By Dibussi Tande
Cameroon can no longer remain on the defensive under the guise of respecting a neighbor’s sovereignty and territorial integrity when there is no effective sovereign on the other side of the border, and when that neighbor’s territory is being occupied by a mutual enemy.
Funeral procession of 26 Cameroonian soldiers who died during clashes with Boko Haram in the Far North region in August 2014 (c) LCCLC Facebook page.
During the May 2014 Paris Summit on security in Nigeria, Cameroon’s president Paul Biya, along with other leaders from the region, declared total war on the Nigerian Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram following a series of high profile kidnappings of foreign nationals in Cameroon and the kidnapping of over 200 school girls from the town of Chibok in Nigeria. That declaration of war seemed to have had the opposite effect as Boko Haram stepped up its attacks on Cameroon. In fact, the Paris summit had barely begun when about 200 Boko Haram militants carried out an unprecedented attack on Cameroonian soil, kidnapping 10 Chinese engineers in the town of Waza.
Since then, Boko Haram’s attacks in Northern Cameroon, which shares a 500 km border with the Nigerian state of Borno, have been relentless, brazen, widespread, and increasingly violent. By July 2014, Boko Haram had launched more than 15 attacks in Northern Cameroon “razing villages, looting homes and causing many civilian deaths.” In November, 2014, Cameroon’s army spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Didier Badjeck revealed that between May 17, 2014 and Nov 10, 2014, there had been 18 Boko Haram attacks against Cameroonian troops resulting in the death of 33 soldiers and over 1000 Boko Haram fighters who are estimated to number about 15 to 20,000-strong in the border region.
The most violent Boko Haram attacks on Cameroonian soil occurred in December 2014. First, on December 12, at least 600 Boko haram fighters crossed Lake Chad and launched simultaneous attacks on the villages of Ngouma, Sagme, Ardebe, Dambore and Soueram, but were eventually repelled by Cameroonian forces. At the same time, another group from Borno attacked the towns of Bankim, Amchide and Limani.
Then in the weekend of 26-28 December 2014, about 1000 insurgents launched simultaneous attacks on the towns of Makary, Amchidé, Limani and Mbaljuel. The insurgents also temporarily took control of the Cameroon army base in Achigachia and were dislodged only after airstrikes by the Cameroon air force – a first, which marked a drastic escalation in the conflict as Cameroon abandoned its earlier reluctance to use air power for fear of collateral damage. Eight Cameroonian soldiers died in the attacks along with scores dozens of Boko Haram insurgents. [Click here for Cameroon government statement about the attacks.]
Mounting Frustration with Nigeria
The upsurge in Boko Haram attacks on Cameroon in the last half of 2014 has primarily been due to the Nigerian army’s systematic abandonment of large swathes of territory to Boko Haram around the Cameroon/Nigeria border, particularly in Borno state. Frustration with what Cameroonians perceive see as Nigeria’s abdication of its responsibilities is now palpable especially after the December 26-28 attacks. As journalist Xavier Messè of the French language daily, Mutations, lamented:
Nigeria, the country that was supposed to be at the forefront of the fight because it is the birthplace of Boko Haram, seems to have abandoned the Borno state border with Cameroon. The Nigerian government has retreated over 160 kilometers inland, giving free rein to Boko Haram which has raised its flag over the conquered territory. As a result, Boko Haram now has a fallback zone where it withdraws to with total impunity after striking Cameroonian territory.
It is worth noting, for example, that Boko Haram’s brief takeover of the Achigachia military base in Cameroon was possible largely because the military base in the Nigerian sister town of Achigachia – separated from its Cameroonian counterpart by a dry riverbed – had been abandoned in August by Nigerian soldiers. The base has since become an outpost that Boko Haram fighters use to stage attacks on Cameroonian territory. This is where Boko Haram retreated to after the Cameroonian airstrikes dislodged them from the Achigachia military base.
Cameroon no longer the “weakest link”
Prior to the Paris summit, May 2014, Cameroon was widely considered the weakest link in the (regional) fight against Boko Haram. Its military was criticized for showing “little appetite” for taking on Boko Haram, and Cameroonian authorities lambasted for their “passive response” to Boko Haram’s activities on Cameroonian soil. In fact, even the head of Nigeria’s counter-terrorist, Sarkin-Yaki Bello, complained in May 2014 that "Cameroon, we've engaged them to be more pro-active. They haven't really. Not yet."
Indeed, there was some merit to this claim. As Scott Menner of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has pointed out,
Even though the first signs of Boko Haram’s cross-border activities in Cameroonian territory emerged in early 2012, Cameroonian President Paul Biya only reorganized border security in March 2014, deploying an additional 700 troops to patrol the border.
And it was not until August 2014 that Cameroon’s military command structure was reorganized to take into account the Boko Haram. A presidential decree created a new military region with headquarters in Maroua in the Far North region, and the 41st motorized infantry with headquarters in Kousseri, still in the Far North.
Nonetheless, criticism from Nigeria and others galled Cameroonian authorities who insisted that "Cameroon has never been the weakest link in the chain,” pointing out that Cameroon had “put up an iron curtain with enough firepower, which Boko Haram cannot break."
Today, however, the tables have turned completely as Cameroon authorities and even the Cameroonian public are up in arms and complaining that Nigeria lacks the willingness or the capacity to take on Boko Haram. A Cameroonian defense ministry official quoted by AFP after the Achigachia attack was quite scathing: "Attacks on our territory come from a neighbouring country that calls itself sovereign and does nothing.”
Collapse of Nigerian Army and Birth of Boko Haram’s Islamic Caliphate
The collapse of Nigerian army in northeastern Nigeria in the second half of 2014 was quite puzzling, if not outright humiliating, as one town fell after the other while the soldiers abandoned their bases and weapons and fled. In August 2014, for example, nearly 500 Nigerian troops fled to Cameroon in what Nigerian Defense Headquarters later described in a face-saving statement as the result of valiant Nigerian soldiers “charging through the borders in a tactical maneuver.”
As Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s then senior policy official for African affairs testified before Congress in May 2014, “We’re now looking at a military force that’s, quite frankly, becoming afraid to even engage.”
Today, Boko Haram controls about 20,000 sq. km of land in the three northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. The Nigerian newspaper, Daily Trust estimates this territory to be about the size of Wales, the state of Maryland in the United States, and bigger than Northern Ireland; territory that spans ten local government areas inhabited by more than two million people.
According to additional estimates, at the end of 2014, Boko Haram controlled 20 of the 27 Local Government Areas (LGAs) in Borno state while another report by the Daily Trust stated that as of January 4, 2015, Boko Haram was in complete control of 13 LGAs in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, and had partial control over at least 10 LGAs in Borno. The Telegraph on its part estimates that Boko Haram currently controls 11 LGAs with a population of over 1.7 million people:
Once, the movement’s fighters would launch hit-and-run attacks on defenceless villages. Now, Boko Haram’s realm stretches from the Mandara Mountains on the eastern border with Cameroon to Lake Chad in the north and the Yedseram river in the west.
Thus, “From a ragtag band of fighters conducting sporadic raids and bombings from its hideouts,” writes The Economist, “Nigeria’s Boko Haram is fast evolving into a force able to take and hold territory.”
It is in this vast area in northeaster Nigeria that an emboldened Boko Haram declared an Islamic caliphate in August 2014 thereby posing a major threat to Cameroon now caught in the crosshairs of the Islamist group’s territorial ambitions. As Jacob Zenn, an analyst with The Jamestown Foundation, has explained, Boko Haram is seeking control of territory in northern Cameroonian “to secure supply lines for receiving weapons from Chad and Libya for use in Nigeria.” And, as it becomes increasingly difficult to acquire weapons from these countries, Boko Haram has increased its attacks on Cameroonian villages and gendarmerie and military outposts along the border to acquire weapons, food and even foot soldiers for its jihadist campaign.
Zenn adds the Boko Haram’s interest in Northern Cameroon may also be “for [its] historic value as parts of the former Kanem-Borno Caliphate, or ‘Greater Kanoura.’”
The Kanem-Borno Caliphate’s former boundaries correspond almost precisely to Boko Haram’s current area of operations, and Boko Haram may seek to recreate that caliphate through its own newly-declared caliphate, but with takfiri ideology replacing the Sufi traditions of the descendants of the Kanem-Borno emirs, who Boko Haram has killed or expelled from northeastern Nigeria.
Explaining the Decline of the Nigerian Army
Although by December 2014 the Nigerian army had recaptured some towns previously under the control of Boko Haram such as Gombi, Hong, Uba, Makera, Mubi, Holma and Vimtim (then lost the town of Baga, home to the Multinational Joint Task Force where Boko Haram allegedly killed about 2,000 people), the million dollar question remains: How did the once esteemed Nigerian military which just two decades ago “was seen as a force for stability across West Africa” (reuters); and which was “once described as the most effective fighting force in Africa” and “a source of pride and confidence to Nigerians worldwide” (yacn) fail so woefully to quell an internal insurgency by a ragtag army of religious fanatics?
While there is a multitude of theories explaining the decline of the Nigerian army, there is widespread agreement that the moral among Nigerian troops is very low due to a variety of factors. Says Nigerian journalist, Ameto Akpe:
Reports of desertion and mutiny in the military are rife. Soldiers complain their allowances have not been paid and that money meant to buy weapons has been stuffed into private pockets.
In December, a military tribunal condemned 54 soldiers to death for refusing to fight against Boko Haram.
Add to that “a lack of investment in training [and the] failure to maintain equipment” which some analysts attribute to “both greed and fear [of coups]” which has resulted in “fighting an insurgency without capable security forces.”
Others, for example, the International Crisis Group or Henry Wilkinson of Risk Advisory blame the Nigerian military’s failure to quell the insurgency to its “very imprecise counter-insurgency campaign” and inappropriate “urban warfare, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency training.” The Crisis Group argues that this stems from “Nigeria's security forces had traditionally primarily been trained to protect the country's head of state and institutions, rather than fighting insurgents in remote corners of the nation.”
In the end, says Michael Pizzi, the decline of the Nigerian military is primarily a simple numbers problem:
Decades of military coups in post-colonial Nigeria instilled a fundamental mistrust between the central state and the security services, even after 1999, when a civilian, democratic government took over. That mistrust, coupled with the notion that a large standing army in peacetime posed a mutiny risk, spurred the civilian government to slash the military to a size analysts say is inadequate to subdue such a diffuse insurgency. Nigeria, the world's eighth largest country by population and Africa's biggest economy, today has one of the lowest military personnel-to-population ratios in the world.
To be continued...
Next, the impact of Boko Haram on (northern) Cameroon and exercising the right of hot pursuit.
Click here to read Part 2.