Cameroon Finds Itself Caught Up in Regional Violence

On December 31st, French citizen Georges Vandenbeusch, a Catholic priest working in northern Cameroon who was kidnapped last year by Boko Haram, was freed.  As with other releases of French hostages in Africa in 2013, the details of his release are sparse and it is believed that a ransom was paid.  Following his release, Vandenbeusch was flown from the town of Maroua in the north to the country’s capital, Yaounde by a Cameroonian military aircraft.  He had been held in captivity for approximately seven weeks.

Map of Cameroon

Map of Cameroon

This is not the first time Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist militant group recently declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States, has kidnapped French citizens in Cameroon.  In February 2013, seven French citizens were abducted in the northern part of the country.  They were later released.  French authorities said the Boko Haram threat had led them to urge Vandenbeusch to leave the area, but that he had declined.  Boko Haram rebels have sought refuge in the country as the Nigerian government continues to step up its campaign against the group.  Most recently, Nigerian forces reportedly killed over fifty Boko Haram militants in a combined air and ground attack.  Cameroon has also deployed its elite Rapid Intervention Battalion to the country’s north to try and fight the infiltration.

Map released by AFRICOM in its 2013 posture statement showing the approximate areas and density of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria in 2012.

Map released by AFRICOM in its 2013 posture statement showing the approximate areas and density of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria in 2012.

In addition, elements nominally loyal to former Central African Republic Francois Bozize, deposed by Seleka rebels last March, have reportedly attempted to establish a base area in Cameroon.  Bozize had fled to Cameroon initially following his ouster.  These forces were reportedly responsible for an attack in the border town of Biti in November and Cameroonian authorities have engaged in numerous border skirmishes with armed individuals coming from CAR since formally closing the border in August.  However, as French and AU forces in CAR put pressure on former Seleka rebels as part of UN-backed peacekeeping effort there, they too have begun to flee into Cameroon.  Cameroonian forces, again from the country’s Rapid Intervention Battalion, recently arrested a number of former Seleka rebels who had taken over a gold mine in the northern part of the country.

Though Cameroon’s geography is likely the predominant reason it has seen spillover from these other conflicts and crises its close relationship with France is no doubt also a factor.  The French military conducted significant interventions in Mali and CAR in 2013, which have continued into the New Year.  French forces are deployed to Cameroon and used it as a launching platform for Operation Sangaris, the intervention in CAR.  The French military also expressed an interest at the end of last year in being able to conduct counter-terrorism operations more broadly.  It is likely that Cameroon will continue to feel the effects of regional insecurity for some time to come.  It remains to be seen how the country’s institutions will weather these crises.

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