Recently a group of young men dressed in their Sunday best crosses from Nigeria into northern Cameroon, singing wedding songs in the back of a van. The border authorities let them pass, assuming they are attending a family celebration.
Hours later, the officials realize they made a big mistake. The men turn out to be fighters for the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.
Attempts by Nigerian soldiers to crack down on the group has resulted primarily in the insurgents being pushed back to border areas and into Cameroon. Once across the border, Nigeria’s military can no longer pursue them.
“The threat is increasing,” Cameroon Defence Ministry spokesman Didier Badjeck says. “We assume Boko Haram has between 15,000 and 20,000 men in the border region. They have a lot of capacity.” Residents of northern Cameroon, which used to be an area of stability in conflict-ridden Central and West Africa, now live in fear.
“Cameroon doesn’t believe Nigeria’s government has the willingness or the capacity to halt Boko Haram,” says Joseph Ntuda Ebode, a political analyst at the University of Yaounde.
Because Boko Haram fighters are often reported to be wearing Nigerian army uniforms during attacks, Cameroonian authorities assume “complicity at a very high level in Nigeria’s government or military,” Ntuda Ebode says.
Residents know their army struggles to secure the nation’s long and porous border with Nigeria, which runs more than 2,000 kilometres from Lake Chad along Nigeria’s Borno and Adamawa states – two of the regions worst hit by Boko Haram violence – all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Boko Haram’s infiltration began with the kidnapping of a French family in northern Cameroon in 2013, followed by the abduction of three foreign priests and a nun in the past 18 months. When attacks became much more frequent and took place deeper inland this year, up to 100 kilometres from the border, alarm bells began to ring in Cameroon.
The government realized the group was trying to create a base for its fighters and weapons in Cameroon.
There are also reports that Boko Haram is recruiting young Cameroonians into its ranks. President Paul Biya reacted by declaring “war on Boko Haram,” signaling his doubts that Nigeria will manage to halt the insurgents.
“The public enemy Boko Haram has remained a permanent threat to peace and security,” Biya says. The president created two new military brigades of 1,000 men each, who have been permanently based in the Far North region. Key border points are now protected by tanks.
In addition, an undisclosed number of special forces trained in counterterrorism have been sent north as well as a battalion of special air, water and reconnaissance troops. “This way, we make sure we can be anywhere within 10 minutes,” Colonel Badjeck says.
“If Boko Haram is trying to make Cameroon its base, they will fail.” He said the military has killed about 100 militants in clashes this year and a few soldiers have also died.
But because the north is highly populated – almost 6 million of the nation’s 21 million people live here – it remains difficult to monitor militant movements despite the presence of the extra troops.
As a result, the local population is living in fear of attacks like one last month on the village of Gorsi Tourou. More than 300 heavily armed insurgents descended at dusk from forests onto the village, throwing grenades and spraying it with machine gun fire. Dozens of villagers were killed, according to local media reports.
The militants looted homes and carried off money, food and other goods. Residents fled in panic, village chief Moussa Sambo says, adding that when Cameroonian soldiers arrived, the attackers disappeared into Nigerian territory. Tourists, the region’s main economic drivers, are heeding travel warnings and staying away.
Waza National Park, known for its elephant safaris, is deserted. Aid and infrastructure projects have been put on hold. “Every day, Boko Haram members come into the villages, and, of course, everyone knows everything in a small village,” says Elias Atia, a taxi driver in Yaounde whose family lives near the northern town of Waza.
“The villagers are caught in the middle,” Atia says. “They don’t want to report Boko Haram because they fear revenge.”
There is another reason why locals, the majority of whom are Muslim, have been reluctant to cooperate with the military: Many of those living in the border regions of northern Cameroon and southern Nigeria are related and unwilling to give up family members.
The military, meanwhile, vows it will not tolerate those who protect Boko Haram. “If there is a pocket of support, we will bomb and burn it,” Badjeck says. “There is no democracy in terrorism.”