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March 25, 2014

Are Nigeria's Neighbors Safe Havens for Boko Haram?

by Anne Look / Moki Edwin Kindzeka

As the Nigerian military battles Boko Haram in the northeast, its government said militants are finding safe havens in neighboring countries and then mounting cross-border attacks into Nigeria. Nigeria's neighbors are faced with a difficult question: How do they crack down on this trend without also making themselves targets of attack?

Northeastern Nigeria borders Niger, Chad and Cameroon. It's a long, porous border stretching more than 500 kilometers.

The border is difficult to secure, something Boko Haram is believed to have taken advantage of it for years. Niger and Cameroon are of particular concern.  

In Niger, the regional capital Diffa is just across the border from Nigeria's Borno state, the epicenter of the insurgency.

The prefect of the Diffa region, Inoussa Saouna, said the town is on the "frontline."

He said Boko Haram is a constant threat. For now, they have not been able to carry out operations in Niger, but there is a lot of cross-border movement of people, given how close they are and given the fact that communities on both sides of the border share languages, ethnicities and even familial ties.

In February, Niger's military said authorities arrested 20 Nigerian Boko Haram militants allegedly plotting attacks on Diffa.

Since Nigeria mounted an offensive against Boko Haram last May, nearly 60,000 people have fled the northeast for neighboring countries. Most of them have gone to Niger. The flow of refugees raises additional concerns of infiltration.

In Cameroon, there is concern that Boko Haram has camps in the hilly border areas and could be recruiting.

Hamaounde Mohaman, the imam of a mosque in the Cameroonian town of Kolofata on the border with Nigeria, says Boko Haram recruits there. He said they come and meet traditional chiefs and go through them to recruit. He said there are young people there doing absolutely nothing, and Boko Haram takes advantage of that. They come and take them to train them. They use them to bring them food, money and other things. The government is saying nothing.

Sanusi Ibrahim, a Boko Haram preacher from Borno State, was detained for three months by Cameroonian authorities. A VOA reporter interviewed Ibrahim this month in Cameroon's Far North region.

Asked if he is recruiting there, Ibrahim said he is "just preaching." "I am here to preach the message of Allah. I just transmit the message of Islam. I am preaching the message of Islam and well, I am Boko Haram, but I am there just to preach the message of Allah," he stated.

Nigeria has closed part of its border with Cameroon, saying militants were using it as a way to sneak back into Nigeria to carry out attacks.

There have been several recent attacks on Nigerian villages near the border with Cameroon.

There also have been two incidents this month in the Cameroon town of Kousseri near the borders with Nigeria and Chad. At least one soldier was killed. Authorities blamed Boko Haram.

The Cameroonians have ramped up their border patrols and security since last year. Nigeria has called on them to do more.

Cameroon's Communications Minister, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, said Cameroon would never be "complacent or lenient" in the face of a regional terrorist threat.

"Let me say here that such allegations are irresponsible and ungrounded. Cameroon is a peace-loving country. As such, there is no way that it can encourage the development of violence in other countries and especially neighboring countries. We all know the saying that when the neighbor's house is consumed by fire, there is a risk that we will see sparks," said Bakary.

Analysts say it is a question of resources, and Nigeria's neighbors don't necessarily have the money or the manpower to put toward something some still see as a "Nigeria problem."  

Boko Haram has mounted very few operations outside Nigeria.

Boko Haram has carried out two separate kidnappings of Westerners in Cameroon, but the militants have otherwise left that country alone. That could change if Cameroon takes a more aggressive stance