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Cameroon’s Far North: A New Chapter in the Fight Against Boko Haram

By Crisis Group

What’s new? As fighting between government forces and the Boko Haram insurgents in Cameroon’s Far North diminishes, a lasting peace depends on how the government deals with former members of the jihadist movement, its former prisoners and vigilante groups set up to fight it.

Why does it matter? A well-designed policy toward former Boko Haram members could lead those that are still active to surrender. Vigilantes could turn to crime if left to their own devices.

What should be done? The government should put dangerous militants on trial, but reintegrate low-risk former Boko Haram members into their communities, while encouraging communities to accept them and ensuring that they have the resources to do so. It should demobilise some vigilante groups and integrate others into municipal police.

Executive Summary
The intensity of the conflict against Boko Haram in Cameroon’s Far North has diminished, though the movement still poses a threat and the humanitarian situation remains precarious. Long-term stability hinges on how the government resolves two principal security challenges: first, dealing with former combatants and other Boko Haram members; and, secondly, determining the future of community self-defence, or vigilante, groups. For former Boko Haram fighters, the Cameroonian government should put in place measures to distinguish dangerous militants requiring judicial proceedings and likely incarceration from other members for whom community service and public apologies might be more appropriate. It should provide support to communities into which militants will reintegrate. For vigilantes, it will have to better assist those still needed in the fight against Boko Haram and integrate some of them into municipal police, while demobilising those in other areas. It also must investigate vigilantes accused of abuses, hold accountable those responsible and make public court decisions.

Thousands of Cameroonians joined Boko Haram between 2012 and 2016, sometimes due to ideological conviction but often out of opportunism or under duress. Some were killed in the fighting, others arrested by the security forces and an unknown number, perhaps as many as one thousand, are still active members. In early 2017, some tried to surrender, but were rejected by their communities or killed by security forces. Since October 2017, the Cameroon government has been more willing to accept Boko Haram deserters. To date, almost 200 have surrendered. As yet, however, the government has no clear policy for dealing with them. The right response could encourage other Boko Haram members to surrender and further weaken the movement. Getting it wrong, on the other hand, could deter combatants who are still active from giving up the fight and entrench their reliance on the jihadist group.

Since 2014, vigilantes, numbering some 14,000 in the Far North, have played an essential role against Boko Haram. They provide critical intelligence to Cameroonian forces, act as scouts and guides, and sometimes confront jihadists directly and protect their villages, especially against suicide attacks. The authorities offer them little support, however. Some have become disillusioned and abandoned the struggle. Vigilante groups also have come in for criticism. Some members were previously cattle thieves, smugglers or bandits, others have been arrested for collaboration with Boko Haram and some are suspected of human rights abuses against captured Boko Haram suspects. As the conflict quietens, plans for their future will become ever more urgent. The absence of such plans could lead groups to fragment, with some vigilantes turning back to crime.

The Cameroonian government should adopt policies aimed at encouraging more Cameroonian Boko Haram members to surrender and prepare for vigilantes’ demobilisation. For the former, it should:

  • Publicly announce that it will protect surrendering Boko Haram members and afford them due process, and that non-combatants are unlikely to face jail time; it also should consult neighbouring countries with more experience on good practices for former combatants’ reintegration;
  • Devise a program of support for communities into which former Boko Haram members will reintegrate, potentially including support for agricultural, livestock and commercial activities in host communities and subsidies to small businesses that employ young people;
  • Refine procedures for distinguishing those surrendering or captured Boko Haram members who are combatants, still preach violence or are suspected of perpetrating atrocities from those who are non-combatants, renounce violence or are not accused of major crimes. Initial assessments, now led by the military, should be expanded to involve police officers, International Red Cross and/or UN protection experts and potentially also academics and researchers;
  • Adopt a tailored approach for holding former Boko Haram members accountable, based on these initial assessments. Some will require judicial proceedings and, in some cases, imprisonment and careful monitoring. For others, community service, public confessions, symbolic ceremonies and vocational training would be more apt. The government also should allocate greater manpower and funds to Far North courts so they can quickly adjudicate cases for former militants who do require judicial processes; and
  • Amend the 2014 anti-terrorist law and the Penal Code to give judges and communities a degree of flexibility in their treatment of former Boko Haram members. Alternatively, President Paul Biya could sign a decree laying out procedures for dealing with individuals who have surrendered.

Regarding the vigilantes, the government should prepare for their future after the fight against Boko Haram. It should:

  • Refrain from mobilising new vigilante groups and focus instead on developing intelligence and early warning networks to ensure state security forces can protect civilians as needed;
  • In areas still exposed to Boko Haram, keep vigilantes operational while better supporting and supervising them, setting up external accountability systems, including community oversight, integrate some of them into municipal police and provide training in practical skills (for example, intelligence, first aid and demining);
  • Demobilise vigilantes in areas where they are no longer needed, registering those who still have weapons and establishing projects to enable their reintegration into civilian life, either by helping them find local work or by financing micro-projects in sectors such as trade and agriculture; and
  • Investigate all accusations of abuses by vigilantes, hold accountable those responsible and make public court decisions.

International support for measures to deal with former Boko Haram members and vigilantes will be critical, given the lack of local expertise and the strain on public finances, with the October presidential election looming and Cameroon hosting the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019. Foreign partners, notably the U.S., the European Union and Japan, should support investment in communities into which former militants will reintegrate and initiatives aimed at demobilising vigilantes, including them as beneficiaries of development projects. Some vigilante groups will not trust traditional chiefs or local authorities to administer government or donor funds alone; better would be for local NGOs also to be involved in their disbursement.

While levels of violence in the Far North have diminished, the Cameroon government has a long way to go in tackling the underlying factors that allowed Boko Haram to gain a foothold, notably the state’s lack of legitimacy, poverty, some communities’ exclusion from power and divides between local elites and young people. For now, however, the priorities are to deal with surrendering or captured combatants and prepare for the vigilantes’ future. The manner in which the government handles those challenges will determine whether the Far North can make the transition to greater stability. Lastly, the fight against Boko Haram in general and the reintegration of former members in particular goes hand in hand with respect for human rights. Videos have recently circulated on the internet, apparently showing the killing by Cameroonian soldiers of unarmed women and children accused of belonging to Boko Haram. Such grave abuses can only discourage Boko Haram members from surrendering officially and openly, as is best, and instead push them to try returning to Cameroon in secret.