Tighter security in Cameroon’s Far North Region due to the widening threat posed by Nigeria-based radical Islamist militia Boko Haram is stifling cross-border trade, hurting livelihoods and raising fear among civilians.
Cameroon has stepped up security over the Boko Haram (BH) threat. In November 2011, Nigeria shut its border with Cameroon, prompting Yaoundé to bolster security in the largely Muslim Far North Region, close dozens of Koranic schools and hand over suspected BH members to Nigeria, which reopened the border in 2012.
Despite the intensified security, suspected BH militants on 19 February abducted seven French tourists, including four children, from a national park in the Far North Region, freeing them two months later.
Cross-border trade sustains the local economy in the Far North Region which sells onions, rice, maize, livestock and other agricultural goods to Nigeria, and imports sugar, cement, textile and electronics.
“Tight border security and checks are making business impossible for some of us. This was worsened by the kidnapping of [the French] tourists. Today all the goods must be checked before entry, and taxes are so high,” said Doudou Yaouba, a trader in Maroua, the regional capital.
Yaouba, who exports groundnuts to Nigeria’s Borno State and returns with sugar and textiles, said he was thinking of starting another business due to the security restrictions.
The region also depends on inferior quality petrol locally known as `zua-zua’ which is smuggled in from Nigeria. Strict border controls have caused its price to rise.
“There are so many border checkpoints and it is very difficult for `zua-zua’ suppliers to get through. Petrol now sells at 600 [CFA] francs a litre compared to 400 francs before the crisis,” said Joel Alim, a petrol trader in Maroua.
Fertilizer imports have also ceased after the Nigerian authorities banned production and distribution over fears that BH was using fertilizer to make bombs, Mahamat Abakar, an official at Cameroon’s Ministry of External Relations, told IRIN.
The cross-border cattle trade has also taken a hit owing to the tightened security. “More than 1,000 cattle are traded into Nigeria weekly from Cameroon but the movement of herds has been very slow and is even blocked at certain points by Nigerian security,” said Maroua cattle trader Ousmanou Mamadou.
“Less than half the normal cattle supply into Nigeria is possible, and only through very difficult terrain. Recently more than 800 cattle were blocked from crossing the Nigerian border in Kotokol,” he added.
Abakar said the government had to negotiate the reopening of the border following pleas by locals.
“People living near the border requested the Cameroon government to intervene in the decision by Nigeria to close the border because they were facing a very severe impact from the closure,” said Abakar.
“The border was reopened in February 2012 after negotiations with Nigeria. Cameroon assured Nigeria that its own side of the border is secure after 600 soldiers were deployed to the region.”
Cameroonian authorities are wary of BH’s infiltration into local communities and mosques. There are cultural and religious similarities between Cameroon’s Far North Region and neighbouring northeastern Nigeria. One of the worst explosions of religious violence in northern Nigeria in the 1980s was triggered by a Cameroonian religious scholar, Mohammed Marwa, who led the “Maitatsine” movement.
Cameroon’s north and Nigeria’s north share similar deep-seated Muslim political grievances and BH’s ideology could trigger political problems in Cameroon, say some analysts.
“Cameroon should worry about BH. We have a civilized Islamic practice in Cameroon. However, we are not sure that we won’t have radicals one day. BH’s fight is due to the economic and political context of northern Nigeria, with disputes over the equal sharing of national resources. Cameroon finds itself in a similar context and so measures must be taken,” said Alain Didier Olinga, political analyst and lecturer in international law at the International Relations Institute of Cameroon.
“The government’s strategy to dissuade BH is basically military, but governments must understand that the absence of true knowledge of what Islam is can only encourage Islamism,” Olinga said.
Despite the deployment of troops to the northern region, it is not easy to police the 1,690km border with Nigeria.
“The borders are vast and to ensure full security along the whole territory is practically impossible. Checkpoints are mounted at cross-border routes and patrols are being enforced around the regions, most especially on Waza National Park where the French family was kidnapped,” a senior Defence Ministry official told IRIN on condition of anonymity.
Abakar from Cameroon’s External Relations Ministry said the government was also closely monitoring suspected BH militants, Koranic schools, preachers and sermons in mosques as well as collaborating with religious leaders.
Hayatou Muhamadou, head of Islamic studies at Yaoundé Central Mosque, said: “We don’t permit unidentified preachers in mosques and the Islamic community in Cameroon has been strongly warned against such practices… What we cannot guarantee is avoiding unknown worshippers in our local mosques. It is difficult to point out extremists in worship.”
For some residents of Cameroon’s Far North Region, the troop deployments and increased security measures seem to be causing more fear than BH: “This period is very difficult for us. Our fear is not exactly BH, but the soldiers’ presence. Everyone here is presumed to be suspect by the soldiers,” said a local resident who gave his name only as Yousouf, adding: “But we have been collaborating with the security forces by giving information and reporting suspected persons.”