Africa has long been known as the quandary of international intervention, and if the recent kidnapping of a French family by Boko Haram militants in Cameroon is any indication, that ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ approach to foreign involvement is unlikely to change. Aside from solidifying France’s reputation as having the most citizens held hostage abroad – a staggering fifteen are currently detained in Africa alone – the horrifying abduction also provided proof that the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, has officially become transnational.
These developments are alarming enough in their own right. But they also highlight the different challenges that both France and Cameroon face when it comes to providing the right ‘balance’ of foreign military involvement. For France, the abduction highlights the fact that the European nation may be taking on too much with regard to West African security; or, perhaps more accurately, Paris may be pursuing the entirely wrong approach to stopping the region’s extremist threat. As for Cameroon, on the other hand, the abduction suggests that the African nation may not be doing enough to stop the movement of militants.
France moved into “first place” on the worldwide abduction victims list after an entire family was taken by Boko Haram militants whilst in Cameroon on 19 February 2013. The family had been visiting the Waza National Park, located near the border of Nigeria, after leaving the capital, Yaoundé, where the father, Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, works as an executive for French gas company GDF Suez. This particular incident followed a series of abductions targeting French citizens across West Africa, including the kidnapping of an engineer by the Boko Haram splinter group, Ansuru, in Nigeria in December 2012. At time of publication, neither the exact location of the French engineer, nor Moulin-Fournier family (comprised of three adults and four children), have been identified.
It is important to note that, as chilling as this latest incident may be, the abduction of the family did not manifest itself in a vacuum. Signs that French nationals would become targets for abductions predictably emerged following Paris’ decision to wage war against Islamist militants in northern Mali. Since the official start of “Operation Serval” on 11 January 2013, France has deployed some 4,000 soldiers to Mali’s restive north. Although France’s commitment to the military endeavour began after repeated pleas from Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traoré, some extremists saw this move as a war against Islam. As the mission was meant to route Mali of the belligerent assembly of the three main militant groups, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it was only a matter of time before other Islamist extremist groups, particularly Boko Haram, would see this as an invitation to attack French assets in Africa. Indeed, after abducting the Moulin-Fourniers, the Cameroon-based Boko Haram militants claimed that they would kill the family in retaliation for the Mali intervention.
In addition to abducting French citizens in retaliation for Paris’ involvement in Mali, Boko Haram militants (like other extremist groups in Africa) have also started seeing French nationals as a ‘bull’s eye’ due to their government’s tendency to ‘give in’ to terrorists. That is, unlike other countries, the French Government routinely pays ransom demands in order to secure the release of its nationals from hostage situations. According to Vicki Huddleston, the former US ambassador to Mali, over the past few years Paris has shelled out US$17 million in ransom payments in Africa, the majority of which ends up in the pockets of al Qaeda-linked militants. US officials maintain that this increases the likelihood of terror attacks across the continent, as well as encourages militants to continuously target French citizens. For their part, French leaders have denied that they “give in” to the demands of hostage takers. Indeed, on 27 February 2013, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius claimed that his country must “do the maximum” to free the French family in Cameroon, but added that “nothing would be worse than giving in”. Interestingly, Fabius did not directly say “no” to ransom payments, suggesting that France may still continue with this rather ill-advised strategy.
France’s transformation into Africa’s ultimate ‘militant target’ is understood. But how does Cameroon play a part in West African security? The answer is, it doesn’t. More appropriately, Cameroon does not do enough to stop the movement of militants in the region, which could help ameliorate West Africa’s precarious security situation.
In January 2012 The Inkerman Group predicted that Boko Haram militants would cross the border into Cameroon and engage in further activities, including terrorist attacks and kidnaps. Admittedly the main reason for this warning was that Nigerian government forces had expelled many militants out of the country, where some subsequently took to hiding in Cameroon’s unpoliced north. Indeed, following the devastating attacks which left at least twenty-seven dead on Christmas Day in 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to “crush” the Islamic radical group and tightened its security, a move which reportedly forced some Boko Haram elements to slip across the borders into Cameroon and set up a stronger foothold there. Nigerian security officials warned Cameroon of this, and even claimed that Boko Haram had started using its north as both a staging ground for attacks and as a weapons magazine. But Cameroonian leaders seem to have distanced themselves from these claims. Ultimately, the abduction of the Moulin-Fournier family in February 2013 proved that Nigerian fears about Cameroon were correct. For some analysts, Cameroon’s reluctance to implement security its own north, or work with its neighbour Nigeria as part of a joint intervention programme, created the perfect recipe for Boko Haram’s official upgrade to “transnational” status.
Proof Boko Haram Has Gone Transnational
As previously noted by The Inkerman Group, Cameroon been criticised time and again for isolating itself from regional problems, preferring to take a wholly domestic approach to an international problem instead. (Cameroon has yet to sign up for membership of the Multinational Joint Task Force, a joint security effort organisation which includes Nigeria, and whose aim is to counter Chad-based guerrillas and Boko Haram militants.) After the August 2011 UN bombing in Abuja, Cameroon also failed to join its neighbours in the newly established Global Counterterrorism Forum, the goal of which was to address the threats posed by AQIM. Even Cameroon’s “domestic” approach to solving the threat of militancy has been called into question. According to reports, villagers in Cameroon’s isolated northern villages have started criticising their government for its perceived failure to eradicate the threat of Boko Haram. Locals claim that there are “no policemen” present in some areas, particularly in towns like Fotokol. Some areas along the border with Nigeria also lack security checkpoints making it easier for Boko Haram militants, and their Ansuru offshoots, to traverse into areas such as Waza National Park.
Risks For Both:
The abduction of the Moulin-Fournier was frightening in its own right, but it also shed light on the problems facing France and Cameroon regarding their attempts at international intervention. For France, if officials fail to put a stop to ransom payments, they will continue to put their citizens at risk for abductions. Their intervention in Mali, however, cannot be reversed, and French assets, including citizens, government installations and businesses, stationed throughout the wider Sahel will remain at risk. As for Cameroon, leaders in Yaoundé must act quickly to rid their country of its reputation as being an uncooperative African neighbour. As well as deploying additional security forces along Cameroon’s impressionable north, officials would arguably do well to approach Nigerian leaders and ask them for guidance on how to combat the now officially transnational Boko Haram organisation.