Dispatches from the Field: Visit to Cameroon
Meetings in Youndé
Today Council members began their 5-day visiting mission to the Lake Chad Basin region to assess the impact of the Boko Haram insurgency. The delegation started the day in Youndé and travelled in the afternoon to the country’s Far North region. In the last four years, Cameroon has been seriously affected as the conflict with Boko Haram spilled over from Northeast Nigeria. Despite military gains across the region against the group since 2015, and an apparent significant reduction of Boko Haram’s capacities in the Far North region, humanitarian needs as a result of the conflict have been increasing.
During a morning meeting with the UN country team and diplomatic corps, members were told that the displaced civilian population in the Far North Region, where Boko Haram started launching attacks in 2014, has increased from 93,000 one year ago to 190,000, and that 1.5 million people are food insecure. Cameroon also hosts 85,000 Nigerian refugees, 60,000 of whom live in the Minawao refugee camp. Council members heard about the problem of refoulement or the involuntary return of refugees back to their country. It is estimated that up to 100,000 Nigerian refugees have been forcibly returned to war zones in Nigeria since January 2016. Yesterday, ahead of the mission’s arrival, Cameroon, Nigeria and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees signed a Tripartite Agreement, which was referred to by OCHA during the briefing as an important step towards respecting international humanitarian law and refugee law.
In the morning, members met with Prime Minister Philémon Yang and his cabinet, followed by a meeting with President Paul Biya. Council members expressed appreciation for Cameroon’s commitment to fighting Boko Haram, and in setting up the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to combat the group with its neighbours, including Nigeria, with whom it has a history of distrust. Members praised Cameroon’s hosting of refugees, welcomed the new Tripartite Agreement, and were interested in how Cameroon planned to abide by the principle of non-refoulement. Members also raised the importance for defeating Boko Haram and arresting the spread of violent extremism of addressing root causes, notably poverty, and the need to encourage greater economic development, good governance and education in the Far North, which is Cameroon’s poorest region. Some members expressed the hope that Cameroon could build on the cooperation it had forged with Chad, Niger and Nigeria in setting up the MNJTF to address these underlying problems. Echoing discussion from the earlier meeting with the UN country team, several members also raised their concerns over the plight of women and girls in the conflict. In that meeting, UNICEF’s representative had noted that of 75 suicide bombers in Cameroon from 2014 to 2017, 46 had been women and children.
Government ministers responded to a number of members’ questions and points that were raised. In describing the progress made in weakening Boko Haram’s military capacity, Minister of Defense Joseph Beti Assomo said that there has been a “new tone” of cooperation with Nigeria ever since the election in 2015 of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. The Minister of Territorial Administration, René Emmanuel Sadi, gave assurances that having signed the Tripartite Agreement, the government was committed to avoid forced repatriation of refugees, and returns would occur only with consent in accordance with international law. The government also seemed to be in agreement regarding the need for a holistic approach in dealing with development and the root causes of the conflict.
Visit to Maroua
Council members then flew to Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s Far North region, where they met at the airport with local authorities, tribal leaders, military commanders, internally displaced persons and refugees. Members received an update on the military situation from a brigadier-general of Cameroon’s Emergence 4 operation, who explained the three complementary military operations that are underway in the Far North, which also include the MNJTF Section 1 and Operation Alpha. The general described Boko Haram as being “hamstrung”, now primarily relying on suicide bombings, raids and pillaging, and planting of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on major roads. He said that today its military capacity and ability to set-up a caliphate “practically” no longer exists. He emphasised some of the needs of the Cameroonian forces, including equipment to detect and protect against IEDs, which was also stressed by another military commander during the briefing, as well as boats for moving around freely on Lake Chad. The general also mentioned their cooperation with local civilian self-defence groups. Both military commanders who addressed the Council referred to their improved cooperation with Nigeria.
A local mayor also addressed Council members, highlighting the conflict’s devastating impact on a once-vibrant trade across the region. While noting the efforts of Boko Haram to recruit youth and the problem of unemployment, he stressed that the group did not represent Islam, and spoke of the important role of the government and military – and the UN country team – in countering recruitment efforts. He emphasised the importance of development: investment in infrastructure, such as roads; in education, including in new schools, tables and chairs for classrooms; and in agriculture. The local mayor emphasised the important support that had been provided for refugees and internally displaced persons, but highlighted the need for further assistance.
Following the military briefing, members heard from a number of internally displaced persons and refugees. They met two boys, aged 14 and 15, who had both fled Boko Haram, but were then detained by the authorities for their association with the group. One of the boys had fled from his village in Nigeria in the autumn of 2014 after it was captured by Boko Haram, but after arriving in Cameroon was held at Maroua Central Prison for two and a half years due to his suspected association with the terrorist group. The other boy, from a Cameroonian border village with Nigeria, was abducted in September 2013 by Boko Haram, and after four months in the company of other abducted children in a Koranic school run by Boko Haram, he escaped to Cameroon, where he was again initially detained.
In the meetings with refugees and displaced persons, Council members heard about their needs – such as the lack of drinking water at Minawoa camp, the difficulty obtaining firewood for cooking, and the absence of opportunities to work for refugees who had been in Cameroon for over three years. Many of the displaced persons and refugees expressed gratitude that Council members were visiting, and were moved that other countries were aware and concerned about their situation. In his comments to the press and at meetings, Council President Ambassador Matthew Rycroft (UK) frequently stated that the mission was meant to signal that “this will no longer be a neglected crisis”, and was intended to focus global attention on Cameroon and the region.
In the evening, Council members traveled to Chad. Tomorrow they will meet with the Prime Minister and members of his government, the commander of the MNJTF, and French forces of Operation Barkhane, as well the UN Country Team in Chad and non-governmental organisations.