acute humanitarian crises of varying intensity and experienced two major famines – in 1992-1993 and 2011-2012. A combination of protracted armed conflict and climatic as well as environmental stresses has made the country highly vulnerable to periodic large-scale famine.[fn]Crisis Group has been writing about Somalia since 2002. See for example, Crisis Group Africa Reports N°170, Somalia: The Transitional Government on Life Support, 21 February 2011; N°147, Somalia: To Move Beyond the Failed State, 23 December 2008; N°116, Can the Somali Crisis Be Contained?, 10 August 2006; Crisis Group Africa Briefings N°99, Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War, 26 June 2014; N°87, Somalia: An Opportunity that Should Not Be Missed, 22 February 2012; Commentaries, “Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out”, 27 June 2016; “Somalia: Why is Al-Shabaab Still A Potent Threat?”, 11 February 2016.Hide Footnote

The immediate cause of the current crisis is extensive and prolonged drought provoked by two consecutive years of failed Deyr (October-December) and Gu (April-June) rains. This triggered a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale unprecedented since 2011. Subsistence farming in the Shabelle and Juba river valleys has all but collapsed;[fn]“Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 23 April 2017.Hide Footnote prices of staple grains and legumes (maize, sorghum and beans) have doubled;[fn]“Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, ibid.Hide Footnote  and millions of livestock have perished. Deforestation (partly fuelled by the charcoal trade), soil erosion, coupled with diminishing volumes of water in the three major rivers – Shabelle, Janale and Juba – in turn have severely undermined subsistence farming in the fertile riverine belts. Somalis also blame insufficient local production of traditional coarse grains on land grabbing by businessmen connected to powerful clans and the switch to cash crops, such as lemons and sesame seed, especially in Lower Shabelle.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, agronomist based in Kismayo, April 2017. For background, see Catherine Besteman and Lee Casanelli, The Struggle for Land in Southern Somalia: The War Behind the War (London, 2003).Hide Footnote

In many urban centres in south-central Somalia food is increasingly scarce and available only at prices internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the very poor simply cannot afford. In an effort not to further undermine the regional market (with free relief food that disincentives farmers from planting more crops), and because it is more efficient, a number of aid agencies, among them USAID, UKAid and ACF (Action Contre la Faim) are sending small sums of money directly to needy families via mobile phones.[fn]In addition to avoiding market distortion via massive amounts of free, imported food, aid agencies have learned that small cash transfers are cheaper than trucking in large quantities of supplies and – under the right conditions – produce less diversion (or theft) of assistance. Crisis Group telephone interview, former U.S. government official, 2 May 2017. For more, see “Final Evaluation of the Unconditional Cash and Voucher Response to the 2011–12 Crisis in Southern and Central Somalia”, UNICEF and Humanitarian Outcomes, 2013.Hide Footnote

The drought situation is not about to improve. Despite the onset of Gu rains in April in some parts of Somalia, experts predict the prolonged dry spell will persist.[fn]The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) noted in its latest global weather forecast update that Somalia experienced generally low, erratic and below average rainfall, adding that the situation was unlikely to improve. “Global Weather Hazards Summary”, Fews Net, 14-20 April 2017.Hide Footnote  Some 6.2 million people are in dire need of assistance and nearly 600,000 have been displaced since November 2016.[fn]UNOCHA estimates that 2.9 million are in dire “emergency” and “crisis” situations; 3.3 million in “stressed food security and livelihood situations”; and 363,000 children in a state of “acute malnutrition”. “Operational Plan for Prevention of Famine in Somalia”, UNOCHA, February 2017; “Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The bulk live in makeshift camps in Baidoa and Mogadishu and are increasingly desperate. Overcrowding and poor sanitation incubates infectious diseases like cholera and measles. In some of the camps, “gatekeepers” masquerading as “camp elders” are beginning to obstruct aid deliveries and extort bribes. Hundreds of thousands of victims of previous displacements also live precariously in cities and bigger towns.

What stands in the way of a more effective and sustainable response to this humanitarian emergency are not acts of God or of nature. It is the intractable conflict that Somalia has experienced since the early 1990s. True, aid agencies are now able to reach close to two million vulnerable people. But they continue to face enormous challenges in meeting their target of reaching 5.5 million, because many areas are inaccessible and insecure.

B. Al-Shabaab Checkpoints and Access Denial

Al-Shabaab maintains an active military presence in much of the south’s drought-stricken countryside, and its violence and other destabilising activities constitute the greatest impediment to the delivery of relief to drought victims. The group routinely launches deadly assaults on troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Somalia Federal Government (SFG) and federal member states; runs “security checkpoints” on major routes;[fn]According to the UN, the most affected roads are Mogadishu-Baidoa-Dollow, Mogadishu-Afgooye-Marka-Barawe-Kismayo and Mogadishu-Balcad-Jowhar-Belet Weyne-Galkacyo. Al-Shabaab is not the only armed group to erect roadblocks in order to extort money from drivers. Clan militias and government soldiers also routinely engage in this behaviour. “Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, op. cit. “WFP probes bomb attack on its convoy in Somalia”, Xinhua, 17 April 2017; “Aid worker kidnaps and roadblocks soar in famine-threatened Somalia”, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote  and uses a variety of coercive tactics to prevent people from leaving and block access to aid agencies.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefings N°99, Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War, 26 June 2014; N°74, Somalia’s Divided Islamists, 18 May 2010; Africa Reports N°100, Somalia’s Islamists, 12 December 2005; N°95, Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?, 11 July 2005; N°45, Somalia: Countering Terrorism in a Failed State, 23 May 2002.Hide Footnote

Al-Shabaab’s complex and fraught relationship with humanitarian agencies operating in south-central Somalia was not always hostile. Prior to the 2011 famine, a few of its top commanders, notably Mukhtar Robow, cultivated cordial ties with relief agencies, granted them limited access after payment of “fees” and used their influence to secure release of abducted aid workers.[fn]“Somalia’s hardline Islamists invite aid groups”, Agence France-Presse, 29 March 2009.Hide Footnote

But the 2011 famine coincided with two significant setbacks for Al-Shabaab: first, a major AMISOM offensive as a result of which the movement lost key urban strongholds in rapid succession; second, increased U.S. attacks using drones and special operations forces targeting its top leadership. An increasingly paranoid Al-Shabaab severed links to relief agencies and banned foreign aid agencies and their local partners from its territory, accusing them of espionage.[fn]This coincided with revelations that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had sought to use a polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan to identify the location of Osama bin Laden’s hideout. “CIA organised fake vaccination drive to get Osama bin Laden’s family DNA”, The Guardian, 11 July 2011.Hide Footnote

In February and March 2017, large numbers of drought-stricken families began spontaneously leaving areas Al-Shabaab controlled in Bay and Bakool, as well as the Shabelle and Juba river valleys in search of relief assistance in federal and state government-controlled territory. This raised speculation that the militant group might be softening its uncompromising attitude toward foreign aid, perhaps because of the gravity of the situation and criticism it endured when it blocked Western food aid during the 2011 famine. These assumptions proved misplaced. Al-Shabaab blocked the exodus through coercion and by providing its own relief to hungry communities, arguably because of its heightened sense of insecurity and vulnerability – a realisation that mass depopulation might expose it to aerial and ground attacks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, prominent Somali politician, Nairobi, 29 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Al-Shabaab continues to hold drought victims hostage by blocking international organisations, the Somalia Federal Government and local NGOs from delivering aid.

Today, Al-Shabaab continues to hold drought victims hostage by blocking international organisations, the Somalia Federal Government and local NGOs from delivering aid, even though territories under Al-Shabaab’s control in south-central Somalia are among the most severely affected. Worse, those found with Western-donated food and items risk arrest.[fn]Most aid organisations label their donated supplies with their logos.Hide Footnote  In one such incident in the town of Waajid (Bay Region), in April, Al-Shabaab detained a group of people transporting relief food on donkey carts, burned the food and issued an edict warning against accepting handouts from “crusaders and apostates” (a reference to foreigners and the Somali government).[fn]“Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The fate of those who were arrested remains unknown. But this incident, together with an April improvised explosive device (IED) attack on a UN World Food Programme (WFP) convoy in Mogadishu’s KM-3 district, suggests Al-Shabaab may be intent on using violence to disrupt aid operations.[fn]“WFP probes bomb attack on its convoy in Somalia”, Xinhua, 17 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Still, Al-Shabaab has sought to mollify critics and stem the exodus of people fleeing hunger and water shortage in areas it controls. To that end, it recently launched its own parallel relief effort to provide livestock, food, water and even money – collected from compulsory donations imposed on businesses and individuals across all Somali towns – to drought-stricken Somalis.[fn]Among the coercive tactics used by Al-Shabaab, especially in Juba and Lower Shabelle, is collection of the 2.5 per cent zakat annual wealth tax and other levies. This, in the midst of a terrible drought, has triggered public backlash and armed clashes. See “Al-Shabaab seizes Somali herders’ livestock”, Voice of America, 26 December 2016.Hide Footnote  But while its effectiveness is hard to gauge, Al-Shabaab clearly could not single-handedly stave off such large-scale famine and any speculation that the group may be amenable, through negotiations, to open up areas under its control to aid agencies seems at the very least premature. If anything, major military setbacks since 2011 and the relentless U.S. drone campaign targeting its leadership have made the group even more militant and suspicious of Western relief agencies.

Nor have expectations that Al-Shabaab might be more charitable toward Muslim relief agencies been borne out. Its hostility vis-à-vis international aid efforts no longer distinguishes between Western and Muslim NGOs; the group deems Turkish and United Arab Emirates (UAE) personnel and facilities legitimate targets.[fn]In one of the deadliest attacks on Muslim relief workers, a Turkish Red Crescent aid convoy was targeted by Al-Shabaab in April 2013; fifteen Somali aid workers and four Turks were killed. Mehmet Özkan, “Turkey’s Involvement in Somalia: Assessment of a State-Building in Progress”, SETA (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research), October 2014. In April, Al-Shabaab claimed an IED attack on an Emirates Red Crescent aid convoy in Mogadishu. “Terror attack will not deter UAE’s aid mission to Somalia”, The National (UAE), 19 April 2017.Hide Footnote  As long as there is no dramatic deterioration in the coming months and it can keep a lid on the hunger crisis through its own parallel aid and coercion, and as long as no mass deaths occur under its watch, Al-Shabaab will likely continue to rebuff calls for dialogue to grant access to humanitarian agencies.

C. Clan Conflicts: Insecurity, Checkpoints and Access Denial

Al-Shabaab is not the only non-state armed actor whose actions have a direct impact on the humanitarian crisis. Parts of the country remain trapped in unresolved inter-clan conflicts. These tensions are typically exacerbated in times of drought when massive numbers of people and livestock move across traditional clan “boundaries” in search of water and pasture. Pre-existing clan disputes tend to resurface, sometimes resulting in sporadic, low-level clashes among clan militias. This is particularly true in Sool and Sanaag regions (northern Somalia) as well as Hiiraan, Galgadud, Mudug Lower and Middle Shabelle in south-central Somalia. A series of clashes in the contested town of Galkacyo in north-central Somalia in the last two years triggered a massive displacement, with estimates ranging between 75,000 and 100,000, and a humanitarian crisis.[fn]For more on this conflict see “Galkayo and Somalia’s Dangerous Faultlines”, Crisis Group, 10 December 2015.Hide Footnote

Clan grievances and conflicts often occur in areas marked by contested sub-national boundaries and in territories better endowed with resources such as water and infrastructure (mostly roads, as well as airports and harbours). In the past, traditional elders brokered temporary local truces among warring clans. Some new federal member states have since reduced the elders’ role in a bid to control local reconciliation and peacebuilding efforts (and to attract donor funding for such endeavours), but without replicating the credible or effective mechanisms required to manage conflicts over resources, especially water wells and reservoirs. In many instances, predatory/criminal clan militias as well as rogue security elements belonging to the federal states exploit these localised conflicts, erecting checkpoints on major routes to serve as “toll stations” as a means of extracting money.[fn]See “Aid worker kidnaps and roadblocks soar in famine-threatened Somalia”, Reuters, 4 May 2017. “The majority of the 42 districts in southern and central Somalia continue to experience moderate to high movement restrictions linked to road blockades, active hostilities and extortions at checkpoints”. “Humanitarian Bulletin, April 2017”, UNOCHA, 4 May 2017, p. 5. Some 40 static “illegal taxation” checkpoints have been set up along the Mogadishu-Baidoa-Dollow access road alone. On 13 April, over 60 trucks were stranded between Afgooye and Leego towns for over a week after local authorities demanded large unjustified payments. A similar incident involved over 30 trucks carrying supplies from Bossaso port the previous week. Ibid.Hide Footnote

III. Preying on IDPs and Vulnerable Communities

Many Somali actors prey on IDPs and others who lack protection from powerful clans, in effect profiting from conditions of acute need and helping perpetuate them. These include in particular so-called leaders who claim to represent needy communities as well as criminals. There is also a genuine risk of exploitation by corrupt officials, although to date there has been no credible report of corrupt practices related to the current relief effort. At a minimum, the donor community should intensify its focus on Somali anti-corruption institutions and civil society organisations. If leaders suspected of corruption cannot be held accountable in Somalia, consideration should be given to their being prosecuted by governments of countries in which they hold dual citizenship.[fn]Many Somali elites possess dual citizenship. For example, 124 of Somalia’s 283 MPs and Senators are from the diaspora. President Farmajo is a U.S. citizen and previously worked for the New York State government in Buffalo.Hide Footnote

A. Exploitation of IDPs

Most IDPs, both new and older, live in makeshift camps in major cities and towns. With few if any employment opportunities, they typically survive on remittances from relatives abroad and international assistance.[fn]Remittances constitute a crucial lifeline for many Somalis. The Somali diaspora sends an estimated $1.3 billion back home annually through remittance companies. “Somalia; Overview”, Footnote  In some camps, so-called gatekeepers masquerading as camp elders manipulate aid deliveries and extort bribes.[fn]Ahmed Ibrahim, aka Ahmed Vision, a prominent activist and a founder of the Caawi Walaal relief campaign, recently described the resurgence of “gatekeepers” (a scourge of the 2011 famine) in IDP settlements, explaining how they take a cut of the relief items and hire crowds to pose as famine victims. “The threat of gatekeepers to averting famine from Somalia”, Hiiraan Online, 21 March 2017.Hide Footnote  Likewise, many IDPs face abuse at the hands of government and private actors, who often have links to local authorities, business people and militias. Beatings and rape are reportedly common.[fn]See Laetitia Bader, “In Crisis-Stricken Somalia, No Safe Haven”, Human Rights Watch, 18 April 2017; “Somalia: Forced Evictions of Displaced People”, Human Rights Watch, 20 April 2015; “When Push Comes to Shove: Displaced Somalis Under Threat”, Refugees International, 8 November 2013; “Somalia: Protect Displaced People at Risk New Government Should Tackle Past Injustice, Abuses”, Human Rights Watch, 26 March 2013.Hide Footnote  Awareness of such dynamics would help aid agencies mitigate the power that predatory officials and private gatekeepers exercise over vulnerable communities by investigating allegations of abuse and orienting assistance directly to individuals and their families, notably via cash transfers, rather than to communities.

B. Violence against Women

Somalia ranks as one of the most inhospitable country for women,[fn]See “The world’s most dangerous countries for women”, TrustLaw – Thomson Reuters Foundation, 15 June 2011.Hide Footnote  a situation compounded by hunger, conflict and mass displacement. In the wake of the drought, and while precise data is lacking, reports suggest rape and other forms of sexual violence are widespread.[fn]“In Crisis-Stricken Somalia, No Safe Haven”, op. cit.; “Somalia”, 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 3 March 2017,; “Somalia”, Amnesty International, Annual Report 2016/2017, 22 February 2017.Hide Footnote  Girls and women in displacement camps and those who have fled hunger-stricken villages on foot in remote areas are particularly at risk. As a result, the government has deployed additional police and special gender protection personnel to the camps. But more is needed. In particular, parliament ought to pass more stringent laws criminalising rape and ending the traditional practice (derived from xeer customs) of settling rape cases though clan negotiations that typically entail providing compensation to the victim, often in the form of a marriage offer.

This is symptomatic of a far wider problem. While the short-term focus ought to be on measures aimed at curbing sexual violence in IDP camps and amending rape laws, any sustainable answer will require Somalia Federal Government efforts to promote and institutionalise greater protection for women. Newly elected legislators – of 283, 63 are women – have an historic opportunity to seek change in this area.[fn]“Somalia: Transforming Hope into Stability”, Crisis Group Commentary, 30 April 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Responses

A. International Response

Donors and humanitarian agencies, including the UN, were better prepared and quicker to respond to warnings of impending famine in early 2017. Since January, the UN estimates that the Somalia humanitarian appeal received “unprecedented levels of funding”, with close to $600 million raised in direct donations or pledges.[fn]“Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  In early March, the UN launched an $825 million appeal.[fn]“Somalia: Transforming Hope into Stability”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Although precise figures remain unclear, the overall funding gap has substantially narrowed in recent weeks, thanks notably to significant pledges from the UK, Japan and Germany.[fn]On 13 March, the UK announced it would fund a £16 million (nearly $20 million) program to help avert famine. This is part of a wider UKAid drought intervention for Somalia totalling £110 million ($136 million). On 14 March, Japan announced an Emergency Grant Aid of $26 million for relief efforts in the Middle East and Africa through six international organisations and agencies including the World Food Programme. Of this package, $8.5 million has been allocated to Somalia. “UK Government allocates £16 million to critical drought response in Somalia”, Relief Web, 13 April 2017. “Emergency Grant Aid in response to famine disaster in the Middle East and Africa regions”, Press Release, Embassy of Japan, Nairobi, 14 March 2017.Hide Footnote  Turkey and UAE likewise significantly upped their aid operations, typically conducted outside the UN aid system. The #TurkishAirlinesHelpSomalia and #LoveArmyforSomalia social media campaigns garnered the support of many international celebrities, helped draw attention to the food crisis and raised more than $1 million. Turkish Airlines eventually fulfilled its promise and delivered 60 tons of humanitarian aid to Mogadishu.[fn]“Turkish Airlines deliver 60 tons of food aid to drought-stricken Somalia”, Anadolu Agency, 5 April 2017.Hide Footnote  More recently, a campaign by the Emirates Red Crescent Society reportedly raised $45 million for drought relief.[fn]“Awqaf donates Dh1m to Somalia aid campaign”, The Nation (UAE), 16 April 2017.Hide Footnote  Altogether a massive emergency relief operation is underway bringing together many foreign and local NGOs.[fn]“Humanitarian Bulletin, April 2017”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Improvements in coordination and management of humanitarian operations partly reflect lessons learned from the 2011 famine. The “Access Taskforce”, set up in 2015 by aid agencies operating in Somalia to negotiate better access with the patchwork of different authorities and minimise official red tape, helped create far more favourable aid delivery conditions.[fn]The Access Taskforce is a forum to enable better coordination of humanitarian action. “Somalia: Humanitarian Strategy, 2016-2018”, UNOCHA, 30 May 2016.Hide Footnote  That said, coverage varies regionally, with better results in most of the north east and north west, and more limited ones in the south-central region.[fn]“Humanitarian Bulletin, April 2017”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

B. Domestic Response

So far, President Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmajo” and his government have demonstrated strong leadership in addressing the drought emergency. The president convened a major meeting of all stakeholders in Mogadishu just days after his late February election; he put Prime Minister Hassan Kheyre in charge of government efforts; and the government set up a humanitarian affairs ministry and National Drought Committee to coordinate all relief efforts in Mogadishu and in the federal member states – developments welcomed by donors and relief agencies, even though they recognise that the government currently lacks both capacity and revenue to do much more than coordinate.[fn]“Somalia: Operational plan for famine prevention (Jan-Jun 2017)”, UNOCHA, 17 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Other actors have lent a hand. In a symbolic gesture, the Somali Federal Parliament donated 50 per cent of presidential candidate registration fees totalling $360,000 to the drought committee. Students have also been encouraged to donate a minimum of $10 each. Private Somali citizens are pitching in. Companies and businesspeople likewise have contributed significantly to the relief campaign. The most significant local endeavour has been the Caawi Walaal campaign initiated by local and diaspora Somali activists; it has raised thousands of dollars and its volunteers provide water and food to some of the country’s remotest parts which are inaccessible to traditional relief agencies.

V. What is Needed

With famine looming, donors should urgently provide additional funds. Because the hunger crisis is largely fuelled by high food prices – indeed, many families are starving even as markets brim with imported foodstuff – aid agencies ought to scale up the practice of transferring small sums of money to such families via mobile phones. But while necessary, such steps will serve as little more than a (critical) palliative if others are not taken in parallel to aim at the man-made causes of the crisis. These include:

  • Bringing down roadblocks: The federal government and federal member states, supported by clan elders, should engage clan militias that routinely erect checkpoints on arterial highways critical for the supply of aid to drought victims. Where negotiations fail, legitimate authorities should explore the option of military steps to dismantle checkpoints and provide armed escorts to relief convoys.
  • Easing bureaucratic restrictions: The federal government and federal member states should work with the Access Taskforce (an umbrella body established in November 2015 that brings together aid agencies in Somalia) to ease official restrictions and red tape impeding humanitarian operations.
  • Cracking down on crimes of sexual violence: The federal government and federal member states should curb rampant sexual violence in camps for displaced people by strengthening policing, including deploying more women police officers.
  • Tackling the roots of chronic conflict: Ultimately, only by addressing Somalia’s chronic conflicts can the recurring threat of food insecurity and famine be tackled in a sustainable fashion. As Crisis Group has argued more extensively elsewhere, this will require at a minimum that the federal and state governments, supported by donors, combat large-scale corruption and begin to deliver public services, particularly security, at all levels; finalise constitutional negotiations regarding the allocation of power and authority between the central government and federal member states; and restart the stalled national reconciliation process among Somali clans, focusing from the bottom up.[fn]As Crisis Group wrote: “There is an urgent need for a concerted program of reconciliation at all levels, without which federal states and their clan militias are still as likely to fight one another (and the Somali National Army) as they are to take on Al-Shabaab itself”. “Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out”, Crisis Group Commentary, 26 June 2016.Hide Footnote

Nairobi/Brussels, 9 May 2017

Appendix A: Map of Somalia

Map of Somalia. International Crisis Group/KO/November 2015. This map is partially based on the UN map No. 3690.