Nigeria’s campaign to quash the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has triggered a surge of bombings in neighboring Cameroon, where the army says it’s making headway in stopping attacks on military targets.
Cameroon’s Far North region has been hit by as many as 19 militant attacks since the beginning of the year, mostly bombings by teenagers with explosive devices strapped to their bodies. At least 74 people were killed, in addition to almost 1,100 civilians who died in extremist violence since 2013, according to government data.
“Increased military pressure in Nigeria has forced militants across the border,” Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst at Bath, England-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said in e-mailed comments. “Boko Haram operates rear bases in remote border areas, which are supported by networks based on ethnic kinship in Cameroon’s Far North region. These factors enable Boko Haram to operate with a degree of impunity.”
Cameroon, the world’s fifth-biggest cocoa producer, is situated on the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea and has sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-largest proven gas reserves totaling 4.8 trillion cubic feet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The Cameroonian government says it’s defeating the insurgents with the help of a joint military task force set up in August to combat a surge in cross-border attacks. The 8,700-member force will consist of soldiers from Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, and Niger, countries which have all been targeted by the militants. France and China have pledged to donate weapons and vehicles.
The task force has a mandate to operate in several countries and “has been doing so with great success, as seen by the tactical changes Boko Haram has been obliged to make,” army spokesman Didier Badjeck said by phone from Yaounde, the capital. “They have been forced to adopt guerrilla tactics and suicide bombings.”
The U.S. has sent 300 soldiers to Cameroon to conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, according to its embassy.
Still, January recorded the deadliest blasts in Cameroon since the insurgents first surfaced with the kidnapping of a French family in 2013. At least 32 people died when four girls blew themselves up at a bustling market in the town of Bodo on Jan. 25. Bombings in villages, mosques and at a school have pushed the death toll up further.
“Cameroon’s armed forces are still spread too thinly to provide security for the remote villages usually targeted by Boko Haram, despite significant military reinforcements in the Far North over the past 18 months,” Liewerscheidt said.
The bloodshed prompted the governor of the Far North to close markets near the border and urge people to do what they can to stop the militants, including the use of magic. A steady influx of Nigerians fleeing the violence in their own country has made the already impoverished area vulnerable to food shortages, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
It wasn’t until July last year that Cameroon witnessed its first bombings carried out by two teenage girls. It isn’t clear how the group recruits children, but widespread poverty and unemployment have made the north “fertile ground” for militancy, according to John Fru Ndi, the country’s main opposition leader, who’s from the northwest.
“Some regions are swimming in luxury while others are in abject poverty,” Fru Ndi said in a speech last month.
In the 2016 budget, the government increased funding to build security posts, schools and health-care facilities in the Far North to 42 billion CFA ($94 million), from 37 billion francs the previous year.
Ethnic and regional loyalties also play a role in the radicalization of young people, according to Liewerscheidt. “Boko Haram skilfully taps into that readily accessible reservoir of new recruits,” he said.
Boko Haram has “lost the conventional military battle,” Vincent Ntuda Ebode, director of the Center for Strategic and Political Studies at the University of Yaounde II, said by phone. “The ongoing bombings are a desperate attempt to sustain fear.”