The French government confirmed the kidnapping on February 19, 2013, of seven family members, including four children, in the Northern Cameroon locality of Dabanga. The proximity with the Nigerian border immediately raised suspicions that the Islamist sect, Boko Haram – infamous for the crimes perpetrated in Africa’s most populous country – could be involved. Despite initial denial, the sect’s implication is more than ever obvious, since a video of the hostages and their abductors appeared on the internet on February 25, 2013.
This act of violence is a reminder that – although many in the Cameroonian side refused to admit it – the porous border between Cameroon and Nigeria is a fertile ground for the opening of a second Islamist front in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa. It is an occasion also to focus on the relations between both countries, its impact on the fight against extremism in the region and the stakes of the propagation of such threat.
Ingredients of a danger zone
By its geographic situation, the Lake Chad basin is the buffer zone between the Sahel, and Sub-equatorial Africa; between Central and West Africa. Indeed, the former great lake is shared by Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. It is because of this strategic position in the trade routes that the British colonial power made Maiduguri as the capital of Borno state in Nigeria, in 1900.
The place nowadays makes the headlines for being the original base of the Islamist sect Boko Haram, and the theatre of a severe fight against the organisation by the Nigerian army. More importantly for the purpose of this piece, Maiduguri is part of an insecurity triangle composed of Maroua (Northern Cameroon) and Ndjamena, the capital city of Chad, a territory equivalent to the size of Belgium (approximately 30,000 sq km).
Ambush, human trafficking, kidnapping and robbery are old phenomena on the roads of the Lake Chad basin and specifically near the borders. But several factors are progressively transforming activities that used to ensure the vital minimum to the population and a fragile social peace, into a possible danger zone.
The socio-economic situation is one of those factors: Northern Cameroon, mainly Muslim, has never really profited from the revenues generated thanks to natural resources in the South; the Chad/Cameroon pipeline, which crosses the region, is a mere hose that goes to the coastal city of Kribi.
The economy is mainly based on some non-industrial agriculture activities and micro-tourism. As explained in this analysis taken from famous Cameroonian blog Scribbles from the Den, the region socially and economically resembles Northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram started its activities:
Economically, Cameroon’s “Grand North” region is largely similar to Northern Nigeria with an ever growing disenfranchised and economically-deprived youth population. Like their counterparts in Nigeria, many of these youths are steadily retreating from the secular state and becoming easy prey to groups dangling the carrot of fundamentalist Islam as the way out of their misery and alienation.
A field study led by French researcher Cyril Musila explains that the far Northern part of the country called in French Le Septentrion, is an area where the circulation and the traffic of weapons from various conflicts in neighbouring Chad and Central Africa Republic takes place, as well as the migration of thousands of former fighters.
The environment factor should also be mentioned: for years now, experts and international organisations have been warning of the risks of the drying out of Lake Chad, pointing out increasing malnutrition, rising tensions between communities.
This is the situation that prevails as Boko Haram finds in Northern Cameroon a haven where fighters can seek refuge when repressed by the Nigerian army in neighbouring Borno state.
Nigeria launches ‘manhunt’ for French hostages
Transnational network and implications
Failure of regional and pan-African cooperation and solidarity benefit the movement and organisations of fanatic armed groups around Lake Chad and beyond.
In April 2012, following the de facto secession of Northern Mali, news agencies announced that 100 Boko Haram militants had joined the ranks of the Movement for the Unity of Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – most of them were allegedly involved in the attack of the Algerian consulate in Gao, and the kidnapping of the vice-consul, who was later executed.
Could it be that since April 2012, fanatics from the Nigerian sect have travelled to the North of Mali, and benefitted from a know-how transfer from their counterparts in the Sahel, and learned, for instance, how to take hostages and ask for a ransom?
A report by private-funded Combating Terrorism Center already suggested such possibility in January 2013. Not surprising at all: Nigeria after all shares 1,500 km long border with Niger:
(…) military officials from Niger said that Boko Haram militants are transiting Niger en route to Mali on a daily basis.
While it is true that practice of kidnapping was not in the DNA of the Islamist sect, the recent abduction of seven foreign workers by dissident Boko Haram group, Ansaru, highlighted the internal political and identity crisis faced by the sect.
First signs of divergences appeared in January 2013 when Muhammed Abdulazeez Ibn Idris, on behalf of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, announced the beginning of a truce and dialogue with the Nigerian government. But deadly attacks have continued since then, forcing leaders of the Islamist sect to call to order their troups.
The abductors of the seven French family members identified themselves as Boko Haram. Could they be militants back from Mali, who came back with new techniques to increase terror and, most importantly, benefit from a lucrative activity, that is, foreign hostages?
Insufficient official transnational cooperation
It remains that those groups, either in Western and Central Africa, are filling gaps dug by official governments. Where there is despair and hopelessness in the future, they will be there; where governments fail to organise transnational cooperation and solidarity, they will efficiently use the porous borders well known in the region to expand their activities.
An appropriate and concerted response from the states concerned – which share their borders with the Lake Chad basin – could have considerably mitigated the catastrophic effects on their respective economies.
Attacked on one of the most strategic places for the movement of goods, people and commerce, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic and Niger could be dragged into a crisis, whose main focus would be religious and military extremism.
So far, states of the Lake Chad basin responded mainly through security and military measures. The introduction ofemergency legislation and the current state of emergency have net been able to circumscribe the phenomenon of religious violence.
The ad hoc military forces established – for instance, the Cameroonian Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) specialised in border security – managed to repel bandits and highwaymen in the mid-2000s, but has been unable to identify the spread of Boko Haram’s radical ideology and the establishment of local katibas.
The far North region of Cameroon and northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, where summary executions are perpetrated by special forces, or people are allowed to make private justice in cases of common crimes, are cruel proofs of the resignation by state authorities.
In terms of Homeland Security, an interstate cooperation could help stem part of the phenomenon of religious violence in the Lake Chad basin. Taking the case of the February 19, 2013, kidnapping in Northern Cameroon, could the country’s non-participation in the Multinational Joint Task Force – composed of Nigeria, Niger and Chad – be a factor burdening the ability to help victims in the early hours of their abduction?
It is time for action. As the African Union is preparing to celebrate the African Renaissance, it is important to bear in mind that such rebirth will not be possible if part of the territory remains unchained – in the darkness of religious fanatism and violence.
Julie Owono is a Cameroonian freelance journalist and international relations consultant based in Paris.