Proving, once again, that borders in this part of the world are little more than an inconvenience, Boko Haram militants launched another attack in Cameroon on Sunday. This one was even scarier than those that have come before, because it wasn’t just ordinary, innocent civilians who paid the price. The militants made off with the wife of one of Cameroon’s top politicians – and if she’s not safe, then who is? By SIMON ALLISON.
It is a paradox of warfare that it is always society’s most vulnerable that suffer the most. All too often, it is the poor that lose their lives and livelihoods; it is the powerless who are forced out of their homes with nowhere else to go. If you’re rich and influential, then you can buy protection, or a ticket to somewhere safer – even if, as is almost always the case, it is the rich and powerful who caused the problems in the first place.
So it is a compelling sign of just how bad things have got when even society’s elite cannot protect themselves.
On Sunday, militants from Nigeria’s Boko Haram – the Islamist militant group that has killed over 2,000 people in Nigeria this year alone, and kidnapped hundreds more – launched another daring cross-border raid into Cameroon. This is not the first time Boko Haram has illustrated that it views national borders as irrelevant. There have been several attacks already on Cameroonian soil, and Nigerian authorities have alleged that some of the group’s operations in Nigeria are orchestrated from bases within Cameroon (geographically, this makes sense: northern Cameroon borders north-eastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is most active).
Sunday’s raid was on the northern town of Kolofata, traditional home of Cameroon’s Vice-Prime Minister Amadou Ali. In Cameroon, most executive power resting in the hands of President Paul Biya. Nonetheless, Ali is one of Cameroon’s top politicians.
Map: The red red square points to Kolofata. (Courtesy Google maps)
Details of how and why the raid was conducted are still sketchy, but we do know its consequences: three people dead, and at least two others kidnapped. The kidnap victims included a local religious leader (clearly not religious enough for Boko Haram) and the wife of Vice-Prime Minister Ali. According to authorities, she was at home at the time of the raid.
It is an extraordinary show of strength from the Nigerian group. Amadou Ali’s wife, who has remained unnamed, is not an easy target. She would have had her own armed guard, and the house would have been properly secured – this is already a dangerous area, after all. Nonetheless, any precautions taken were clearly insufficient. Boko Haram has not only embarrassed Cameroon’s security forces, but it has nabbed a high-value bargaining chip with which to exact concessions from the Cameroonian state.
It also marks a distinct change of tactics from the group in terms of its Cameroonian operations. “Boko Haram is entrenched in Cameroon,” explained Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst for crisis management firm Red24 and a specialist on the region, in comments to the Daily Maverick. “They are suspected of possessing a presence, in addition to operational bases, in an area extending from Lake Chad to the foothills of the Mandara Mountains. Up until now, they have been operating in Cameroonian territory with relative impunity…While there have been clashes between Boko Haram and Cameroon soldiers previously, especially in and around areas such as Fotokol and Kousseri, these were almost accidental and generally resulted due to both groups running into each other. However, the kidnapping of the vice-PM’s wife…is indicative of a more deliberate and aggressive stance we are likely to witness from Boko Haram in terms of its operations in Cameroon.”
Probably, this change of approach was sparked by new political developments in the region. Clearly concerned about the trans-national threat posed by Boko Haram – as they should be – leaders from Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad recently signed an agreement to form a joint anti-Boko Haram unit, with each county contributing 700 troops to the new force.
“While their mandate remains unclear, it appears this composite force will be spearheading counter-insurgency operations against Boko Haram around the Lake Chad area,” said Cummings. “[This is] an unprecedented move as anti-Boko Haram initiatives by Nigeria’s neighbours to date have been focused on intelligence sharing and increased border patrols.”
It is about time that West Africa adopted a concerted regional response to Boko Haram, which has long been taking advantage of poorly-policed border areas. But Boko Haram was never going to take this development lightly, and the latest attack on Cameroon could well be the beginning of more regional attacks, with Niger presenting another likely target. Things could well get worse before they get better – if, indeed, they do get better. DM
Photo: Cameroonian President Paul Biya arrives for a meeting with French President Francois Hollande (not seen) at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, 30 January 2013. EPA/IAN LANGSDON
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