A month ago, the main market in the Cameroonian town of Maroua was bustling with traders and buyers. Now it is a place of fear and suspicion, bordering on paranoia.
Five suicide bombings in just 13 days in the Far North Region, all blamed on Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, have made people jittery. Thousands of troops have been sent north by the government in distant Yaoundé and draconian security measures have come into force across much of the country.
“Since the attacks, nobody dares to come to my bar or any other social gathering along this street,” Clement Tchinda told IRIN outside his premises in central Maroua. “Business has more than collapsed and I don’t know what to do with the rest of my goods.”
The wave of suicide bombings began on 12 July in the town of Fotokol, north of Maroua on the Nigerian border. Two women concealing explosives under their burkas targeted an army bar and a military camp and killed 14 people, including a Chadian soldier. Authorities in the Far North Region responded days later by banning full-face Islamic veils, including the burka, and ordering Muslims to seek permission before gathering in large groups.
But on 22 July, Maroua itself – the capital of the Far North Region, which is 100 kilometres inside Cameroonian territory – became the target. Two girls, reportedly as young as nine and dressed as beggars, carried out the attacks. The first explosion hit the central market. The second ripped through a densely populated residential neighbourhood. Three days later, last Saturday, another suicide bomber, reported to be a teenage girl, blew herself up in a popular night spot.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed at least 48 people and injured scores more, but they are widely seen as retaliation for Cameroon’s involvement in the regional force against Boko Haram. Since a joint offensive earlier this year, the militant group has stepped up attacks in Chad and Niger, the other members of the coalition that border its stronghold in northeastern Nigeria. Maroua is also the base for the Cameroonian military’s operations against the Islamists.
Crackdown hurts livelihoods
Since the latest attacks in Maroua, the government has clamped down, determined to prevent potential suicide bombers from infiltrating deeper into Cameroon and committing attacks in urban centres like Yaoundé and the commercial capital Douala. The burka ban – extended to include all kinds of bulky clothing on men or women – has been imposed across much of the country.
“Any person who tries to hide his or her identity will be considered as a suspect and people should immediately report and stay away from such persons,” local politician Donatien Bonyomo said, announcing tough new measures in the central department of Noun.
“No individual who cannot be identified should be seen taking public transport, on a motorcycle or using any means of movement,” he added. “Any person wanting to wear [a burka] should stay at home.”
While this decision has caused some controversy, many Cameroonians – in a country where about 20 percent of the population is Muslim, most of them in the Far North Region – are in favour of the ban.
“If this will protect the life of innocent people then it should be banned,” Maroua resident Alijah Moussa told IRIN.
A curfew is in place from 8pm until 6am in northern and border regions, where business hours are also limited to between 6am and 6pm. There are also widespread restrictions on movement, military checkpoints on the roads, arbitrary searches of people, vehicles and goods, and on-the-spot ID checks.
Despite this climate of fear, many Cameroonians complain not of the threat from Boko Haram but that their livelihoods are being compromised.
“I’ve just been told not to sell on the streets anymore,” 16-year-old Salif Bashir told IRIN in Maroua.
He said he used to sell phone chargers and other gadgets to passersby during school breaks to pay for his studies.
“I don’t know how I’ll be able to support myself when schools reopen in September. I’m scared of the bombings, but I just can’t stay at home.”
Ismael Sani, a lorry driver who transports goods between Cameroon and Chad, shared Bashir’s anger. “My truck is stopped at several places when [crossing the border]. Some of my goods are taken apart and some end up being destroyed because the military wants to know what I carry.”
Finding the enemy within
The sudden need to have ID papers has serious implications for migrants, refugees and internally displaced people in Cameroon. There are now more than 74,000 refugees from Nigeria living in the Far North Region alone, according to local authorities. Thousands more Cameroonians have also fled the border violence and are now IDPs. Cameroon’s counter-insurgency operations have contributed to a new round of displacement. All are in need of aid.
More than 500 migrants and refugees from Nigeria, Chad and Niger – who had been living in Cameroonian border towns – were recently escorted to camps at the Nigerian border by immigration officers after failing to produce proper identification documents.
“These measures concern only those who are living without regular papers,” said Albert Mekondané Obonou, prefect of Logone and Chari, a department at the northern tip of Cameroon that is part of the Far North Region. “We want to know all those who are living with us in order to better protect our territory and people.”
But many Cameroonians displaced by the violence say they fled Boko Haram without their papers. “I am hoping that the authorities will understand us and help to produce the identification documents,” Moussa Dhubu told IRIN, anxious not to be sent back towards the border danger zone with other suspected foreigners.
Many refugees face similar problems as they were never officially registered and have chosen to live among host populations or as nomadic cattle farmers, and not in camps.
“The new security measures mean that many will go hungry and impoverished in this region, where many depend on small trading to sustain their livings,” said David Magulu, a fellow at the University of Maroua.
He pointed out that many Cameroonians in the Far North Region are uneducated and never deemed it necessary to apply for identification papers. “Some don’t even have birth certificates,” Magulu said.
“How will this group of people who mostly practise hawking survive without falling victim to these measures?”
At times likes this, aid is vital. But most projects, including those formerly run by the United Nations, the World Bank, the Chinese and international faith groups, have been cut back or abandoned because of the security situation.
Marthe Wandu, a spokesperson for local NGO ADELPA said vital UN projects in the Far North Region such as one to reduce infant and prenatal HIV/AIDS morbidity and mortality “have been slowed down by Boko Haram threats.”
The three worst affected areas in the far north, where many health clinics have closed down, cannot be reached.
The UN, which has raised its threat level for the region from 3 (moderate) last year to 5 (high) this year, says it has become difficult to deliver aid to most in-need communities in the Far North Region due to fear of attacks and kidnap. Trucks hired by the government to carry food to the military and IDP camps in the region now require an armed escort. The price for Cameroon’s involvement in the fight against Boko Haram is high.