As if to confirm their growing threat, Boko Haram gunmen recently abducted a French priest in Cameroon - the second such kidnapping of French nationals this year - just days after Nigeria sought Yaoundé’s cooperation in combating the extremist militia.
“The move [by Nigeria] is definitely an indication of the growing level of violence and impunity perpetrated by suspected Boko Haram members and other unknown gunmen in and around the towns and communities between Cameroon and Nigeria. It should be a cause for concern,” said Makmid Kamara, a researcher with Amnesty International.
The brutality of the decade-old movement has worsened since a 2009 uprising that was fiercely put down by the military. Schools, churches, weddings and police stations have been targeted. Security operations, including the latest military offensive launched in May, have yet to stamp out Boko Haram.
Boko Haram has also long been suspected of having links to Al-Qaeda-inspired movements, but the first public statement about this came in 2012 when a top Nigerian military official, army chief Oluseyi Petinrin, said the group had been tied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Niger’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum also said last year that Boko Haram had acquired bomb-making techniques from Al-Qaeda.
Gunmen linked to Boko Haram in February abducted a French Family from northern Cameroon. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau later said in a video message that the kidnapping was in retaliation for Nigeria’s arrest of Boko Haram members. This month the insurgents seized a French priest from the same region. While the militants have extended their reach beyond northeastern Nigeria, some observers remain cautious about connections with Al-Qaeda.
“Boko Haram is a Nigerian, local problem at present more than a regional one. This is not to rule out the potential for transformation, but it has focused its efforts inside the country. I would be cautious on links to AQIM - this is likely less formalized than the word suggests,” said Elizabeth Donnelly, the deputy head of Africa programme at Chatham House.
The Nigerian military offensive has driven off the insurgents from most urban areas in the northeast. The gunmen are believed to have retreated to Gwoza hills around the border with Cameroon, an area some refer to as Nigeria’s Tora Bora.
“The major failure of the military after they dislodged Boko Haram from urban areas was that they did not follow them up and do a mop-up operation. They celebrated victory very early,” said Kyari Mohammed, a political science professor at Modibbo Adama Univesity of Science and Technology in Adamawa.
But he noted that such an operation would not be easy. “It will be difficult for the army to occupy every inch of the territory.”
Nigeria, Chad and Niger formed a Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in 1998 to fight transnational crime, especially small arms traffic crossing their common borders. But the emergence of Boko Haram saw its mandate expanded to include counter-terrorism.
The force’s recent operations include clashes in April with Boko Haram elements in Nigeria’s northeastern Baga area. At least 187 people were killed, and thousands of homes were burnt down. Many residents accused soldiers of burning their homes, while military forces disputed the accusations, blaming the insurgents.
In August, Boko Haram gunmen attacked MNJTF forces in Malam Fotori, Borno State, on the border with Niger, sparking a shoot-out in which 15 insurgents and two soldiers were killed, the army said in a statement.
Cameroon, which shares a 1,690km border with Nigeria, is not part of the MNJTF. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan this month called for Cameroon’s support in combating Boko Haram.
“Cameroon has lived in denial that if it doesn’t get involved in the fight against Boko Haram, then Boko Haram will not get into Cameroon,” said Mohammed. “One way of putting this problem in check is that every country in the region must make border control a security priority.”
Enow Abraham Egbe, member of the Cameroon and Nigeria Trans-border Security Committee, explained that the two countries will conduct coordinated but separate border patrols from 2014.
“We have been monitoring information and reports from other sources, which indicate that a lot of cross-border attacks, as well as displacement of people, is taking place as a result of the ongoing violence. It’s the responsibility of both the Nigerian and Cameroon authorities to effectively police these borders, but in complete compliance with regional and international human rights standards,” Amnesty International’s Kamara told IRIN.
But Nigeria’s own Joint Task Force (JTF) has come under criticism for alleged rights violations. Amnesty International said it had gathered evidence of the deaths of at least 950 people in military custody in the first half of 2013 in the northeastern cities of Maiduguri, in Borno State, and Damaturu, in Yobe State. The deaths allegedly took place during operations meant to counter the Boko Haram threat
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in October called on Yaoundé not to forcefully return Nigerian refugees. A shoot-out broke out in early October near the Nigeria-Cameroon border as Cameroonian forces escorted to the border some 100 Nigerians who had been rounded up on suspicion of being Boko Haram members.
“This [Boko Haram] crisis arose out of a lot of factors - poor governance, lack of opportunity, underdevelopment and so on. It therefore requires a holistic policy response, not only the use of force, though the hard-line elements will only respond to that,” said Chatham House’s Donnelly.