Human Rights Watch warned on Monday that the Islamist armed group Boko Haram has stepped up attacks on civilians in towns and villages in the Far North region of Cameroon since December 2020, killing at least 80 civilians. The group has also looted hundreds of homes in the region.
The rights group urged the government to take concrete measures to both increase protection to vulnerable communities and ensure a rights-respecting security force response to the worsening violence.
“Boko Haram is waging a war on the people of Cameroon at a shocking human cost,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As Cameroon’s Far North region increasingly becomes the epicenter of Boko Haram’s violence, Cameroon should urgently adopt and carry out a new, rights-respecting strategy to protect civilians at risk in the Far North.”
The organization said it documented how a Boko Haram suicide bomber blew up fleeing civilians, dozens of local fishermen were killed with machetes and knives, and an elderly village chief was assassinated in front of his family. Research suggests that the actual number of casualties is much higher, given the difficulty of confirming details remotely and that attacks often go unreported.
It said from January 25 to February 25, 2021, it interviewed by telephone 20 victims and witnesses to five Boko Haram attacks since mid-December in the towns and villages of Blabline, Darak, Gouzoudou, and Mozogo in the Far North region, as well four family members of victims, two humanitarian workers, and 5 local activists. Human Rights Watch also interviewed two victims and a witness to human rights violations in the region by Cameroonian soldiers. Human Rights Watch reviewed reports from humanitarian and other nongovernmental organizations and local mediareports on attacks in the region and consulted with academics, political analysts, and representatives of the African Union, the United Nations, and the European Union.
Human Rights Watch shared the research by email with Cyrille Serge Atonfack Guemo, the Cameroonian army spokesperson, on February 1 and again on March 19, requesting information about the Boko Haram attacks, the ongoing military operations, and the specific allegations Human Rights Watch documented. The army spokesperson did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
Cameroon’s territorial administration minister said on February 12 that the security situation in the Far North region is “under control” and that Boko Haram is “living its last days.”
One of the deadliest recent attacks was in Mozogo on January 8, when Boko Haram fighters killed at least 14 civilians, including 8 children, and wounded 3 others, including 2 children. As fighters shot at residents and looted homes, a female suicide bomber infiltrated a group of fleeing civilians and then detonated her explosive vest, witnesses said.
“As the shooting started, I ran away toward the forest,” a 41-year-old resident said. “I heard a powerful explosion and lay on the ground. I saw a 7-year-old child covered in blood running toward me. He took me to the place where the kamikaze detonated her explosive vest. It was a bloodbath.”
The Boko Haram insurgency began in Nigeria in 2009 then spread across the Lake Chad basin countries, including Cameroon. Boko Haram’s attacks are often indiscriminate, including suicide bombings in crowded areas that appear designed to maximize civilian deaths and injuries. Cameroon has had a sharp spike in attacks over the past year. According to a November 2020 report of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a United States Department of Defense think tank, the number of Boko Haram attacks against civilians in Cameroon in 2020 was higher than in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad combined.
In 2015, the African Union established the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), made up of troops from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, to respond to Boko Haram attacks across the Lake Chad basin. Comprising over 8,000 troops, the MNJTF receives technical, financial, and strategic support from international partners, including the European Union, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. The multinational force has conducted joint military operations across the Lake Chad basin.
It is essential for Cameroon and the multinational force to improve the conduct of forces deployed to counter Boko Haram attacks and to ensure that allegations of human rights violations by its forces are investigated and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said.
Since 2014, rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have documented widespread human rights violations and crimes under international humanitarian law by Cameroonian security forces deployed on operations in the Far North, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, incommunicado detention, systematic torture, and forced return of refugees.
On December 9, soldiers from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), an elite unit of the Cameroonian army, arrested four fishermen in Dabanga, in the Far North region, beat them, and took them to the Dabanga military base, where one of them died, said two of the fishermen and a family member. The fishermen said that the soldiers accused them of being Boko Haram members and that they saw one of the fishermen who was arrested with them taken from the cell soon after they arrived.
A family member of the fisherman who died said that BIR soldiers brought his body to their home hours after he was arrested, claiming he had died of a heart attack. The two fishermen and the family member said they believe the security forces killed him.
Cameroon’s international partners should push for accountability for human rights violations and work to strengthen the civilian component of the multinational force and its human rights compliance office, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch also urges the Cameroonian parliament to hold a hearing to explore the government’s response to the increasing attacks on civilians in the Far North, to provide recommendations on how to enhance civilian protection, and to seek input from international actors as needed.
International humanitarian law, applicable to the armed conflict with Boko Haram, prohibits deliberate disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects. Those who order or commit such attacks with criminal intent are responsible for war crimes.
“With Boko Haram attacks on the rise in Cameroon, more needs to be done to effectively protect civilians, including by boosting the military presence and patrols across the Far North region and ensuring that the soldiers respect people’s rights,” Allegrozzi said. “Cameroon’s regional and international partners, including those supporting the multinational force, should bolster these efforts and ensure that their assistance does not contribute to human rights violations.”