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To Defeat Boko Haram, Nigeria Must Get Women on Board
To Defeat Boko Haram, Nigeria Must Get Women on Board
Cameroon: Electoral Uncertainty amid Multiple Security Threats
Cameroon: Electoral Uncertainty amid Multiple Security Threats
Op-Ed / Africa

To Defeat Boko Haram, Nigeria Must Get Women on Board

Originally published in Mail and Guardian Africa

It is largely because of women’s compromised position in society that insurgent groups such as Boko Haram can continue to survive.

The midnight kidnapping of 250 schoolgirls by the Islamist group Boko Haram from their dormitory at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok on April 14 2014 sparked headlines worldwide. Nearly two years on, 196 are still being held captive.

There was nothing isolated about the incident, which embodies the horror of the insurgency plaguing Nigeria and its neighbours. Scores of women and girls, initially Christians but later on Muslims, have been abducted as part of the sect’s strategy to extend its grip over the country’s northeast state. By awarding “wives”, willing or forced, to fighters, its leaders seek to attract male recruits and encourage combatants.

 But, according to a new International Crisis Group report, from early on some women also saw the attractions – the group’s religious discourse; potentially greater freedom and protection; socioeconomic opportunities; and a refuge from endemic corruption, entrenched discrimination, widespread poverty and social anomie. 

Because they were not considered a threat at first, women and girls could circulate in government-controlled areas more easily as spies, messengers, recruiters and smugglers. For the same reason, from mid-2014, Boko Haram turned to female suicide bombers. Increasingly pressed for manpower, the sect began training women to fight.

As the counterinsurgency grew, some women responded by helping to guard checkpoints or taking up arms in local vigilante units.

Although disrupting established patterns has given some women better prospects, seven years of war has mostly caused suffering. It has also further entrenched discriminatory practices and gender stereotypes in a deeply divided, traumatised society.

Women were often the only survivors after Boko Haram had either forcibly recruited or killed their men and older boys – or the military had arrested them. As the war spread, the insurgency and counterinsurgency forced nearly two million people, the overwhelming majority of whom were women, to leave their homes.

Women were often the only survivors after Boko Haram had either forcibly recruited or killed their men and older boys.

But the means women have resorted to to survive and the blurred line between victims and perpetrators have led to a climate of suspicion surrounding those displaced, not only by Boko Haram’s other victims but also by government agencies.

Separated from their husbands and sons, hundreds of thousands of women live with their children in government camps where food is scarce and healthcare dismal. In these camps, mostly staffed by male guards, some have suffered sexual violence or have resorted to “survival sex” in exchange for food, money or permission to leave the camp. As they struggle to feed their loved ones, some have denounced corruption and the diversion of food aid, relief funds and services by officials.

The situation of widows is particularly problematic. Although they can inherit a husband’s assets if they have supporting witnesses or records from village or district heads, there is little to claim in places ravaged by war.

Gender-based violence, poor treatment of those displaced, distrust of women either known or suspected to have associated with Boko Haram, and abuses by the Nigerian military have added serious long-term risks to the humanitarian crisis. They are undermining military gains and fuelling grievances against the state of the kind that gave rise to Boko Haram in the first place.

Immediate measures should be taken by the federal and northern state governments to combat the stigmatisation and marginalisation of former Boko Haram wives and slaves, as well as children fathered by Boko Haram members.

Immediate measures should be taken by the federal and northern state governments to combat the stigmatisation and marginalisation.

Bearing in mind that the group remains capable of launching attacks, Nigeria should support isolated women, especially widows, given that they are more susceptible to manipulation by jihadists.

The army should not systematically detain all women found in newly recovered areas. The tactics some have had to adopt to survive should not be held against them indiscriminately. The reunification of families – the only safety net for many – should be a priority. A federal database should be set up to facilitate the search for missing persons and more resources made available to reunite families.

Attention should be paid to gender-sensitive programmes, including those designed to strengthen women’s participation in politics and local governance, and to increase girls’ access to education, in both state schools and upgraded Quranic schools.

Mainstream Islamic groups can play a significant role in empowering women to do their part to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and build support for women’s education and civic participation.

Countering the sect and rebuilding society in the northeast requires the government and its international partners to tackle entrenched gender discrimination, and to enhance the role of women in building sustainable peace.

Commentary / Africa

Cameroon: Electoral Uncertainty amid Multiple Security Threats

Cameroon is facing violence in three regions, local communities are struggling to resist Boko Haram recruitment and the humanitarian crisis is worsening. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support regional governments to provide humanitarian assistance and encourage the state to develop projects to boost local economies.

This commentary on Cameroon's electoral uncertainty and multiple security threats is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

Cameroon’s governance and security problems for many years have attracted little outside attention. But the country now faces violence in three regions: the Far North, where Boko Haram continues to mount small-scale attacks, as well as the Northwest and Southwest, where an incipient Anglophone insurgency emerged in 2017. Added to this ambient insecurity is a refugee crisis in the East and Adamaoua, to which 236,000 people from the Central African Republic have fled militia battles. Elections scheduled for October 2018 will be a major test, as will the eventual transfer of power away from President Paul Biya, now 85. 2018 is a crucial moment for the international community, and in particular the EU and its member states, to engage in early action and prevent further escalation.

Boko Haram: still a threat to a neglected region

Boko Haram, active in Cameroon’s Far North since 2014, has killed about 1,800 civilians and 175 soldiers, kidnapped around 1,000 people and burned and looted many villages, while the conflict has displaced some 242,000 and badly disrupted the local economy. Some 91,000 Nigerians have fled Boko Haram-related violence in Nigeria to Cameroon. Though battered by security forces and riven by internal divisions, Boko Haram remains a threat in the Far North: in 2017 the group has killed at least 27 soldiers and gendarmes, as well as 210 civilians. It could regain strength if Cameroonian authorities neglect the crisis.

The war against Boko Haram has strained local communities, given rise to humanitarian crises and highlighted the need for longer-term development.

Boko Haram fighters and associates have surrendered in increasing numbers. Dozens of former militants have been sent home, after swearing on the Quran they would not rejoin the group. About 80 others are being held at a military camp in Mayo Sava. To encourage more such surrenders, authorities should avoid blanket stigmatisation and differentiate between hard-core fighters and others. The government also needs to develop a clear plan to counter the appeal of the jihadist ideas that some of the Boko Haram fighters that have given themselves up or been captured continue to espouse. Effective justice and reintegration mechanisms are lacking. Hundreds of supposed Boko Haram members are currently in pre-trial detention, a situation that risks fuelling their further radicalisation; their status should be resolved as swiftly as possible. Authorities also should seek to implement flexible, locally-informed mechanisms to facilitate the social reintegration of former Boko Haram fighters and encourage new surrenders. Leaving this to the whims of ad-hoc local efforts is inadvisable: given the destruction wreaked by the insurgency, communities are highly resentful, and poorly conceived reintegration schemes could sow the seeds of future problems. This is in contrast to neighbouring Chad, where local communities seem to be integrating former militants somewhat successfully on an informal basis. The EU should encourage national authorities, both in Yaounde and in regional capitals, to elaborate and implement their own plans to manage the demobilisation of former Boko Haram members.

The war against Boko Haram has strained local communities, given rise to humanitarian crises and highlighted the need for longer-term development. In 2018, Cameroon’s international partners, including the EU, should provide further humanitarian assistance in the Far North, focused on strengthening support to displaced persons and host families as well as supporting the voluntary return of Nigerian refugees. Where required, emergency operations should continue, but humanitarian efforts should also evolve into a more sustainable development approach.

The challenge is to stimulate the local economy without filling the coffers of Boko Haram, which taxes local trade and whose recruitment efforts in the past have been facilitated in part by offering small business loans and other financial incentives. Achieving the right balance will be difficult. But European support for small businesses within the formal and informal economies could help undercut local backing for Boko Haram. Separately, while Yaounde has long controlled the Far North by co-opting local notables, Boko Haram’s spread into Cameroon was partly facilitated by tapping into anger at local elites, thereby demonstrating the limits of that approach. Instead, Cameroon’s partners should encourage the state to reassert its presence in the north in a participatory and inclusive manner rather than through proxies, including via development projects that boost local earning potential.

The Anglophone crisis: an insurgency in the making

The crisis in the Anglophone regions (the Northwest and Southwest), which started as a sectoral protest, is rapidly developing into an armed insurgency, following the Cameroonian security forces’ violent repression on 22 September and 1 October. While there are hardliners among the militants, the government bears a large share of the responsibility for the conflict. It failed to recognise the legitimacy of Anglophone grievances; its security forces committed widespread abuses; and it imprisoned many peaceful activists in early 2017.

Several small “self-defence” groups (the Tigers, Ambaland forces and Vipers, to name a few) now operate alongside two armed militias: the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) and the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces. Since November 2017, these groups have launched low-intensity attacks that have killed at least 22 and injured 25 among soldiers and gendarmes. An unknown number of separatist fighters have died in these clashes. The military crackdown also exacted a large humanitarian toll and involved significant human rights violations. The violence has left at least 90 civilians since October 2016. Around a thousand have been arrested, with 400 still in jail. More than 30,000 Anglophones are refugees in Nigeria and tens of thousands have been internally displaced.

Given that the crisis is rooted in historically grounded identity-based grievances, notably the strong sentiment among Anglophones that they have been politically and economically marginalised, there will be no easy resolution. The government will need to change course and negotiate in good faith. The government’s refusal to launch a dialogue with peaceful Anglophone leaders has corroded the community’s trust in state institutions and provoked escalating violence. The crisis also illustrates the limits of the country’s centralised governance model, which show signs of atrophy. Discontent is still mounting in Anglophone areas. Reports suggest that some members of the security forces are joining the insurgency.

A direct dialogue between the government and Anglophone community leaders is critical to de-escalate the crisis, particularly ahead of the October elections. A wider conversation, which should include discussion of different models of decentralisation and federalism, is also important, given the failings of the current model. The EU and its member states should take advantage of the government’s concern about its international image and desire to preserve cooperation with them to nudge it toward direct talks and a national dialogue.

Uncertainties ahead

Most of the country’s security threats stem, at least in part, from bad governance and an over-centralised political system. While the 2018 elections are likely to see the ruling party retain power, a vote perceived as manipulated or unfair could further diminish its legitimacy, making it even more remote from citizens and feeding greater levels of violence. Election season will be an especially risky time if, as appears likely, Anglophone militants attempt to disrupt the balloting in the Northwest and Southwest regions, and possibly elsewhere.

More broadly, while many local activists and international actors see an eventual transition from President Biya, whose party dominates the government, as a prerequisite for improvements in governance, they also fear that his departure could trigger instability. European and other foreign powers should start laying the groundwork for a peaceful transfer of power; the longer the situation deteriorates, the harder it will be to pick up the pieces. They have two opportunities to do so in 2018: first, by supporting dialogue between the Biya government and Anglophone leaders, as described above; and, second, by working with Cameroon’s electoral body (ELECAM) and pressing the government to permit, and then deploy, election observers to protect the integrity of the vote, as best possible, and thus build confidence in the electoral system. Even small gains in these areas would help mend the frayed contract between the Cameroonian state and its citizens.