“Boko Haram has always had a presence in Cameroon,” says Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the South African Institute for Security Studies.
This should come as no surprise. Northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is most active, shares a long and remote border with northern Cameroon. It’s easy for Boko Haram to move between communities on both sides of the border.
But until recently, the militant group didn’t advertise its presence in Cameroon. Experts such as Ewi knew about Boko Haram’s recruitment activities and rear bases in Nigeria’s smaller neighbor and speculated about possible consequences for Cameroon.
The Islamists kept a low profile in Cameroon, staging few attacks. They did, however, abduct a number of foreigners for ransom.
That dramatically changed in July.
Boko Haram began to attack security forces and civilians in Cameroon. Insurgent fighters even even raided the house of Cameroon’s vice prime minister Amadou Ali. The politician escaped, but the assailants kidnapped Ali’s wife.
Northern Cameroon shares much of northeastern Nigeria’s history—and its problems, Ewi says. Both regions were part of the pre-colonial Sokoto Caliphate, the most powerful state in 19th century West Africa.
Dismantled by the British, the caliphate is the historical inspiration for many Islamist insurrections in Nigeria.
Cameroon traditionally has fared better, Ewi argues, because its German colonizers and subsequent independent governments introduced a more centralized form of government than the federal structure the British adopted.
This, along with an early integration of the Islamic elite into positions of authority, helped keep the peace in the region.
Still, Boko Haram was quick to set up in Cameroon’s remote border areas. Cameroon’s government was so slow responding to this development that some media have speculated that the militants and the government have a gentlemen’s agreement to leave each other alone.
“What could have happened in Cameroon is that the leaders could have ignored Boko Haram, because they saw it as a Nigerian problem,” Ewi explains. “And the fear that they had was that intervening would provoke Boko Haram to come after them.”
This was a valid fear. Nigeria among other countries soon pressured Cameroon to rein in Boko Haram. When Pres. Paul Biya finally deployed troops to confront Boko Haram, the group struck back in a series of attacks across Cameroon.
Ewi and other experts see a real risk that northern Cameroon could go the same way as northeastern Nigeria, slipping out of the state’s control. Boko Haram frequently refers to violence against Muslims in other countries—like Central African Republic—in its propaganda and the Nigerian group maintains contact with Al Shabab in Somalia.
If Boko Haram ever develops truly international ambitions, it could carve out an arc of instability stretching from northern Nigeria via Cameroon, Central African Republic and South Sudan into East Africa.
But Ewi says there’s a good chance that Cameroon also could be much more successful battling the insurgents than its larger neighbor.
“Boko Haram has no strategic objective for Cameroon,” Ewi points out. “They are primarily focusing on Nigeria.” That gives the government space to act. And because Cameroon’s politics are more centralized than Nigeria’s are, Yaoundé is in a much better position to address the threat, Ewi says.
Indeed, there have been allegations that strong men in Nigeria have funded Boko Haram in order to oppose Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan and his 2015 re-election bid. Cameroon’s Biya, by contrast, possesses greater control over the political elites in his own country.
Consider this. The Cameroonian army quickly rescued the vice prime minister’s wife after Boko Haram abducted her. The Nigerian army still hasn’t secured the return of the 200 schoolgirls the militants kidnapped from Chibok this spring.