MAROUA, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aid and infrastructure projects in Cameroon’s Far North region have been suspended due to high levels of insecurity caused by the Islamist group Boko Haram, based in neighbouring Nigeria.
With much relief and development work by the government and international organisations to help protect people from climate impacts now on hold, living conditions are becoming precarious for the Far North’s impoverished population ahead of the rainy season in the coming months.
On a visit to the area last month, Cameroon’s minister of communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakari, said local people and the authorities are paying the cost of cross-border Boko Haram attacks and abductions, which have led to an atmosphere of fear and insecurity.
Boko Haram, which evolved from a clerical movement, is fighting for an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria. The insurgents’ behaviour - especially killing civilians and kidnapping girls - has provoked international condemnation.
The Cameroon government has increased its military presence in the region near the group’s base in northern Nigeria, to protect people from Boko Haram’s violence. Its activities in Cameroon are thought to be motivated by the prospect of financial gain from ransom demands, the minister said.
The group is thought to be behind the kidnappings of a French family, three foreign priests and a nun in the past 18 months, with Reuters having seen evidence that a ransom of more than $3 million was paid to Boko Haram to free the family of seven.
“The attacks and killing of innocent persons in the Far North region are a serious cause for concern. People can no longer go about their activities as before, while many development activities in the region have been temporarily halted for fear of being ambushed,” Bakari said.
“This is really dangerous because we all know how vulnerable this region is, plagued with high malnutrition and poverty due to its extreme climate,” he added.
Cherif Musa, a local council worker in Maroua, told Thomson Reuters Foundation people have become wary of staying out late due to the risk of attacks. Bars are shut after 9pm and gatherings after that time are banned, he added.
Awa Fonka Augustine, governor of the Far North, told state television the closure of the border between Nigeria and Cameroon has damaged the local economy. “We think it will take a joint effort by all neighbouring countries to keep this killer group out,” he said.
Donor governments, including the U.S. and British embassies in Cameroon, have issued statements advising their citizens not to travel to the Far North region due to Boko Haram activities. This is hampering development work, including efforts aimed at adapting to extreme weather and climate impacts.
One major project that has been suspended is the construction of the Waza-Dabanga road. Chinese contractor Sinohydro halted operations after armed Boko Haram fighters attacked the site on May 16. One soldier was killed and 10 Chinese workers kidnapped, while vehicles and other equipment were stolen.
“We tried to persuade the company to reverse their decision (but) to no avail,” said Governor Augustine.
The Chinese embassy said work on the road will not restart until its citizens are freed and security in the region improves.
The existing earth road has caused major problems for travelers, with heavy rains making it almost impassable to vehicles for part of the year.
“The tarring of this road is of great economic importance, especially with its link to the Waza Park for wildlife that attracts many tourists and researchers,” said Charlie Ntonifor of the Centre for Environment and Rural Transformation (CERUT), a local NGO.
Nearly 6 million people live in Cameroon’s North and Far North regions, 1.2 million of which are children below the age of five.
UNICEF Cameroon, one of the biggest international organisations providing aid to children and mothers suffering from malnutrition, said it will resume operations as soon as the security situation gets better.
The U.N. Children’s Fund had been responding to September’s floods in the Far North by supporting some 2,350 displaced people who were relocated to new sites, where it ran a health clinic and dug latrines with the Red Cross.
The humanitarian situation in the Far North has been worsened by an expanding flow of more than 8,000 refugees fleeing Boko Haram activities in Nigeria.
But the Cameroon region’s governor said U.N. agencies had stopped their health, nutrition and water assistance in highly affected areas like Minawao due to insecurity.
There are concerns that water levels in the Maga dam retention lake could overflow again, as in 2012 and 2013, after work by the military engineering corps to reinforce river dykes and clean up the Mayo Vrick river bed, which serves as a spillway, was halted. The soldiers have been diverted to shore up security.
“Something has to be done fast to ensure security is guaranteed in the region for the military engineers to continue work on the Maga dam before the heavy rains of September come,” said Jean Atangana, a spokesperson for the ministry of economy and regional development.
President Paul Biya of Cameroon and Idriss Deby of Chad met in May to map out ways to combat Boko Haram, soon after an international gathering in Paris at which leaders promised to launch “a total war” against the Islamist group.
Cameroon military spokesman Colonel Didier Badjeck said the two governments are more committed than ever to fighting Boko Haram alongside Nigerian forces.
"We cannot be indifferent when our brothers and sisters live in permanent fear from those who have taken (it) upon themselves to use violence on everyone, instead of the spiritual rearmament they claim to bring," he said.
The Cameroon government has reinforced its military presence in the north, deploying more than 1,000 troops in late May.
Communications minister Bakari said last month some 200 Boko Haram members had been killed in clashes with the Cameroon army and the situation was being brought under control.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is a Cameroon-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change, environmental and governance issues.