Boko Haram, an organisation of Jihadi terrorists operating in West Africa, re-surfaced last week with an attack on a camp near Nguetchewe village, Cameroon. Two assailants forced entry to the camp and launched explosive devices at 11:30pm on August 1st, killing themselves and 17 civilians. The camp is a temporary refuge for 800 people displaced by regional conflict. It is one of many in Northern Cameroon, which collectively house around 321,000 internally displaced Cameroonians and 115,000 Nigerian refugees.
The US embassy in Cameroon has condemned the ‘horrific’ attack, whilst Cameroonian President Paul Biya has sent food, supplies and consolatory words to the victims. Boko Haram are an established menace in Northern Cameroon, as well as in Northern Nigeria, South West Chad and Southern Niger, all of whose borders converge at the Lake Chad Basin. Since 2009, they have been instigating a tireless tirade of terror attacks on citizens in all four regions, particularly in Northern Nigeria where their organization first emerged. They have directly killed 40,000 people during their decade of existence, and have forced 2.2 million more to flee their homes and livelihoods. The UN calls the Lake Chad Basin ‘one of the most deprived and dangerous regions of the world.’
What makes Boko Haram menacing is the indiscriminate nature of their attacks. Boko Haram – whose name means ‘western teaching forbidden’ – claim to be fighting to impose an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria, which is nearly evenly split between Christian and Muslims. Yet any traces of logic in their motivations are contradicted by their direct attacks on muslims (e.g. bombing a mosque in 2014). How do you deal with an organisation that kills just for the sake of destruction? Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin have responded militarily. The countries’ armies have worked together for over a decade under the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), sharing soldiers and communications technology. Initially they fought to ‘checkmate trans-border armed banditry’, but in 2015 the MNJTF adjusted its primary mission to ‘eliminate Boko Haram’.
This approach has had moderate successes. Following a massacre on Chad’s military bases in March 2020, which killed 98 soldiers, Chad swiftly mobilized a counter-attack to push Boko Haram fighters away from populated areas, and in so doing eradicated 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents. Unfortunately, 50 Chadian troops lost their lives in the counter-attack. Therein lies the difficulty of the MNJTF. On the one hand, it seems like they have no alternative but to fight Boko Haram by gun and sword, lest they allow the organization to fester. Negotiations, the diplomatic alternative, seem impossible due to the senselessness of Boko Haram’s mission. On the other hand, fighting means sacrificing the lives of soldiers – particularly in the wet season (April-September), where their lack of advanced equipment renders them vulnerable.
There is no easy solution. But increased humanitarian engagement with local people would certainly be a positive step. Boko Haram stays strong via a continual process of recruitment, syphoning desperate young men from the scores of refugees its violence has created. If these young men had more of a livelihood, they’d be less inclined to join the tirade of violence; Boko Haram would quickly wither.