“Boko Haram is like the beast of the Apocalypse or a many-headed Hydra; whenever you cut off one of its heads, it seems simply to grow another”, says Bishop Bruno Ateba of the diocese of Maroua-Mokolo in northern Cameroon, while speaking to representatives of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International).
Towards the end of 2015, the Nigerian government announced that this terrorist group – born in Nigeria in 2002 and radicalized in 2009 – had been finally defeated. However, according to the information received by ACN, there is every indication that the group has simply shifted its sphere of operations to the more rural areas of Nigeria and even extended it into the frontier regions of Cameroon and Lake Chad. “In the villages of Borno State in Nigeria, and throughout the frontier regions of Cameroon, not a day passes without news of attacks and incursions by the terrorists. The abductions and executions of the country people have become a veritable reign of terror and a source of deep psychosis among the population”, Bishop Bruno insists.
Since Christmas, a video has been publicly circulated showing the beheading of 11 people in Nigeria, with responsibility for the atrocity being claimed by the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), one of the two factions into which Boko Haram split in 2016. Almost at the same time, Bishop Barthélemy Yaouda Hourgo of Yaouga in Cameroon, who comes from a village close to the frontier with Nigeria, wrote the following alarming message to ACN: “My birthplace, the village of Blablim, no longer exists! The terrorists have murdered a young man of my family and totally devastated the entire village, including the house I was born in. Everybody, with the exception of the sick and elderly, was forced to flee to Mora, 10 miles (17 km) away. It will be impossible now to gather in the cotton harvest. Right now the weather is very cold in this area. Please pray for all those who are having to sleep outside in the inclement weather at this time the year.”
Terrorism, or organized crime?
Destruction, pillage, robbery, and kidnappings are the hallmarks of the activity of these terrorists. According to senior figures in the Nigerian army, the jihadist Islamic group has lost its power and broken up into organized crime gangs. Lieutenant-General Tukur Yusufu Buratai, the current Chief of Staff of the Nigerian army, indicated on 19 September 2019 that “the mode of operation of these elements is pure criminality for personal gains. It is common knowledge that the criminals no longer pretend to be championing any cause other than the quest for materialism as manifested in murder and terror of hapless people.” At the same time, he urged the Nigerian people not to continue “glorifying these criminals by calling them by any name other than “criminals,” “rapists,” “kidnappers”, “armed robbers” and “murderers.” According to the data from the Nigeria Security Tracker, it is at least the case that, although more than 36,000 people have died since 2012 as a result of these conflicts, including civilians, soldiers, and terrorists, the number of victims in Nigeria has now fallen sharply, in comparison with the horrific numbers recorded in 2014 and 2015. This positive result has been due in part to the defensive efforts of the multi-national military forces, which in addition to the Nigerian army include also those of Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. According to the independent International Crisis Group, in Cameroon alone, a force of over 7,000 soldiers was deployed during two important military operations, including units of the Rapid Intervention Battalion, an elite army corps.
The beast re-emerges with new violence
Nevertheless, although in recent years these Armed Forces have effectively prevented the conventional attacks previously launched by Boko Haram, they have not succeeded in cutting off the movement at its roots, and instead, it appears that a new generation of militants is now posing a fresh threat. “The poverty and insecurity faced by people in the rural areas and the lack of prospects for young people make them an easy target for manipulation by the jihadists”, Bishop Ateba confirms. According to data supplied by Human Rights Watch, the conflict between Boko Haram and the international armed forces has led to the displacement of over 270,000 people within the country since 2014. The armed Islamist Boko Haram group apparently carried out over 100 attacks in Cameroon during 2019, killing more than a hundred civilians. “Just at the moment when people thought that the beast of Boko Haram had been completely decapitated, the horror has resurfaced in northern Cameroon. Within my own diocese, there have been 13 attacks in the last weeks. One church was burnt down on the feast of the Epiphany. We are still investigating who was behind the incident, but everything points to the fact that it was a terrorist attack”, Bishop Bruno explains.