Cameroon has turned public buildings on its northern border with Nigeria into temporary housing for former Boko Haram militants. Hundreds of Boko Haram members have been defecting from the Islamist group, including more than two hundred on Sunday.
Cameroon says its center for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, or DDR, in Meri, a northern town on the border with Nigeria, is now home to about 1,500 former Boko Haram militants. Three weeks ago, the center had about 750 former militants.
DDR officials in Meri said Tuesday most of the 237 former jihadist members who arrived this week included women and children. One hundred are former Boko Haram fighters, all looking tired, unkempt and hungry, officials said.
Alidou Faizar, 33, says he defected from a Boko Haram camp in the Sambisa Forest located on the Cameroon/Nigeria border.
He says he is tired of killing and looting and that Boko Haram promised to improve his living conditions when he joined the jihadist group three years ago, but he is now poorer, and he has a guilty conscience about crimes he committed. He adds that peace is priceless.
Faizar said his wish is to return to Abadam, a town in Nigeria’s Borno state. Cameroon says close to 900 of the 1,500 former jihadists in Meri are Nigerians.
Oumar Bichair, director of the DDR center at Meri, says the center is already at full capacity.
He says Cameroon’s government has turned public buildings, including a Women’s Empowerment Center at Mora, another northern town, into temporary residences for former Boko Haram members. He says the governor of Cameroon’s Far North region has suggested that his colleagues in Nigeria’s Borno state, considered an epicenter of the jihadist group, should make arrangements for the former militants to voluntarily return to Nigeria.
Francis Fai Yengo, the DDR country director, says Cameroonian President Paul Biya has allocated funds for the construction of a DDR center that can host 1,500 former militants in Meme, a town located in north along the border with Nigeria. He says Cameroon is grateful that many militants are escaping from Boko Haram camps.
“We have to thank ex-fighters for laying down their arms. I am sure that they looked at the bigger picture which is to have peace," he said. "Everyday elites, mayors, people are going to help these ex-fighters. They [civilians] don’t only give them [former militants] material things, they [civilians] counsel them [ex-fighters]. You see how very young, vibrant and dynamic ex-fighters are struggling everyday with us to appeal to the others [fighters] in the bush to come [surrender] to have peace.”
Yengo said Cameroon’s president has asked that all fighters who dropped their weapons to be pardoned and reintegrated back into society. He said Nigerians who want to return to their country will be handed to Nigerian government authorities but did not say when.
The Multinational Joint Task Force of the Lake Chad Basin, or MNJTF, that is fighting the jihadist group says Nigeria has been informed that many ex-fighters have surrendered in Cameroon and want to return to Nigeria. The task force is made up of troops from Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria. Nigeria is yet to issue a statement on the possibility of the former militants returning to the west African state.
Cameroon’s military said the militants surrendered to MNJTF troops stationed at the border around Sambisa Forest. The task force said many militants have been defecting in Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad following the death of Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau. The jihadist group leader was declared killed in May.