After years of coping with spillover from Nigeria’s war with homegrown extremist sect Boko Haram, Cameroon is once again upping its border security, even though it could jeopardize local trade (legal or otherwise). The heightened security measures come on the heels of a Nigerian military advisory issued Sunday about the creation of Boko Haram kidnapping squads, as well as a high-profile kidnapping of a French family from Cameroon last February (for which Boko Haram claimed responsibility). Fertilizer exports have already been curbed by past security efforts — Boko Haram militants are suspected of using fertilizer from Cameroon to construct explosives — and border residents fear that cross-border cattle trade, and the illicit, highly-profitable trade of gasoline smuggled from Nigeria will be similarly threatened by increased, and better-monitored, checkpoints and limited border closures.
But while the (albeit localized) economic costs will be painful, Cameroon authorities are hoping that the successful containment of Boko Haram to Nigeria will justify their measures. Cameroon has long been used by the Islamist group as a refuge from Nigerian authorities, namely to regroup after staging attacks across the border. (In December 2012, Cameroon authorities arrested 31 alleged militants hiding in border towns.) The African nation has also provided Boko Haram with a fertile recruitment ground. Movement between the two countries has been facilitated by porous borders — the Nigeria Immigration Service reports the existence of 1,487 illegal cross-border routes — and Boko Haram’s near-absolute control over northern Nigeria. In response, Cameroon has stationed 600 soldiers at border checkpoints, and plans to intensify regional patrols.
But despite its renewed focus on security, Cameroon’s conflicting policies may yet muddle the message. According to a confidential Nigerian government report uncovered last week, Boko Haram received over $3 million to release its French hostages on April 19 — as part of the deal, Cameroon reportedly liberated several detained militants. And while the report did not indicate who paid the ransom, regional observers are pointing the finger squarely at Cameroon and France (note that the latter country recently, and emphatically, voiced its refusal to pay off kidnappers) which have both denied the allegations. In addition to the financial gains, the payment will serve to validate the violent sect’s incentive for kidnapping. (Fresh off thispayday, it’s little wonder Boko Haram is now creating special kidnapping squads).
Unfortunately, the subsequent boost to Boko Haram means that the current chokehold on local trade in northern Cameroon may ultimately be in vain. Even worse, it could intensify economic frustrations in an already marginalized region and subsequently aid the group’s recruitment campaigns. (Sound familiar?) Which means that Boko Haram could go from a Nigerian problem to a regional one.