Cameroonian officials say at least 82 former Boko Haram fighters from Nigeria and Chad, along with their families, have surrendered to authorities in the past week. Authorities say they’re the latest among hundreds of the militant Islamists who have been defecting since May, when the group's leader was killed. Cameroon plans to deport the former fighters as the influx has overwhelmed rehabilitation centers along the border.
Cameroon’s government on August 10 said its National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration center in Meri, a northern town on the border with Nigeria, has 967 former jihadist militants. A week ago, there were about 700 former Boko Haram fighters and their families in the center.
Among the over 260 who arrived within the past one week are 82 former Boko Haram male fighters. The others are women and children.
Francis Fai Yengo is the director of DDR centers created by the government of Cameroon for former fighters. He says over 200 of ex-militants are Nigerians. He spoke on Monday after President Paul Biya sent him to meet the former militants and to evaluate their needs.
“We came to see the fighters, those young women and men predominantly made of Nigerians flooding out from the Boko Haram camps into our country," he said. "The numbers are increasing daily. We welcome them, but after we have done the necessary verifications, we will send them back rapidly to their country because of the good relationship that our country [Cameroon] has with our neighboring country to the west [Nigeria].”
Yengo said several of the former militants are Chadians. He said Biya has provided space and funds for a bigger DDR center to be constructed in Meme, another northern town not far from Nigeria. Yengo said the center at Meri was too small to contain the increasing number of fleeing Boko Haram militants.
The Multinational Joint Task Force of the Lake Chad Basin that is fighting the jihadist group said the former militants handed themselves to troops around the Sambisa Forest on the Cameroon Nigeria border, an area considered as Boko Haram’s stronghold. The task force is made up of troops from Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria.
Nigeria has not issued a statement on the militants’ defections. Cameroon says it has voluntarily handed former combatants to Nigeria several times but that the number that surrendered this week is the highest.
This month, Cameroon said since May, when Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau was declared dead, the jihadist group Boko Haram and its fighters are weaker and likely to surrender.
Swaibou Issa, a researcher on Boko Haram at the University of Maroua, says Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad should encourage fighters who are still reluctant to surrender and help to reconstruct their communities. He says rival jihadist groups are carrying out charitable acts around the Lake Chad Basin aimed at luring in Boko Haram militants and having fighters join other terrorist groups.
Issa says within the past two months, the Islamic State in West Africa Province, or the ISWAP, a splinter of Boko Haram, is increasingly gaining power and influence. He says ISWAP has been highly active along the Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad border. He says while recognized international aid groups distribute food to populations in need, ISWAP also shares food to gain sympathy and recruit civilians.
Speaking through the messaging platform WhatsApp from Maroua, Issa said it is possible that many militants want to surrender but fear reprisals from jihadist fighters.
Kalbassou Daniel is the president of Cameroon’s Far North Regional Council, or the CPDM party, created by the government to speed up local development.
Kalbassou says it is imperative for the governments of Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad to provide jobs for the ex-jihadist militants. He says the former militants who surrender must be encouraged to have self confidence that is needed before they can reintegrate work for development and become productive contributing members of society.
Boko Haram terrorists have been fighting to establish an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria’s northeast. The fighters began attacks inside Cameroon in 2014.
According to the U.N., 30,000 people have been killed and 1.8 million displaced in Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad since 2009 when the fighting deteriorated into an armed conflict with Nigerian government troops.