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Forced out of Towns in the Sahel, Africa’s Jihadists Go Rural
Forced out of Towns in the Sahel, Africa’s Jihadists Go Rural
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
A convoy of Chadian soldiers stop near the front line in the war against the insurgent group Boko Haram in Gambaru, north-east Nigeria, on 26 February 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun

Forced out of Towns in the Sahel, Africa’s Jihadists Go Rural

Jihadist groups have regrouped in the neglected hinterlands of Sahel countries and are launching attacks from them. To regain control of outlying districts, regional states must do far more to extend services and representation beyond recently recaptured provincial centres.

Armed jihadist groups have developed a dangerous new strategy after being chased out of most major towns they once held in Africa’s Sahel, the vast expanse of arid, sparsely populated brushland that crosses the continent along the southern edge of the Sahara desert. 

Rather than trying to hold towns or urban districts, these groups – which include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) and al-Murabitoun – are using bases in the countryside to strike at provincial and district centres, often forcing national armies to retreat and local state authorities to abandon immense rural areas to jihadist control.

A map of the Sahel region. Crisis Group

At the same time, increasing international support has inadvertently reinforced the historical tendency of Sahel countries – which include parts of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Libya and Chad – to focus relatively more on the political centre and neglect their vast territorial hinterlands. Unless these trends are reversed, efforts to minimise the threat from jihadist groups operating in this huge region will likely fail.

Jihadist armed groups have been operating in central and western Sahel since the 1990s. Over time, and despite limited efforts to block their rise, some groups grew and eventually took control of vast territories, as in northern Mali in 2012 and north-east Nigeria in 2014. The initial response was largely military and, with the help of regional and Western allies, Sahelian governments succeeded in chasing out jihadist groups from all the major towns that they had occupied and destroyed most of their heavy weapons.

But these military successes have not been accompanied by the return of government administration in “liberated” areas. African armies and their allies were often unable to restore security in the countryside, or even in the outskirts of some cities. Civil servants could or would not follow the military into still insecure zones, leaving vast areas run by skeleton administrations, and few, if any, public services. The state’s persistent absence from the region around Lake Chad, along the Mali-Niger border and in central Mali, has allowed jihadists to establish and expand their presence there.

International support has had the side effect of reinforcing Sahelian countries’ tendency to focus on the political centre

Furthermore, increased international support has had the side effect of reinforcing Sahelian countries’ tendency to focus on the political centre, where governing elites and the bulk of voters live. This is because it is quicker, cheaper and more politically expedient to provide public services in cities and towns rather than to thinly populated and often nomadic rural settlements. The end result is the relative neglect of their vast territorial hinterlands. For example, access to public school varies dramatically between urban and rural areas and by region. According to Mali’s last Demographic and Health Survey (2013), the male literacy rate is 69 per cent and female 47 per cent in urban settings (72 and 51 per cent in the capital, Bamako), but only 27 and 12 per cent respectively in rural areas (only 20 and 10 per cent in the Mopti region, the lowest in Mali even before jihadist groups started to shut down public schools).

After withdrawing from urban areas and dispersing in order to escape attack, jihadist groups have consciously adapted to the new situation. As shown by internal AQIM correspondence discovered in the Malian city of Timbuktu in 2013 and the intra-Boko Haram discussions and splitting of the group in June-July 2016, mounting pressure from regional armies has not robbed these organisations of their capacity to evaluate past failures and develop new strategies.

The spectacular assaults on West African towns and capitals carried out since 2013 (Bamako in Mali, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and the beach resort at Grand Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire) are not, from this point of view, the most important change. More significant is the consistent attacks on local capitals and towns, which compel the armed forces to prioritise garrisons there and to abandon immense rural regions. For example, repeated jihadist attacks in and around Gao, Mopti and Timbuktu in Mali have forced government troops and peacekeepers to increase security in these cities and significantly limit the number of forward operating bases and patrols in rural areas. There are a few exceptions, like the Kidal region, where the French army’s presence and numerous patrols prevent groups such as Ansar Eddine and AQIM from exerting full control. Yet this requires mobile and capable military forces that cannot be deployed everywhere. The jihadists can consolidate their control in this security vacuum.

Setting aside, for the moment, their territorial ambitions, the jihadists have opted for a more discreet occupation of neglected rural areas. They are not alone. Other armed groups, including ethnic militias, self-defence groups, transnational criminal groups, armed bandits, renegades from national armies and even separatist and autonomist movements, are also emerging to fill the security vacuum left by central states. Not all are opposed to the state, but each of them tries to find a niche in a complex and shifting local network of alliances. Depending on local configurations of power and interests, these groups fight jihadist groups, simply ignore them to avoid trouble, or even make alliances with them.

All these armed movements demonstrate a genuine capacity to understand and adapt to local circumstances, and do so better than less-motivated capital-based elites or foreign “peacekeepers”. They are also unlike separatist groups that tend to downplay local tensions when they weaken their “nationalist cause”, or transnational criminal networks that are mostly interested in transporting goods through territories. Instead, jihadist groups are willing to settle down and are developing an expertise in manipulating local intra and intercommunal tensions.

The jihadists are most successful at establishing themselves among rural communities that were only recently integrated into countries.

Jihadist groups use a mix of threats and persuasion to consolidate their position, providing limited services to some communities, most notably security and some rough rule of law. In central Mali, jihadist groups now offer protection to pastoralists and their herds, and give local groups the chance to contest natural resource exploitation by government representatives or their partners in local elites. They also suspended the collection of taxes by chiefs and governments. Similarly, a Boko Haram faction has forged partnerships with the Buduma, indigenous to the Lake Chad area, by chasing out the Hausa migrants who had taken control of the flourishing fishing sector. This local alliance allowed Boko Haram elements to find refuge on Lake Chad islands while regional armies were hunting down insurgents elsewhere.

In exchange for protection or other services, jihadist groups extend their influence, develop local roots, and recruit new affiliates. For instance, some of the young perpetrators who attacked Grand Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire on March 2016 reportedly came from Mali’s rural Douentza district. State officials fled this area during the 2012 crisis and few have returned since, except for small military garrisons entrenched in towns along the only road connecting the region to Bamako. They are unable to prevent the FLM from developing its network in the vast and isolated rural countryside.

In areas where Crisis Group has conducted recent research, like central Mali, community leaders often noted they had long hesitated to turn their back on the state, unsuccessfully seeking protection and support from the capital before reaching agreement with jihadists. Unlike the region’s governments, which are not well disposed toward nomadic communities and struggle to integrate them, radical groups are often ready to consolidate their networks and acquire intelligence by recruiting local people. Boko Haram, for instance, takes the time to approach communities in the Lake Chad Basin. The group can visit repeatedly, asking those willing to collaborate for an often symbolic donation and enlisting a few local young men.

The jihadists are most successful at establishing themselves among rural communities that were only recently integrated into countries, have a weak attachment to the state and are poorly represented in parliament or local government. These include nomadic groups and communities living in border areas with supposedly doubtful loyalties, such as the Fulani nomads of Hayré, the Tolebe Fulani along the Mali-Niger border, communities living in the mountainous borders in the Gwoza Hills along the Nigeria-Cameroon border and those in the Lake Chad marshes.

However, jihadist attempts to consolidate a presence are not always successful. For example, Ansar Eddine failed to establish itself in southern Mali, on the border with Côte d’Ivoire. These areas were better integrated into the state through a solid network of elected representatives and chiefs than in central and northern rural areas, which enables Ivorian and Malian security services to arrest its members.

Rather than being satisfied with retaking control of towns, Sahelian governments and their partners must reflect on how best to respond to the new strategies used by the jihadists to establish themselves in rural areas and extend their influence. Governments must invest in neglected rural zones and communities that feel marginalised. 

A single response or general strategy is inadequate when faced with determined groups that are constantly adapting their own strategy. The regional grand strategies formulated for the Sahel as a whole must be adapted to local circumstances. It is imperative for governments to reconstruct their capacities to protect population groups, to peacefully regulate tensions around access to natural resources and to limit local elite corruption and capture of state resources.

Governments must invest in neglected rural zones and communities that feel marginalised.

Central governments must also start a discussion about local government structures to ensure better governance and representation of the most marginalised groups. They must resist the temptation to stigmatise entire communities, such as the nomadic Fulani in Mali and the Buduma in Niger and Chad, on the grounds that they are “collectively” favourable to the jihadist project. In particular, they must resist the temptation to arm communities that are reputedly closer to the government, against others that seem to be less loyal. Sub-contracting the anti-terrorist struggle to some communities is particularly liable to help jihadists establish themselves with those who are excluded, and can create future security problems.

The current situation of jihadist groups in the Sahel is a good illustration of the dynamics highlighted by Crisis Group’s report Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Violent extremist groups tend not to create crises, but manipulate them. They ally with communities that feel the state is iniquitous and absent, or because they can help with conflicts about rights of access to critical resources. 

Current programs aimed at preventing or countering “violent extremism” (P/CVE) lack clarity and too easily mask the complex dynamics of jihadist recruitment. Instead, local governments and their partners should focus on the classic problems of integration, political representation and the equitable sharing of natural resources. Such classic peacebuilding policies should not be framed as P/CVE, since it risks stigmatising communities and undermining the programs. To enable officials to return safely and rebuild the state, governments and their partners must invest politically and financially in neglected rural zones and give communities that feel sidelined a stake in society. If they don’t, jihadist groups will remain a real threat for the foreseeable future.

Contributors

Deputy Project Director, West Africa
jhjezequel
Former Consulting Senior Analyst, West Africa
vincentfoucher
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.