The epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency has always been in Nigeria’s northeastern-most Borno State. Since 2013, however, the insurgency has spilled over the border into Cameroon. Boko Haram attacks killed nearly 2,500 Cameroonians between 2014 and 2017, according to Cameroon’s defense ministry (aa.com.tr, October 30, 2017). Most attacks in Cameroon are by the Abubakr Shekau-led faction of Boko Haram, whereas the Abu Musab al-Barnawi-led Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) faction operates closer to the Nigeria-Niger and Nigeria-Chad borders and has even clashed with U.S. forces in Niger’s Diffa region, according to an unclassified U.S. government report (documentcloud.org, December 2017).
In addition, an estimated 26 million people in the Lake Chad region have been “affected” by Boko Haram violence, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while more than 2.6 million have been displaced (unhcr.org, February 24, 2017). This year, in January alone, Cameroon suffered about 30 Boko Haram attacks, with 26 people killed as a result (Xinhua [Yaounde], February 6).
Although Cameroon has had notable success in tackling Boko Haram in the years since 2013, the group is still able to inflict violence on the country, taking a toll both in human and economic terms. The spillover from fighting in Nigeria and the associated humanitarian concerns will persist in Cameroon, but the country is adopting new counter-insurgency measures in coordination with Nigeria that give some reason for optimism.
Entry Into Cameroon
In 2013, Boko Haram initiated operations in Cameroon in order to establish supply lines, equipping its fighters in Nigeria with arms from Cameroonian towns such as Fotokol, on the border with Nigeria. In some cases, the weapons came from even further afield, in Chad, and passed through Cameroonian towns such as Kousseri. Government officials, including the former mayor of Fotokol, Ramat Moussa, were among those arrested for arms trafficking. The mayor, arrested in September 2014, was found to have an armory under his house. Although he was suspected of supplying Boko Haram, he was acquitted in December 2017 after spending three years in detention (news24.com, December 27, 2017).
Boko Haram also exploited Cameroon as a (relative) safe haven for retreat after a Nigerian state of emergency offensive in 2013 forced the group to abandon urban positions for the mountains and towns along the Cameroonian border. Some of Boko Haram’s first battles with Cameroonian forces occurred as the military tried to prevent Boko Haram from crossing the border (AP, January 16, 2014). After one border clash in Banki in January 2014, Boko Haram released fliers in Cameroon in the name of Abubakr Shekau, warning that pro-government vigilantes would “pay dearly for what you do unless you repent” and telling Cameroon that “we have not attacked you, do not attack us” (fr.africatime.com, February 6, 2014).
Starting in February 2013, Boko Haram operations in northern Cameroon extended to kidnapping foreigners. In total, Boko Haram kidnapped 22 foreigners in five operations carried out between 2013 and 2015, as well as abducting a Cameroon traditional leader and some of his family members. Members of the Ansaru faction who reintegrated with Boko Haram assisted in at least the first two kidnapping operations, though it is likely they had a hand in all five (France 24, November 16, 2013).
The abductions were a huge success for Boko Haram, netting the group more than $10 million. According to one journalist with close ties to Boko Haram’s leadership, this was the group’s “biggest war chest” (storify.com, November 1, 2014). In addition, the government released many of the Cameroonian Boko Haram members arrested for smuggling arms in exchanges for the foreign hostages.
Boko Haram activity appears to have ramped down considerably in recent years. By 2015, the group’s arms smuggling operations in Cameroon had apparently been reduced, likely due to a number of major busts, including the one in Fotokol. In addition, there have been no kidnappings of foreigners in northern Cameroon since 2015, although this could be because foreigners now rarely travel there and not necessarily due to improved security.
However, since 2015, Boko Haram has carried out a number of suicide attacks where the perpetrators are women or young girls. Those attacks, as well as being costly in terms of loss of life, have been psychologically painful for communities. On December 31, 2017, one suicide attack at a café in Bia by a girl killed one person and injured 28 others (Vanguard, December 31, 2017). On February 12, Cameroonian forces shot and killed two other female suicide bombers in Kolofata “without waiting for military command.” Struck by bullets, the girls’ explosives appear to have detonated, and three soldiers were wounded collaterally (Cameroon Concord, February 13). The war has unsurprisingly taken a psychological toll on Cameroonian forces, starkly displayed on February 1 when a soldier shot dead two women and a boy in Mora in what was reported as “an act of madness” (IOL, February 1).
Although there are fewer border raids now than in 2013, they continue and are deadly. On February 6, five men and a pregnant woman were killed and two others were injured when Boko Haram raided the Cameroonian border town of Mayo-Tsanaga. Boko Haram also burned houses and churches during the attack (Xinhua [Yaounde], February 6). Other attacks may not prove to be deadly but are economically costly, such attacks in which Boko Haram steals hundreds of cattle (Reliefweb, December 13, 2017).
Cameroon’s response has been multi-faceted and relatively successful. Cameroon has partnered increasingly closely with Nigeria and, since February, its soldiers have been part of Nigeria’s “Operation Lafiya Dole,” Abuja’s counter-insurgency force fighting Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria (Premium Times, February 6). Retired Major General Babagana Mohammed Monguno reaffirmed in February Nigeria’s commitment that “no territory of Nigeria would be used as a staging ground to destabilize Cameroon.” In one notable success, a joint operation saw Nigerian and Cameroon troops kill 35 Boko Haram fighters (Vanguard, February 28).
In January, the country also began construction of a 10-hectare “rehabilitation center” intended to reintegrate ex-Boko Haram fighters with the support of traditional leaders. Of the first participants in this program, 186 are currently held in the base of the Multinational Joint Taskforce in Mora (L’Oeil du Sahel [Yaounde], January 17).
Yet another Cameroonian response may have been “deal making” with Boko Haram—the negotiator and mastermind of Boko Haram’s kidnappings of foreign hostages in Cameroon was released from prison in October 2017 under somewhat unclear terms (Camer.be, October 26, 2017). In the short-term, such deal making may keep Boko Haram at bay, but in the longer-term it could become a liability if Cameroon is unable to meet Boko Haram’s demands and the group extracts its revenge.