BOKO HARAM AND THE CAMEROONIAN CONNECTION: HOW CAMEROON’S TRADITION OF NON-INTERFERENCE MAY BE BOOSTING TERRORISM

As Nigeria grapples with the recent devastating attacks from the Islamist militant sect Boko Haram which have left at least 216 people dead, neighbouring West African nations are also left shaken as they struggle to prevent a similar deadly fate from occurring within their own borders. However, for many of these countries, any security measures undertaken to prevent Boko Haram from infiltrating into their territories may be too little too late, as the threat has already made itself known across the region. One such country, Cameroon, has already seen the spectre of Boko Haram emerging in the shadows, and has been the subject of criticism for not only failing to coordinate regional anti-terrorist operations, but, along with Niger, has also been accused of allowing the free movement of Boko Haram militants into long-suffering Nigeria.

Cameroon has been routinely criticized for isolating itself from regional problems, preferring to take a wholly domestic approach to an international problem instead. For example, Cameroon has yet to sign up for membership of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF), a joint security effort organisation which includes Nigeria and Chad, whose aim is to counter Chadian guerrillas, as well as combat the threat posed by Boko Haram. After the August 2011 UN bombing in Abuja, Mali, Niger, Chad, Algeria and Nigeria also came together to establish the Global Counterterrorism Forum in an effort to address the threats posed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram, groups which also impact Cameroon. Once again, Cameroon failed to sign up. Faced with criticism for its tradition of refusing to interfere in regional matters, Cameroon must now accept the fact that Boko Haram has already entrenched itself within its territory, and as such, the West African nation must look to end its non-combative approach to regional affairs and get tough on this malicious terrorist group.

Boko Haram and the Cameroon Link 

Boko Haram, the violent Islamic terror group which seeks to impose Sharia law in Nigeria, has stepped up its operations significantly in the past two years, as indicated by a wave of deadly violence perpetrated by the group in 2011 and 2012. Although many analysts suggest that at the present time, Boko Haram has yet to truly become “transnational” in the way of attacks, preferring instead to bombard other Nigerian cities such as Lagos, the group is already said to have linked up with AQIM and al Shabaab. Reports also indicate that Boko Haram has infiltrated the northern Muslim-majority region of Cameroon. Following the devastating attacks which left at least twenty-seven dead on Christmas Day in 2011, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to “crush” the Islamic radical group and tightened its security, a move which reportedly forced many members of Boko Haram to slip across the borders into Cameroon and set up a stronger foothold in the country.

According to Nigerian security officials, Boko Haram has started using northern Cameroon as both a staging ground for future attacks and as a weapons magazine.  Although Cameroonian officials have tried to distance themselves from these claims, such fears that Boko Haram has links to Cameroon are not unwarranted. In February 2011, Nigerian police in Borno State uncovered a few hideouts in northern Nigeria where attacks were orchestrated and ammunitions were stored by Boko Haram gunmen. Nigerian authorities later discovered that many of the weapons, including eleven mini rocket launchers and two rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), had been smuggled in from Cameroon. The Cameroonian connection does not stop there. In July 2011, thirty-six nationals, among them Cameroonians, were also identified among those killed in a gun battle between police and suspected Boko Haram militants. Sheik Ibrahim Mbombo Mubarak, President of the Association of Cameroonian Imams, has also confirmed the involvement of Cameroonians in Boko Haram, recently stating that “some prominent members of the group, including Mohammad Nour and Mohamed Kahirou, are Cameroonians who actually grew up in Douala and have since returned following the ongoing crackdown against the sect in Nigeria”.

Cameroon Providing Fertile Ground for Boko Haram Attacks

So why is Cameroon becoming a second base for Boko Haram? To begin with, like Nigeria, Cameroon has a high level of religious diversity which could potentially lead to interreligious conflict. As is the case in Nigeria, Muslims in Cameroon are mostly concentrated in the north, while Christians reside primarily in the southern regions. Additionally, there are concerns that both the poverty and religiosity of northern Cameroon, like northern Nigeria, has made the area susceptible to the extremist beliefs of Boko Haram, a group which blames “Western” influence on the ills that beset the region. Boko Haram militants have already begun preaching these beliefs in Cameroon’s Muslim northern region. Lagdo, for example, a largely cosmopolitan centre in northern Cameroon, has been bombarded by armed men with “bizarre dressing, long beads and red or black headscarves”. More Lagdo residents are coming forward stating that these men have been surrounding villages and shouting anti-Western propaganda, and in a tactic used by AQIM, have been making grandiose promises, saying that they will deliver supplies and money to all those who will follow them. This may be an attractive offer for Cameroonians, most of who, like Nigerians, live on less than US$2 per day. Aside from  poverty and a potential for religious conflict, Cameroon may also be susceptible to Boko Haram elements due to the country’s decision to remain largely neutral in international affairs. As noted earlier, Cameroon appears reluctant to participate with its neighbours in any counter-terrorism operations. Although perhaps well meaning, this policy may allow Boko Haram to believe that Cameroon is a safe haven for terrorist activities, and as such it may allow the extremist group to deepen its roots within the country.

Going Forward

Looking ahead, Cameroon must look to end its non-combative approach to regional and international affairs, and instead must get tough on Boko Haram. There are signs that Cameroonian leaders are  already taking this stance. On 19 January 2012,  Joseph Beti Assomo, the governor of Cameroon’s Far North Region said threats posed by militant Islamist group Boko Haram were “very critical”, and added that nearly 600 soldiers in the area have been  now been deployed along the border with Nigeria. However, Cameroonian leaders should go even further as they cannot simply look at issues from a domestic standpoint any longer. Instead, Cameroon must cooperate with its neighbours by joining regional counter-terrorism groups, or else face the fate of conflict-ridden Nigeria.

(Image: The Street Journal)