MORA, CAMEROON - Cameroon's village defenders — local groups armed to fight off Boko Haram militants — are being accused of turning to crime. As the threat of terrorism and support for self-defense groups declines, many of the armed men villages depended on for security are looking for new ways to make a living.
Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria has in recent years been preoccupied with the threat from Boko Haram. But, earlier this month police arrested 14 members of village defender groups accused of harassing, robbing, and abducting people for ransom.
Ahminu Youssoufa, with the Mora Criminal Research Brigadean armed police group, said as the threat from Boko Haram declined, some defenders formed gangs that prey on locals and business travelers crossing the Nigeria border.
He said authorities are still detaining five individuals who are now helping them with the investigations. They believe it is just a matter of time for the military to dismantle, what he called an entire network.
The self-defense groups were created in 2014 to patrol villages and remote border areas where the military has little or no presence.
They earned no pay but were given supplies of food, money, and equipment from donors and the authorities — that is, until Cameroon started winning the war against Boko Haram.
Gaibai Ousmanou, head of the Village Defender Committee for Mora, said when large-scale attacks by Boko Haram started fading out in 2017, assistance to the groups also dropped off.
But he insisted the groups are still needed for protection. He said although Boko Haram has not staged a full-scale attack with heavy weapons for more than a year, the presence of self-defense groups prevents followers of the Islamist group, who are still present in their communities, from attacking.
Local churches and mosques are taking up some of the slack in supporting the village defenders, said Ousmanou. But that support barely keeps them going, he said, and helps explain why some defenders use arms against those they were supposed to protect.
The governor of Cameroon's far north region, Midjiyawa Bakari, denies a lack of official support. He said the government will continue to assist them by providing motorcycles, bicycles, communication equipment, money and food, to enable them to intercept all those who have decided not to respect the laws.
However, he said just as Boko Haram fighters and suicide bombers were stopped, those defecting to create or join groups of robbers will also be stopped.
As he headed out on patrol, village defender Njibri Bakao acknowledged his gorup now has to defend the area against some of its own.