At a Glance
Briefing Note: Boko Haram in Cameroon
20 Jan 2015
In the wake of 18 January Boko Haram attack in Cameroon in which up to eighty people were abducted, this briefing note examines the legacy of Boko Haram attacks in the country.
On 18 January 2015 suspected Boko Haram militants attacked multiple villages among the Mandera Mountains in the Mayo-Tsnaga Department of Cameroon's Far North Region. At least four people are dead, 80 buildings burned, and at least 80 people were abducted – including 50 children. There are reports that continued fighting between insurgents and Cameroonian forces allowed at least twenty abductees to escape.
The kidnapped children were reportedly all between the ages of ten and fifteen. Boko Haram has recently begun using girls to deliver bombs. It is unclear if these children are aware that they are carrying a bomb or that they will die in the explosion. A bomb that exploded on 10 January in Maiduguri's main market was strapped to a girl. Reports on her age vary from ten to eighteen years. Reports from December 2014, based on testimony from apprehended bombers, stated that Boko Haram had plans for the systematic use of female suicide bombers to cause maximum casualties.
Women and girls have also been used by Boko Haram as porters, cooks, and sex slaves, while male abductees are coerced into joining the group. Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has stated in videos that the schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok were sold and or married off to his fighters. Some commentators are beginning to describe the mass abductions by Boko Haram as " slave raids".
Girls have also been used by Boko Haram as porters, cooks, and sex slaves
This attack in Cameroon is not the first of its kind, nor should it come as a surprise. A video released in the beginning of January, purportedly by Abubakar Shekau threatened Cameroon's President Paul Biya if he did not suspend the country's constitution and adopt sharia law. The threats of violence made in these videos are normally acted upon, just as the claims of responsibility for previous attacks are normally accurate. Boko Haram also has a history in Cameroon of recruitment, territorial control, and attacks on which the most recent atrocity builds.
Boko Haram has conducted cross-border raids in Cameroon since at least 2013. This includes the abduction of a family of French tourists on 19 February 2013, though it is unclear whether Boko Haram carried out the attack themselves, or later acquired the family and negotiated their ransom. A French priest, Father Georges Vandenbeusch, was also abducted and held by militants claiming to be Boko Haram from 13 November to 31 December 2013. The wife of Cameroon's deputy prime minister, Francoise Agnes Mouskouri, was also kidnapped and held for ransom in July 2014.
The United Nations' humanitarian news service, IRIN, has also reported increasingly frequent of attacks on Cameroonian villages by militants based in the borderlands or in Nigeria as well as attempts to preach Boko Haram's radical ideology and recruit new fighters from Cameroon into the insurgency. By mid-2014, over one hundred suspected Boko Haram fighters and preachers had been arrested.
Boko Haram has long used the porous border region between Nigeria and Cameroon as a safe haven and transport route for fighters and supplies. The group's presence in the Mandera mountains, which run along part of the border, dates back at least to 2004 when a splinter group took refuge there after attacking a Nigerian police station. In 2013 and 2014 insecurity caused by Boko Haram increasingly choked trade in the Far North Region while the growing security service presence limited cross-border access to goods. As military pressure on Boko Haram activities in Nigeria escalates, it can be expected that they will continue to use the border area as a base from which to launch attacks.
According to the Nigeria Security Tracker, a project of the Council on Foreign Relations' Africa Program, the Cameroonian military has been involved in at least eight incidents with Boko Haram since December 2014. These attacks resulted in 561 deaths; 558 of them Boko Haram fighters. These figures are based on public media statements and are indicative rather than definitive.
Boko Haram has no regard for national boundaries. While the insurgency continues to be fought primarily on Nigerian soil and the main grievances Boko Haram cites for its attacks ( security force abuses, corruption, un-Islamic governance) remain focused on Nigeria, escalating cross-border attacks should be anticipated.
The communities on both sides of the border often have more in common with each other than with communities in their own country. There are over fifty ethnic groups in the Far North Region including the Kanuri, which is one of the main ethnic groups in Borno state and a dominant ethnicity for Boko Haram members. However, the abductees of the 18 January attack were reportedly mostly herders, which may indicate that they were not Kanuri, who are often farmers.
Boko Haram has no regard for national boundaries
There are increasing calls by African heads of state for an African Union-led force to combat Boko Haram. For over five years, the Nigerian military - amid allegations of chronic under-funding and corruption - has been unable to defeat the group, and with national elections in February 2015, political focus is distracted.
The Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) that was established by Chad, Niger, and Nigeria has not been much more successful. Baga, the town where the MNJTF was headquartered, has been burned down twice in the past two years, most recently on 3 January 2015. The Nigerien troops have withdrawn to Niger where a humanitarian disaster looms from the tens of thousands of Nigerian refugees sheltering there. Chad is sending some of their troops to Cameroon; a contingent was deployed to Maroua in the Far North Region on 18 January. The Economic Community of West African States chairman, Ghanaian president John Mahama, recently stated that an African Union-led force against Boko Haram would be discussed this week. The South African government also recently stated it was willing to combat Boko Haram if called on for assistance.
The attack on the Cameroonian villages on 18 January was not a new tactic nor an escalation of their area of operations. Rather this is a continuation of the group's existing tactics and an indication that militarily and ideologically, the group is versatile and aggressive – unimpeded by the national militaries set against it.
Sign up to receive the Roundup
Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.