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Cameroon: Soldiers fighting Boko Haram are reaching their tipping point

By Franck Foute
Posted on Thursday, 5 August 2021 07:25

Soldiers of the 21st Motorised Infantry Brigade patrol the streets of Buea, in Cameroon's southwest region, on 26 April 2018. ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP

Anger is brewing in the ranks of the Cameroon army, with soldiers tired of endless deployment. Regularly accused of rights abuses, Cameroon forces suffered a series of setbacks in the Anglophone regions and the North. It is worrying the military high command and politicians alike.

The minister of defence’s visit to the military hospital in Maroua could have gone a lot smoother.

Joseph Beti Assomo, who was photographed by a handful of journalists that had been selected for this event, made sure to meet with each of the almost 50 bedridden soldiers – all wounded during Boko Haram’s latest attacks – of this establishment. The soldiers had dressed up for the occasion in their new green-red-yellow (the colours of the Cameroonian flag) tracksuits.

Assomo wanted to use this tour, which appeared to be an operation aimed at remobilising the troops, to send a strong message after 13 soldiers were killed during two attacks launched three days apart in the localities of Zigué and Sagme (in the district of Fotokol), in the department of Logone-et-Chari.

It has been nearly three years since Cameroon experienced such heavy losses in this conflict. As such, it has forced the authorities to take stock of the Islamist movement’s recent reorganisation in the region.

Exhausted soldiers

On the ground, Abubakar Shekau’s death in May shifted the dynamic, as it provided the Islamic State (IS) with an opportunity to consolidate its power in the region through one of Boko Haram’s rival factions, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (Iswap). One of the most noticeable changes observed is that fewer attacks are now carried out on civilians in the northern regions and more are inflicted on military positions.

The minister’s visit was also intended to explain this to the public.

But the PR stunt failed to drown out the deafening discontent felt by the ground troops, one of the major topics that the defence boss addressed during his 48 hours in the Far North. Many soldiers feel that the latest losses sustained against Boko Haram are a direct consequence of the difficulties that troops encounter in their deployment.

One of their main grievances is the irregular rotations. “We are deployed for one to three months in theory, but in practice, we stay one to 18 months on the front line,” says a member of the Multinational Joint Task Force, MNJTF (Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and Chad).

“Others leave the northern front and are then sent directly to the Anglophone regions,” he adds. As a result, disciplinary cases involving “exhausted” soldiers are increasing.

In early July, a video of a brawl between soldiers in a camp in the northern part of the country burst into the public sphere, highlighting the extent of the phenomenon.

“You are frustrating us! Get us out, let us go home,” one of the men featured in the video says to his superiors – a statement that is repeated by other angry soldiers. This is proof of the dissatisfaction felt by many within the army, which  – as a result – affects their vigilance and leaves them vulnerable to increasingly well-organised assailants.

The anger felt by the soldiers engaged in fighting against Boko Haram is echoed by those deployed in the Anglophone regions of the North West and South West. Testimonies collected from the latter reveal the litany of pitfalls encountered by soldiers in the field. In addition to the perennial issue of rotations, they mention that they have limited material resources at their disposal and hardly ever receive bonuses.

“In Babadjou, we saw secessionists arriving on motorbikes dressed in military uniforms that they had certainly recovered from their victims,” says an officer serving in the North West. “As they had recognised the uniform from a distance, they would never have imagined that they were secessionists. It was only when the secessionists began to open fire that they knew it was the enemy.”

That day, two gendarmes were killed at their post and then decapitated. “If the soldiers had other means of transport at their disposal, besides motorbikes like the secessionists have, then the Babadjou soldiers would have recognised this foreign presence right away,” said the same source.

Abuses and blunders

According to some observers, the frustrations denounced by these soldiers could also be “the result of blunders, exactions and other abuses attributed to the defence forces.”

In the English-speaking regions, increased police controls have created pockets of corruption on the entire road network and transporters often have to pay 1,000 CFA francs to pass through. This phenomenon has not been resolved, particularly in Bamenda and Buea, despite taximen’s anger.

In a report published on 2 August, the NGO Human Rights Watch accused the Cameroonian army of being responsible for the deaths of two civilians, the rape of a 53-year-old woman, and the destruction and looting of at least 33 houses, shops and a traditional chief’s palace in the North-West region on 8 and 9 June 2021.

And even though the NGO does admit that the Ambazonians have carried out civilian massacres, it stresses that the Republican forces are responsible for “protecting civilians.”

Cameroon’s minister of defence Joseph Beti Assomo, in the Maroua region on 28 July 2021. © Le Journal du Cameroun

During a recent visit to the Western region, Assomo acknowledged these “disciplinary cases” in what he described as a “crisis” in territorial defence operations.

In Bafoussam and Maroua, he addressed the various issues that the military had raised. “The army takes care of its men up until the supreme sacrifice. I would like to reiterate to the wounded soldiers and their comrades that we will follow their situation very closely,” he said, during his visit to the military hospital in Garoua.

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