Maroua, Cameroon – Life has been turned upside-down in the sun-scorched city of Cameroon’s semi-arid Far North Region evidenced by the fact that taxis are only available at night.
“There is no law that says you can only come out at night,” said cab driver Mactar Mohamad in broken French. “But we prefer to work at night, when there are no motorcycles in the streets.”
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The handful of yellow cabs, battered by overuse, begin showing up in the unlit and bumpy streets at around 8pm, as the rest of the city starts to shuts down, according to Raymond Roksobo, the prefect of Mayo Tsanaga, an administrative unit in the Mandara Mountains on the Cameroon-Nigerian border. The only other people allowed out at night are private car owners.
“You see,” Mohamad said, “people are forced to take a taxi at night and pay well if they do not have a private car to move around. It is better for me to work at night. It is risky but more profitable.”
Given the choice, most people here will rather take a motorbike. It is a cheaper and faster means of public transportation in both rural and urban areas. Motobikes, referred to locally as “bend skins” can also go farther than taxis or passenger buses.
But recently the image of the motorbike has been badly tarnished.
Fighters in the Nigerian armed group Boko Haram also prefer the two-wheelers to travel the rugged terrain of northern Cameroon, where they have frequently struck targets on border villages, security outposts, and have kidnapped foreign tourists and missionaries.
Earlier this year, the regional administration banned bikes in remote places altogether and limited their use in big towns and cities like Maroua to no later than 8pm, as part of broader measures to crack down on Boko Haram incursions. This led to the emergence of the night-time taxi business.
Motorbikes were singled out in a targeted curfew after suspected Boko Haram members abducted the wife of Cameroon’s vice prime minister, Amadou Ali, on the eve of Ramadan in July. A municipal official was also abducted and several people were killed in the attack at Kolofata, a village with relatives on both sides of the border.
The armed group has been involved in a bloody armed campaign in Nigeria since 2009, and recently announced it had carved out an Islamic territory northeast of the country. The Nigerian military later rejected this claim. But Boko Haram’s activities in Cameroon are more recent and on the rise. The United States has designated Boko Haram as an international terrorist group.
“Boko Haram overshadowed all other problems like poverty and the lack of potable water that we had,” said Mohamad. “People do not know if they should be finding food or try not to get killed.”
Reign of fear
Cameroon has increased troop levels, sent in armoured vehicles, created new military units, and recently appointed new commanders in the region. A commando force, the Rapid Response Battalion (BIR), initially created to fight highway robbery and piracy, has now taken up border security.
Armed soldiers now watch the installations and runways at the Maroua international airport. Military tanks routinely patrol the streets of Maroua. “Most people seen outside at night, including some taxi drivers, are security people,” said Mohamad.
Villagers have been drafted in to gather intelligence for the military and control the movement of people, said Roksobo.
At Minawao camp, where 13,000 refugees who fled Boko Haram attacks in northeast Nigeria now stay, residents have created a 24-man vigilante group of Christian and Muslim men, who work day and night.
In interviews, authorities claim things are under control. But in private, they admit that Boko Haram is relentless and poses a serious threat, one that can degenerate into interreligious conflicts common in neighbouring Nigeria.
Fighting between Cameroonian troops and Boko Haram fighters intensified in the month of August and September with casualties on both sides, according to officials and media accounts.
The army killed more than 100 rebels in clashes along the border on September 6, the minister of communication and government spokesperson, Isa Tchiroma said. Six people were killed in two separate clashes as recently as September 18.
With no signs that the war against Boko Haram will be over soon, current security measures are far from reassuring for most people who work and live in northern Cameroon.
The United Nations and other organisations have pulled out humanitarian and development workers from border localities, said Roksobo. They only go to the safest parts of the region with military escort.
“I cannot put UN staff at risk,” said Najat Rochdi, the resident coordinator of UN agencies in Cameroon, who recently toured parts of the Far North to access humanitarian needs.
Western countries like France and the US have issued travel warnings for northern Cameroon.
Residents of some border villages have also fled to live with relatives far away from the reach of Boko Haram. In August, the local administration estimated the number of internally displaced persons for that month at more than 1,500.
‘Incredible’ socioeconomic impact
The local economy, humanitarian work, and social life have all taken a hit from the activities of Boko Haram and the security response of the Cameroonian government, officials, residents and development workers said.
The UN estimates that 1.8 million people are at risk of food insecurity in Cameroon. Six million face epidemics while nearly 200,000 children already suffer from either severe acute malnutrition or milder forms. Most of them are in the Far North Region.
Our region enjoyed strong commercial exchanges with Nigeria but the phenomenon of Boko Haram has reduced the movement of people and goods. There is a clear economic cost.
Because of reigning insecurity, humanitarian workers are unable to deliver food and nutritional rations, said Rochdi. Millions of children have missed vital doses of vaccines because aid workers cannot reach them. Water and sanitation projects have also stalled.
Conditions have worsened is a region already considered one of the most impoverished in Cameroon. The prices of fuel, food and other basic needs have shot up with travel restrictions to the border, officials and residents reported.
“The socioeconomic impact is incredible,” said Roksobo. “Our region enjoyed strong commercial exchanges with Nigeria but the phenomenon of Boko Haram has reduced the movement of people and goods. There is a clear economic cost.”
Officials and aid workers now fear that deepening hardship could drive idle young people towards Boko Haram. Many have been left jobless by the ban on motorbikes.
“We are taking steps to occupy young people,” said Roksobo. Local administrators and the central government had identified a number of projects to occupy jobless youths, he said, but declined to provide details.
Residents of the big cities, like Mohamad in Maroua, are safer than those near the border, but while the fighting lasts, they, too, are having sleepless night.
“We are part of this war,” Mohamad said. “When you hear that your village has been attacked, you cannot sleep. You wonder whether your brother or sister has been killed.”