In early March 2015, Abubakar Shekau, leader of the revolutionary insurgent group Boko Haram, swore bay’ah, or allegiance, to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). They accepted this pledge a few days later. This move focused international attention toward the Nigerian-based organization, one of the most violent extremist groups currently in existence. The United States has been offering support to the government of Nigeria for several years to counter Boko Haram, but to limited success. In recent months, the African Union (AU) has drafted a plan for a multinational force to counter the group. Cameroon, which Boko Haram uses as a staging ground for planning and carrying out attacks, will be a key member of this force. Considering the willingness of the government of Cameroon to adopt a whole-of-government approach and the threat Boko Haram poses to Cameroon’s stability and that of the entire region, increased United States support to Cameroon could prove fruitful both in stopping Boko Haram’s expansion and ultimately defeating the group.
It has been six years since the death of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf at the hands of Nigerian security forces launched a devastating insurgency that has taken the lives of thousands of civilians and displaced millions (including 800,000 Nigerian children). This destructive influence has not been limited to Nigeria: the entire Lake Chad Basin has suffered as a result. Boko Haram has used Lake Chad to run drugs and stage attacks. Trade in the region has suffered, and tourism has all but dried up. This, along with cross-border attacks into neighboring countries such as Cameroon, has brought the problem home for bordering nations once content to regard the issue as uniquely Nigerian.
The government of Nigeria has thus far been ineffective in its efforts to quell the threat posed by Boko Haram due to an overreliance on heavy-handed military tactics. These actions have alienated the largely Muslim population of Nigeria’s northeast, which is potentially sympathetic to Boko Haram’s cause. The Nigerian government under President Goodluck Jonathan lacked the political will to tackle the conflict at its roots, and Boko Haram took advantage of this reality to expand its influence over the past year. This may change once President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, whose campaign focused on eradicating Boko Haram and eliminating corruption, takes office. So far, however, the United States has been unsuccessful in urging Nigeria to adopt a whole-of-government approach, finding itself without the leverage necessary to facilitate a change in Nigerian policy.
Due to the limited success of the Nigerian government in stemming Boko Haram’s violence, Nigeria’s neighbors have begun to play an increasing role in responding to the threat posed by the group. Cameroon, in particular, has deployed troops from its elite Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) to its border region and has even launched missions into Nigeria to pursue Boko Haram insurgents. Beyond kinetic operations, Cameroon has shown more of an inclination to address the underlying causes of the conflict within its borders than Nigeria.
Boko Haram has a substantial presence and history in Cameroon. Despite Cameroon’s recent attempts to combat the group, Boko Haram has illicitly used Cameroonian territory to its advantage in the past. Indeed, Boko Haram’s time in Cameroon has played a significant role in the development of the group (although not a role sanctioned by the government). Following the killing of Mohammed Yusuf, many Boko Haram members fled Nigeria and settled in Cameroon (although there has been a presence in Cameroon going back as far as 2003). Since around 2011, Cameroon has served as an operating base for the group. There are even estimates that up to half of Boko Haram’s members are Cameroonian.
Many of the same factors that contributed to Boko Haram’s rise in Nigeria are also present in Cameroon, albeit to a lesser degree. As in Nigeria, there is a sharp divide politically, economically, and culturally, between the north and south of the country. In the predominantly Muslim north of Cameroon, where unemployment and poverty rates are high, Boko Haram actively recruits among disenfranchised youth (lending some support to the membership figure noted above). Some join as a way to provide for themselves and their families; others believe that joining is the only way to protect those they love from violence. Furthermore, many northerners feel isolated and excluded from the governance process. In the predominantly Christian south, on the other hand, where the majority of the country’s wealth and political influence is located, many view Boko Haram as an inherently northern problem. But given Boko Haram’s large contingent of Cameroonian fighters and the lingering resentments of many northerners due to the socio-economic divide between the country’s north and south, the group poses a significant risk to the stability of the entire nation.
Cameroonian President Paul Biya, a Christian southerner, recognizes this threat and has introduced a number of initiatives meant to tackle the issue at every level. In addition to the BIR operations mentioned above, Cameroon plans to deploy 20,000 more troops over the next two years to counter Boko Haram. Cameroon has also committed 750 troops to the AU-proposed Multi National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a regional task force to be comprised of troops from Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, and Benin. A resolution for this force is currently being reviewed by the UN, although some harbor doubts as to whether it will be approved.
In an attempt to confront the ethno-religious factor, Cameroon recently held a conference during which Muslim and Christian leaders discussed promoting religious tolerance. While some Muslim leaders decried the fact that Christians were invited to participate, others used the platform to denounce violence and assert that Cameroonians must reject Boko Haram’s and ISIL’s ideology, which they stated has no basis in Islam. In the economic realm, Cameroon recently devoted $8 million in grant money for young business owners in the north. Moreover, this March the government announced the creation of an emergency fund in the amount of $133 million that will be used to support projects in the Far North Region ranging from road construction to energy to agriculture.
Despite its efforts to counter Boko Haram, Cameroon lacks the capacity to succeed on its own. There are currently over 100,000 displaced persons living in northern Cameroon (some are refugees from Nigeria; others are Cameroonians who have fled their homes). Many Cameroonian farmers have abandoned their farms, creating a food shortage in an area that already struggles with food insecurity. The longer the insurgency drags on, the more refugees will take shelter in Cameroon and neighboring countries.
Cameroon also has a problem with military capacity. According to Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, although the BIR is well-trained, the rest of Cameroon’s defense forces are overstretched and underfunded. Moreover, Cameroon’s defense budget is set to receive only a small increase of $16 million in 2015, even as procurement and operational costs continue to rise. In addition, there are concerns that the regular army is unprepared to defend the country against a large-scale attack by well-trained Boko Haram insurgents. The militants the army has thus far faced have been mostly youth, recruited as recently as three weeks prior to confrontation with military forces. The ability of the army to repel well-armed, seasoned fighters is doubtful. In early January 2015, President Biya appealed to the international community for more military aid, stating that while Boko Haram has been weakened, it remains capable of “bouncing back.” The United States pledged in February to help Cameroon secure needed equipment, but no specifics were given, and no timetables were discussed publicly.
Furthermore, Boko Haram is not the only group that threatens Cameroon’s stability. Cameroon faces growing unrest in its east stemming from militants from the Central African Republic (CAR). The majority of Cameroon’s security efforts are currently focused on combating Boko Haram in the Far North Region, a fact CAR militants have taken advantage of in launching violent incursions into Cameroon’s east. With limited capacity to support its growing security concerns, Cameroon needs outside support if it is to continue its current actions against Boko Haram in the long run while simultaneously addressing threats emanating from other groups.
Given Cameroon’s willingness to consider a whole-of-government approach to the insurgency and the threat posed by Boko Haram to Cameroon’s stability, the United States should consider increasing its support to the government of Cameroon for counter-Boko Haram activities. Cameroon and the United States already have a strong track record of cooperation on everything from public health to regional security to economic development. Plus, Cameroon’s willingness to work with other countries and international organizations such as the AU (as shown by its support for the MNJTF) exemplifies the regional approach the United States is advocating for. Support from the United States to Cameroon could come in the form of increased humanitarian aid to refugees in the Far North Region (including food, medical supplies, and tents), development assistance to support the socio-economic initiatives already underway, military and professionalism training for the regular army (which lacks the skill of the BIR), and military equipment.
Of course, neither the government of Cameroon nor the Cameroonian armed forces are without controversy. There have been troubling reports in local media of civilian abuse at the hands of security forces and the police. Unlike the BIR, many units of the army and the police force are poorly trained and equipped; some also practice extortion. In addition, the government under President Biya, who has held office since 1982, is hardly democratic. Biya has revised the constitution to allow himself to continue to run for president despite having surpassed the original two-term limit, and he continues to hold sway over the country’s most important institutions including the Supreme Court and the National Assembly. But these concerns should not keep the United States from increasing assistance to Cameroon; the stakes for failure against Boko Haram are too high. The United States should continue to stress the importance of human rights and press for transparency of government in its dealings with Cameroon; it could also consider withholding truly “lethal” aid, including weapons, ammunition, and armored vehicles to ensure it will not be used against civilians.
If the United States fails to act in support of Cameroon, Boko Haram may gain a larger foothold in the country, and indeed in the region. As mentioned earlier, Boko Haram has now linked arms with ISIL, a move that gives both organizations credibility (Boko Haram can say it is allied with one of the most successful terrorist groups in recent history; ISIL can use Boko Haram’s swearing of bay’ah as proof of its burgeoning caliphate). While it is doubtful that ISIL would come to the aid of Boko Haram if it were to be weakened, it is conceivable that Boko Haram may seek training from or tactical coordination with ISIL in the future. Boko Haram has trained with other terrorist organizations in the past, specifically al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A better-trained and organized Boko Haram will spell trouble, particularly given the operational shortfalls of countries like Cameroon.
While Boko Haram has suffered setbacks due to the recent coordinated actions of Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad, it would be a mistake to assume the group is on its last legs. Boko Haram has shown considerable resiliency in the past, and a strategic retreat is not out of the realm of possibility. A focused, long-term effort is needed if the group is to be defeated. Working in concert with Cameroon and other local partners, the United States can help eliminate this threat to regional stability.
Alexander Powell is a Research Assistant at the CNA Corporation’s Center for Strategic Studies. CNA Corporation is a nonprofit research institution based in Arlington, VA. The views expressed here are his own.