Since President Paul Biya came to power in 1982, Cameroon has been a sleepy regime with a soft and aging dictator, a nation all but forgotten in a remote corner of the African continent. This has dramatically changed with the spillover of Boko Haram from Nigeria into Cameroon in 2014 and its transformation into a regional threat. Now there is not a single day without reports of Boko Haram attacks in northern Cameroon. Even before it realized what it meant, the Cameroonian regime had become part of the fight against terrorism. After initially downplaying the problem, Cameroon’s leaders are now discovering the challenges and dangers of this new war. This rising, external threat sheds a new light on a forgotten country with a strategic position in Africa. The geography of Cameroon is both its blessing and its curse—a pivot between West and Central Africa, divided by language, culture, and history, its very existence depending on a regional stability so often beyond its grasp.
This has many advantages, notably economic ones, but also brings its share of problems, most often security challenges. Moreover, the price it must pay for occupying this pivotal position is that its stability depends on regional stability.
Cameroon, which became an independent state in 1960, is a country defined by its geography. It links two of the continent’s regions—vibrant and densely populated West Africa (about 300 million inhabitants) and forested and less lively Central Africa (about 150 million strong). Cameroon plays a critical role because of its position between an African region with strong political, social, and economic interactions, dating back to pre-colonial history, and a part of Africa where the natural environment forms a historic obstacle to socioeconomic integration, leaving many places isolated and remote.
Above all Cameroon belongs to a special geopolitical category of nations that also includes Turkey, which connects Europe and Asia; Mexico, which connects the two Americas; and Ukraine, which connects Europe and Russia. So Cameroon’s special geography also determines its political destiny.
This is reflected in Cameroon’s perception of itself. The country’s tourist industry slogan is “Africa in miniature.” Its position at the meeting point of two Africas has provided the country with a variety of ecosystems, from the forests typical of Central Africa in the southern part of the country, to the coastal plains sweeping down to the Gulf of Guinea in the west, to the arid lands of the Sahel. This diversity of ecosystems is home to a similarly diverse population. The north is peopled by Fulani and other groups that originally came from West Africa, but population groups of Bantu origin stemming from Central Africa predominate in the south.
The nation’s history reflects the country’s geography. The early German colony after World War I and the failure of its plan to create a “Mittelafrika” was divided into a British protectorate and French Equatorial Africa. The period leading up to the creation of an independent state not only featured a struggle between the nationalist movement and the French colonial power but also a territorial issue—whether Anglophone Cameroon should be integrated into Francophone Cameroon. In 1961, the territory controlled by the British was finally divided, the northern part voting to join Nigeria, the southern part annexed to Francophone Cameroon. The North/South divide has played a key role ever since.
But this historic scar between Francophone and Anglophone Cameroon was of secondary importance to another structural division—between North and South, a partition embodied in the nation’s political system, which seeks to achieve a balance of power between northerners, southerners, and Anglophones. Since Biya assumed power in 1982, the prime minister has been an Anglophone, the president a southerner, and the president of the national assembly a northerner. The recent creation of the Senate in 2013 added another southerner to that triumvirate—disturbing the balance of power.
As the meeting point of two Africas and at the heart of the Gulf of Guinea, Cameroon is at once the gateway to the economy of a part of Central Africa and a trade route between the economies of West and Central Africa. The region’s only deepwater port, Douala, plays a decisive role in its economy. Thanks to the infrastructure created since German colonization and the road and rail networks that radiate toward its hinterlands, Cameroon controls the flow of exports and imports out of and into Central Africa and Chad. The pipeline built to export Chadian oil at the beginning of this century passes through Cameroon on its way to Kribi, where authorities want to build a new deepwater port—a solution to Douala’s saturation problem. Ninety percent of goods destined for Central Africa pass through the port of Douala, so delays there have a disastrous impact not only on Cameroon’s economy but also on the economies of the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR) and Chad.
Thanks to the extent of its territory, which stretches as far as Lake Chad, Cameroon is also a trading route connecting Central and West Africa. The northern part of the country is located on an East-West communications axis that brought the Fulanis from Guinea to Central Africa a century ago, while the Extreme North province belongs to the Lake Chad basin, which includes Nigeria, Niger, Chad, CAR, and Cameroon—a vast regional trade platform in the middle of the continent. So Cameroon dominates the Central African Economic and Monetary Community, with 44 percent of the community’s GDP, 39 percent of its exports, and maintains a trade surplus with all of its partners except Equatorial Guinea. Nigeria has long been Cameroon’s most important trade partner and, sharing a 600-mile common border, is now Cameroon’s most important security problem as well.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Being a pivotal country has deep implications for its own security and that of the region. Some 382 acts of piracy were reported in the Gulf of Guinea from 2007 to 2013, when the number of attacks on ships overtook the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden off the lawless coast of Somalia. Some 54 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea were reported to the International Maritime Organization two years ago, compared with 20 attacks attributed to Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia. The emergence of piracy in a region with a market of close to 455 million people and that produces 5 million barrels of oil per day did not go unnoticed for long.
Cameroon has been a victim, notably in the form of attacks on the towns of Bakassi, Douala, Limbé, and Kribi, of seaborne armed groups working out of neighboring Nigeria with its 500 miles of coastline on the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea. A regional initiative to respond to this threat took shape at the Yaoundé Summit, convened by the United Nations in June 2013, where heads of state representing 22 countries in the Gulf of Guinea, the Economic Community of West African States, the Economic Community of Central African States, and the Commission of the Gulf of Guinea adopted a series of measures to boost maritime security, including the creation of an Inter-Regional Coordination Centre in Yaoundé.
The center was inaugurated in Yaoundé on September 11, 2014 and is at least temporarily run by Senegalese Colonel Abdourahmane Dieng. Staffed for the moment by a small team, it is still very much a work-in-progress, though it’s supposed to be the key piece of a regional maritime surveillance system. Its job is to centralize information received from one center in Congo-Brazzaville and another in Benin. In short, Cameroon has been tapped as the center for regional maritime security architecture in the Gulf of Guinea—the first such transnational security system in coastal Africa.
And Now, Boko Haram
But while the pirates of the Gulf of Guinea are a significant economic drain on West Africa and especially its oil economy, Boko Haram may pose the ultimate existential challenge that promises to stretch across borders. And Cameroon may well prove to be as much a pivot here as it is offshore in the Gulf. The fast growth and regionalization of the Nigerian-founded terrorist group Boko Haram has only compounded the security impact of the 2013 CAR crisis. Then, a conflict between rebel groups and the government of the neighboring CAR led to a complete state collapse. Since then, there has been a de facto partition in CAR, the transitional government is very weak, and various armed groups control most of the territory. Compounded with Boko Haram incursions, the consequences of Cameroon’s pivotal position become increasingly clear—not to mention its vulnerability to external threats.
Initially posing a threat at provincial, then national levels in Nigeria, where it first erupted as a serious terrorist threat more than five years ago, Boko Haram has extended its operational area from northern Nigeria to include the entire Lake Chad basin. The operations of this jihadist armed group, with an announced aim of creating a new caliphate, now cover Borno state in Nigeria and the Extreme North province of Cameroon, reaching as far as southern Niger and western Chad. Since the start of 2014, Boko Haram has carried out violent attacks in Cameroon, seeking to free some of its members who had been arrested by local security forces. Over a period of just a few months, clashes between the Cameroon armed forces and Boko Haram militants escalated into what is virtually a small war in the Extreme North—all but invisible to an outside world preoccupied by the terrorist group’s barbaric attacks and kidnappings of hundreds of young women and girls in its home territory of Nigeria.
Initially used as a safe haven—its current leader, Abubakar Shekau, reportedly stayed in northern Cameroon to elude Nigerian forces. And with kidnappings and logistical support, northern Cameroon has now become a battlefield. Notably, the fighting has evolved from ambushes to full-scale confrontations with the Cameroonian army and its Israeli-trained special forces. Boko Haram has graduated from raids on Cameroonian towns and villages near the Nigerian border to high-profile operations—kidnapping the wife of Vice Prime Minister Amadou Ali, the traditional leader or lamido, Seiny Bokar Lamine, and his wife in Kolofata last July.
Ali’s family had gathered in his hometown of Kolofata to celebrate the end of Ramadan when his wife was kidnapped. She was not released until September, after a series of negotiations which led to the release of 27 hostages including Ali’s wife, the lamido and his wife, 10 Chinese workers, and a dozen others in an undisclosed case of quid pro quo. Generally, Boko Haram kidnappings have involved substantial ransom demands. Moreover, the heavily-armed and well-organized group is directly challenging the regime of the nation’s president, Biya, both on the ground and on the Internet—most recently with Shekau’s video proclaiming his war on Cameroon. Boko Haram is also recruiting Cameroonian youths, mostly from Shekau’s Kanuri community, and is implementing an aggressive strategy against the Cameroonian army by harassing military units with landmines and launching frontal and bloody attacks against military camps. On January 12, Boko Haram tried to take over the Kolofata military base. After a decline of attacks during the rainy season, Boko Haram resumed its violent actions and made clear its determination to challenge the Cameroonian state where it is the weakest—in the remote and neglected periphery of the Far North—just as it has done in Nigeria.
Upping the Ante
As a result, the Cameroon government has stepped up its military action and is trying to shape the regional response. In 2014, Cameroon forces entered Nigerian territory on several occasions. On September 22, Boko Haram lobbed rockets into the Cameroon village of Fotokol, barely a quarter of a mile from Nigerian territory. The Cameroon army promptly crossed the frontier and entered Gambaru Ngala, killing members of the Islamist group. On October 13 and 14, the Cameroon army entered Gambaru Ngala for the second time and shelled Boko Haram positions.
Now, the neighboring countries are trying to formalize a collective response to this threat. A Paris summit in the spring of 2014 led to an agreement in principle to share intelligence and coordinate military actions. In October, the Lake Chad basin countries went further and announced in Niamey, Niger the creation of a regional force to ensure security in the region, but this regional force has failed to materialize. During the second half of 2014, while Boko Haram was intensifying attacks, Chad, Cameroon, and Nigeria expressed a growing distrust of each others’ anti-terrorist efforts and exchanged accusations through “independent” media. In his new year’s speech to diplomats in Yaounde, Biya acknowledged that Cameroon needs foreign support to defeat Boko Haram. The unspoken admission was that the uncoordinated military effort among African states is simply not working.
Even if the president was essentially hinting at military support from the big powers, this bodes well for the still hypothetical regional security cooperation. The governments of Chad and Cameroon agreed to join forces in early January, and two weeks later a first army contingent from Chad moved through Cameroon’s territory and engaged Boko Haram troops in Nigeria. Since the start of 2015, Cameroon has been at the forefront of the diplomatic efforts to staff and arm the regional force. Yaounde hosted an experts meeting from February 5 to 7 and an ECCAS extraordinary summit on February 16.
The vectors of the Boko Haram contagion in Cameroon are now easy to identify—lack of regional security cooperation, compounded by a cross-border ethnic group. The Kanuris, who comprise most Boko Haram troops, straddle the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. At the same time, there are underlying historical contexts in the form of the precolonial entity of Bornou-Kanem, an empire that encompassed much of Chad, northern Cameroon, northern Nigeria and Niger, but declined with the rise of colonialism in the 19th century; cross-border trafficking networks; a close relationship with road-cutter gangs; and a porous environment. The Lake Chad basin is a grey zone on a key trade route where state control is traditionally weak, and where the movement of goods and people is very important and the contraband economy all but institutionalized.
The recent regional mobilization against Boko Haram is largely a response to the realization of its harmful economic impact on Chad and Cameroon. The Cameroon provinces of North and Extreme North and Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, import almost all products, from mobile phones to auto parts and motor bikes to food and medicines (most from Nigeria). In the other direction, the main market for livestock exports from Cameroon and Chad is Nigeria. The bulk of Chad-Nigeria trade passes through the Nigerian town of Gambaru. Boko Haram’s expansion destabilizes both legal and illegal trade networks. Chadian authorities have prohibited all navigation along the River Chari, while along its subsidiary, the River Logone, they control more strictly the bridge linking Ndjamena to the town of Kousseri in Cameroon and have increased patrols in the Lake Chad area.
But security problems are not limited to the Far North. The eastern border is also a troubled zone. The crisis in the CAR has spilled over that country’s borders in the form of incursions by armed groups and the flow of refugees, who so far number about 240,000. The anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) militias, formed as self-defense forces in villages of the western CAR, and the FDPC (Democratic Front of the Central African People) have caused security problems. As a response, the Cameroon government has deployed troops along a section of its country’s eastern border, while also has been contributing to the peacekeeping mission in CAR. Cameroonian peacekeepers were part of the African Union peacekeeping mission in 2014 and are part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission presently deployed. After the kidnapping of a Polish priest in October 2014 at the border between CAR and Cameroon, a series of negotiations led to the release of the leader of the FDPC, demonstrating that armed groups can be a serious nuisance on the eastern border. During their last raid in eastern Cameroon in April 2015, they abducted several traditional leaders and one mayor.
A Tough Neighborhood
Equally, any instability in Cameroon risks having an impact on its neighbors. After 32 years of Biya’s rule, all the elements of a problematic transition are in place. Social discontent is widespread. Opposition and civil society organizations that could have been an alternative are weakened, fragmented, and discredited. The ruling party is divided by long-term rivalries, as well as the security services. The present non-violent status quo barely conceals the many vulnerabilities of the regime. The average age of the population is 19, and youths are enduring difficult living conditions, particularly joblessness. As many as are able, try their luck abroad in Europe, but mostly in neighboring countries (CAR, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea), and this sometimes strains relations.
The internal Cameroonian situation is equally tenuous. A scenario of urban rioting followed by political insurrection cannot be excluded, even by those in power. Far from reassuring anyone, the presidential elections in 2011, won by president Biya with 77.9 percent of the vote, increased concerns. The traditional opposition, represented by John Fru Ndi, was a straw man or sham. Confined to his Anglophone stronghold and assuming his formal status as “historic opposition,” Fru Ndi discouraged many in his own party because he was unable either to rally the nation or go on the offensive against Biya. The other candidates did not receive a significant number of votes because of the absence of parties with a strong popular base. In other words, the political opposition has little to offer. The governing party exploited public fears by adopting a contradictory discourse that fluctuated between “vote for me or chaos” rhetoric and praise for Cameroon’s enduring stability.
The re-election of Biya at the age of 78 for another seven-year term in office fueled fears in the region, especially since the president is not ready to organize succession within his own party while the constitutional arrangements for succession to the head of state risk being derailed by the unleashing of ambitions of the ruling party’s young Turks that have been held in check for a long time. After the fall of Blaise Compaoré in nearby Burkina Faso, there is a great deal of speculation about the form that a post-Biya Cameroon could take in an already insecure regional context.
Hopes of a peaceful transition are running thin among the Yaounde people. Most say that they will send their family out of the capital city in case of Biya’s sudden death. If Cameroon were to enter a crisis, this would create an axis of instability stretching from northern Nigeria to South Sudan, passing through Chad and the CAR. The Central Africa region would then become a major focus of concern.
Cameroon for the moment is the missing link of a potential chain of instability in the heart of Africa. This key region depends on the security of Cameroon and, equally, any regional insecurity will have an impact on Cameroon. This inter-dependence raises the question of whether Cameroon is in a position to deal with the economic, political, and security challenges that stem from its geography. It has launched an ambitious infrastructure program, notably with the construction of a new deepwater port, a motorway linking Douala and Yaoundé, and improvements to the road in the north of the country, which should confirm the country’s role as an economic hub when achieved.
On the other hand, Cameroon has adopted a cautious but positive attitude to regional security cooperation. The creation of a regional coordination center to combat maritime insecurity and moves to set up a regional force against Boko Haram are the first steps for a country whose diplomacy is rather isolationist and distrustful towards its neighbors, especially Nigeria, with which it maintains historically difficult relations. Diplomatic timidity when security problems are taking on regional dimensions is no longer a realistic policy. The latest developments surrounding the anti-Boko Haram regional force show that the Cameroonian government is ready to turn the page of its long isolationist policy and become more proactive in solving the problems in the region.
This new opportunity has already been seized by the United States and other powers who vowed to support Cameroonian security effort, either by training its military forces or by providing military equipment. The recent fall-out between Abuja and Washington is playing in favor of Cameroon, which appears to be a more reliable security partner for the United States. Western powers intend to play a supportive role in the fight against Boko Haram and have already provided intelligence and logistical assistance to the regional armies, though the regional force concept remains elusive so far.
Thierry Vircoulon is the project director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group. This article was first published in the World Policy Journal.