Nigerian radical Islamist group Boko Haram’s free-wheeling ruthlessness is increasingly troubling the remote Far North Region of Cameroon, which has seen several attacks in recent months, with foreigners also abducted for ransom.
This month, heavily armed men suspected to be Boko Haram fighters attacked Bonderi village 5km from the border with Nigeria and stole a military vehicle, four motorbikes and weapons from the gendarmerie base there, government officials told IRIN.
Another group of suspected Boko Haram gunmen also raided a gendarmerie border post in Zina town on 8 July, three days prior to the Bonderi attack, and stole guns and ammunition. In June, two teenage sons of a Muslim cleric were kidnapped in Limani border town.
The attacks, the latest of which claimed the life of a policeman and wounded another on 18 July, have occurred despite the deployment in June of 1,000 additional soldiers to the Far North.
At least 2,053 civilians have been killed in some 95 Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria since January, according to Human Rights Watch.
Cameroon’s Far North Region, home to some four million of the country’s 20 million people, lies adjacent to Boko Haram’s heartland of northeastern Nigeria. Around eight million people live in the northeastern Nigerian States of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe.
Battling an “invisible” enemy
“Attacks are still common [in the Far North Region] because the war is not won in Nigeria,” Cameroonian military spokesman Didier Badjeck told IRIN. “It is difficult to lead a major operation against Boko Haram due to the fact that they are `invisible’. So the strategy of the military is to secure major points such as the border posts, bridges, villages and military bases.”
“We cannot put security on every kilometre or area in the region. Boko Haram may have 100 percent advantage over the traditional military style because we don’t know their base, how they look like, how many they are and what direction they will come from. They use both vehicles and motorcycles and have a good mastery of the border communities. They use some of the local population to operate in Cameroon,” Badjeck explained.
Despite this, he said, the security forces have arrested dozens of suspects, including some believed to be high-profile members of the group.
Some of the arrests have been possible due to information provided by residents. But some locals are worried that such cooperation led to the June abduction of the two teenagers. The kidnapping is seen as punishment of the boys’ father.
“The abduction… was a way to settle scores with him [the boys’ father] because he was seriously involved in the war against Boko Haram. He is suspected by Boko Haram of informing the military about their activities,” said Baba Amidu, a resident of Maroua, the capital of the Far North Region.
Last year, Boko Haram claimed kidnapping a seven-member French family and a French priest whom they later freed. A Canadian nun and two Italian priests who were seized earlier this year by suspected Boko Haram gunmen were also released after a few weeks in captivity. The group is also believed to be holding 10 Chinese construction workers abducted in May 2014.
While feeling reassured by the military presence, the mainly Muslim residents of the Far North Region are nonetheless caught between stricter security measures, such as an overnight curfew across the region, and restricted movement due to fears of insurgent attacks.
“One can now go to bed less fearful because there is military patrol. But life is still difficult due to the fact that activities are not operating normally. People are scared to go to farms, cross-border trade is dying down and people are losing livelihood activities,” said Etien Fomuluh, a resident of Mora in the Far North’s Mayo-Sava area.
A series of cross-border abductions by Boko Haram since 2013, weapons smuggling through northern Cameroon, insecurity and military operations against the Nigerian insurgents have slowed down economic activity in the Far North Region.
The Far North depends on northeastern Nigeria for industrial and pharmaceutical products, construction materials and cheap adulterated fuel, while the region exports livestock and crops across the border. By late 2013, the authorities there said prices of imported products were becoming dearer while local produce fetched less at markets.
The overnight curfew, imposed since security was stepped up with the deployment of fresh troops, prohibits human and vehicle movement between 8pm and 6am.
“Although security is assured now, most peripheral areas still live in perpetual fear and some have moved to central villages with more people and security,” said Ibrahim Haman, an Islamic leader in Mora District of the Far North.
Farming, fetching firewood and other routine activities are becoming risky for many in the Far North, an arid Sahel region and one of Cameroon’s most deprived and impoverished.
“It is the planting season and we have no choice but to risk our lives going into the fields,” said Fahdi Yahadi who lives in Kolofata area of the Far North Region. “We used to feel that since Boko Haram kidnapped only white people, we could not be targeted, but the recent kidnapping of girls in Nigeria and the two local boys has increased people’s fears.”