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Understanding Boko Haram: A Fieldwork view from Cameroon

Published On January 21, 2014 | Field Reports

On Monday 13 January 2014 there was a car bombing in the Northern Nigerian City of Maiduguri in which 17 people were reported dead. Boko Haram militants claimed responsibility. This piece is about Boko Haram, whose activities span the geographical space of Central and West Africa, emanating from Nigeria.

What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram has received multiple meanings and definitions from scholars with varied backgrounds. Broadly understood, it is known as the Congregation and People of Tradition for the Proselytism and Jihad. It is an Islamic movement which strongly opposes non sharia legal systems and what they deem westernization. It seeks to establish sharia law in the country especially in the Northern parts of Nigeria. It was formed in Maiduguri. Etymologically, the term Boko Haram comes from Hausa, an indigenous language that is largely spoken in Northern Nigeria. ‘Boko’ in Hausa figuratively means “western education” and “Haram” again figuratively mean “sin” (Literally meaning ‘forbidden’).

Since the beginning of the 21st Century (2001) when the activities of Boko Haram became more visible in Nigeria, researchers, scholars and journalist and jack-of-all trades have taken keen interest on it. Table one shows the activities of Boko Haram in the past 4 years.

Table 1: Date and place of Operation in Nigeria


Place of Operation

7 September 2010

Bauchi prison break

31 December 2010

December 2010 Abuja attack

22 April 2011

Boko Haram frees 14 prisoners during a jailbreak in Yola, Adamawa State

29 May 2011

Northern Nigerian bombing

16 June 2011

The group claims responsibility for the   Abuja police headquarters bombing

26 June 2011

Bombing attack on a beer garden in Maiduguri leaving 25 dead and 12 injured

10 July 2011

Bombing at the All Christian Fellowship Church in Suleja Niger State

11 July 2011

The University of Maiduguri  temporary closes down its campus citing security concerns

12 August 2011

Prominent Muslim Cleric Liman Bana is shot dead by Boko Haram

26 August 2011

2011 Abuja bombing

4 November 2011

2011 Damaturu attacks

25 December 2011

December 2011 Nigeria bombings

5–6 January 2012

January 2012 Nigeria attacks

20 January 2012

January 2012 Kano bombings

28 January 2012

Nigerian army says it killed 11 Boko Haram insurgents

8 February 2012

Boko Haram claims responsibility for a suicide bombing at the army headquarters in Kaduna.

16 February 2012

Another prison break staged in central Nigeria; 119 prisoners are released, one warden killed.

8 March 2012

Christopher McManus, abducted in 2011 by a splinter group Boko Haram, both hostages were killed.

31 May 2012

During a Joint Task Force raid on a Boko Haram den, it was reported that 5 sect members and a German hostage were killed.

3 June 2012

15 church-goers were killed and several injured in a church bombing in Bauchi state. Boku Haram claimed responsibility through spokesperson Abu Qaqa.

17 June 2012

Suicide bombers strike three churches in Kaduna State.

3 October 2012

Around 25–46 people were massacred in the town of Mubi in Nigeria during a night-time raid.

18 March 2013

2013 Kano Bus bombing: At least 22 killed and 65 injured, when a suicide car bomb exploded in Kano bus station.

7 May 2013

At least 55 killed and 105 inmates freed in coordinated attacks on army barracks, a prison and police post in Bama town.

6 July 2013

Yobe State school shooting: 42 people, mostly students, were killed in a school attack in northeast Nigeria.

13 January 2014

Car Bombings in Maiduguri killing 17 people

SOURCE: Ayodeji Bayo Ogunrotifa, (2013) “Class Theory of Terrorism: A Study of Boko Haram”, Research on Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 3 No 1; Also see http//en. Retrieved 3 September 2013 and updated by author on 15 January 2014.

A cursory peruse of Table 1 above suggests that between 2010 and 2013 there were twenty-six attacks carried out by Boko Haram. Out of these attacks, the least were in 2010. In 2011, there were eleven attacks and the apotheosis of the attacks came in 2012 with thirteen attacks alone. The table should not be taken as covering all the activities of Boko Haram as this pre-date 2010. Yet it is relevant for the reader to have a clearer view of its activities.

Staking the Study Area

Like most of Africa today, Cameroon is a colonial construct. It has meandered through three colonial masters starting with the German administration which lasted from 1884 to the outbreak of the First World War. After the war, the country was partitioned between France and Britain. While France took 4/5 of the territory and Britain took 1/5. Both administered their territory as Mandated and Trusteeship zones under the auspices of the League of Nations and United Nations respectively. Britain administered her portion of the territory as an appendage to the Eastern Provinces of Nigeria, while the French administered their own portion as part of the French Equatorial Africa. Both colonial powers carried different colonial policies in territory.

The outbreak of the Second World War quickened the pace of nationalism in the post war period. Constitutional reforms grew apace and by January 1960 French Cameroon gained independence as La Republique, while British Cameroon which under Nigeria lacked behind as her independence was to be gained through a Plebiscite and a constitutional conference which was meant to harmonize the constitutions. On 1 October 1961, she gained independence through Reunification.

Boko-Haram in Cameroon

The consequences of Boko Haram are many and varied. The risks presented by the militant group are amplified primarily through the prevalence of porous borders in the West African sub-region. Cameroon is a potential target due to her proximity to Nigeria as well as their porous borders.  Newspaper reports and individual reports couple up with personal observation suggests that members of the extremist group are increasingly present in Lagdo, a cosmopolitan settlement in the North Region, causing fear and insecurity/uncertainty amongst the population.”They are easily identifiable with their bizarre dressing.”

Nigeria and Cameroon border 1,690 km and many ethnic groups are divided by the border. The porous nature of this border heightens the potential spread of terrorist activities into the country. The vulnerability to the spread of Boko Haram is compounded by the fact that Cameroon has border with the northern Nigerian states, where Boko Haram already exerts a strong influence. This proximity to northern Nigeria is therefore a particular threat to  security, given the relative ease with which Boko Haram’s elements can cross into the country as it faces a  risk with only two of the four Nigerian states bordering Cameroon (Taraba and Adamawa states) are part of northern Nigeria.

It should be noted that citizens of Cameroon have been suspected of participating in Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria as well. This alleged involvement implies that Boko Haram activities could already be spreading or have already spread across Nigeria’s borders and that it could possibly already be conducting some of its activities in neighbouring countries such as training recruits, and planning and executing terrorist acts.

Cameroon’s vulnerability to terrorism is compounded and complicated as socio-economic malaise and dissatisfaction with the government which exist in the country and citizens could easily fraternize with such groups like Boko Haram to destabilize the existing peace. But there is no doubt that if left unchecked, the combination of these two elements might allow for fundamentalist ideology to thrive and result in the sprouting of terrorist activities in this country. It is therefore crucial to prevent the movement and infiltration of any elements such as Boko Haram into both countries.

Border Security Measures

The governments of Nigeria and Cameroon have made enormous efforts to strengthen border security and prevent the spread of Boko Haram’s activities into their regions. This shows the magnitude of Boko Haram’s activities in the country. For example, the Nigerian government closed down sections of its border with Cameroon as part of stricter border control measures several times. However, this was insufficient and tighter, more efficient border control measures need to be put in place to prevent the movement of Boko Haram and other criminal elements across borders. This attempt failed because the borders are mostly very porous and one and the same cultural stock of people straddle the borders. In addition, the closure of borders provokes further consequences. It is notable, for instance, that citizens in Cameroon and Nigeria rely on cross-border trade for economic sustenance. For instance, the closure of Cameroon Nigerian borders greatly hampered trade in that part of Cameroon and Nigeria.  Nigerians in particular have borne the brunt of the closure of their border with Cameroon, as drought in Northern Nigeria means that many citizens rely on trade with Nigeria for food. The closure of this border has compounded the food shortage problem in Niger.

Other efforts towards border security include the agreement to create a Nigeria-Cameroon trans-border security committee. One of those agreements was signed on 22 February 2012 by the Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Olugbena Ashiru who represented the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Vice-Prime Minister and Minister Delegate of the Presidency of Cameroon, Amadou Ali, who signed for the Cameroonian government. According to Ali, the agreement showed that confidence has been restored through permanent dialogue, consultation and re-enforcement of cooperation between Cameroon and Nigeria. On the whole, the Agreement was provoked because the members of Boko Haram are well noted for entering Northern Cameroon after causing havoc in Nigeria. The bilateral antante was meant to establish a security committee as part of measures to further look for possible ways to deny the insurgents and criminal elements easy access through the Nigeria-Cameroon boundary into either Cameroon or Nigeria.

Mosques and Koranic schools affected

The mosques as well as the Koranic schools are areas for the dissemination of Muslim culture. The appearance of Boko Haram in Cameroon sent ripples down the spines of these structures. Collective oral sources within the Moslem community testified that there were indicators that militants of Boko Haram were in Cameroon and were consequently preaching their doctrines in some mosques. The civil administrators were quite swift to act. On 2 February 2012, the Divisional Officer for Limbe, some 1500 kilometers from Northern Cameroon, Tsanga Foe, closed a mosque when there were allegations that members of Boko Haram had infiltrated it. In a related manner, the Divisional Officer for Wouri, Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon, Benard Okalia Bilai convened Imams and Muslim community leaders and instructed them to come to come out with ways of repelling any establishment of the Boko Haram sect in Douala and even other parts of Cameroon.

Concluding Remarks

I started my piece by introducing the car bombings in Maiduguri on Monday 13 January 2014. While anxious to espouse their ideology which was purely anti-Western and putting in place a theocratic system especially in Northern Nigeria, it has wreaked havoc in Nigeria causing panic in the neighburing states of Niger, Chad, and Cameroon and to a little extend Benin and will continue to do so as it has links with other regional and international groups such as al-Shabaab in East Africa, Seleka of Central Africa, al-QUIM of Mali, Janjaweed of Southern Sudan and al-Qaeda of North Africa.  All this calls into question a broader and larger project detailing the activities and modus operandi of Boko Haram.

By Walter Gam Nkwi

Department of History
University of Buea, Cameroon

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