The Far North’s capital is recovering from the deadly terrorist attacks of July 2015, but the threat still looms.
“Vrrrrrrrr...” Night has fallen on Maroua, but the sound of motorcycle-taxis still resonates in the streets. They haven’t been heard this late for two years. The security measures taken to thwart attacks by Boko Haram had forced the Far North’s bendskinners to put their bikes away at sunset, and in the border area with Nigeria they were banned altogether. “The curfew hasn’t been lifted but we started working at night again two or three months ago,” says Ibrahim, a motorcycle-taxi driver around 30 years old. “The police don’t bother us. I can even work until dawn if there are customers.”
In a sign that things are returning to normal, the regional capital’s nightlife is starting up again. The bars and sidewalk cafes in the Pont-Vert neighbourhood are packed. But on the evening of 25 July 2015, a little girl blew herself up in the middle of the crowd there, killing 21 and wounding many more.
A double suicide attack at and near the central market had already claimed 13 lives three days earlier. Cameroon was in a state of shock that summer: this was the first time the Islamist group had attacked a big city. Based in Nigeria, where it has been fighting the central government since 2009, Boko Haram has become a powerful insurrectional terrorist movement seeking to impose its strict vision of Islam, violently attacking Muslims from other currents and Christians. The group took control of several Nigerian cities, from which the army often has a very hard time driving them out, and even attempt forays into Chad and Niger. In February 2013, they abducted a family of French tourists in Cameroon’s Far North.
Other kidnappings of Westerners and Cameroonians followed as well as countless attacks on border villages. Having joined the Islamic State “franchise” in the meantime, Boko Haram is now reportedly roiled by a leadership crisis. In any case, a mixed, multidimensional Nigerian, Chadian and Cameroonian force is now working together against them. They are allowed to cross each other’s borders in pursuit of fleeing terrorists. But no attack has taken place in Maroua since the tragic events of July 2015.
“We’ve even forgotten about Boko Haram,” says Kona Bouba, an agricultural engineer who lives in the Doursoungo quarter. “We can go about our business normally night and day.” Despite his optimism, he acknowledges that the events have “changed the city”. It is not noticeable at first, but the regional capital of around a half-million people is in a state of post-traumatic stress. If a tire bursts or a “stranger” behaves oddly, hearts start pounding again.
“If a child you don’t know comes up to you on the street you run away”, says Sali, 46, a feminist activist who works for a group campaigning against violence against women. Why would a grown man be afraid of little children? Because the Nigerian terrorist group massively used them to commit suicide attacks. “We used to have roadside bandits attacking travellers, but we’re even more afraid of Boko Haram.” A few days earlier he was in Kourgui, just 20 kilometres from Banki, a Nigerian city liberated from Boko Haram in September 2015. Sali was alert during Friday prayer. “People were praying outdoors without any military protection,” he said. “I was scared. I didn’t trust my neighbours.” According to him, although the threat is receding, it is still too early to reduce security measures. “The pressure must be kept up for another six months or a year precisely because things are better.”
There are almost no police patrolling Maroua’s central market anymore. Men in uniform no longer watch the entrances on Monday, the big market day. Anyway, vendors say the place is just a shadow of its former self. The first attack occurred here on 22 July 2015. Sali Ahmadou, a 75-year-old tailor, was just a few metres away from the young suicide bomber. Luckily, nothing happened to him. He is still busy behind his sewing machine in a corridor pockmarked by the bomb blast. “After the attack,” he said, “some vendors stayed away for a month. It was nearly a year before business got back to normal. Customers are still afraid of coming. Look! It’s nearly empty.”
A SLOWLY RECOVERING ECONOMY
Following the devaluation of the naira, Nigeria’s currency, and road closures for security reasons, trade between Cameroon and its Anglophone neighbour collapsed. The Nigerian border was partially reopened at the end of 2016, but many crossing points remain sealed, such as the one on the road between Limani and Banki, Maroua’s former vital organ of economic activity. The Nigerian city of Banki was taken by Boko Haram in September 2014 and liberated a year later during a joint assault by Cameroonian and Nigerian forces. Today it is just a field of rubble. Lorries loaded with manufactured goods from Maiduguri (the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state and cradle of Boko Haram), which once made this trade crossroads a wealthy place, have deserted the area. Now haulers must drive hundreds of kilometres out their way through the Cameroonian cities of Garoua and Guider, further south.
Before Boko Haram rocked the region, farmers from the Far North sold some of their produce in Nigeria at a better price than in Cameroon. Today, they must settle for the national market. Agricultural engineer Étienne Wedjou says prices for some foodstuffs have collapsed as a result. “The impact can be felt as far away as Yaoundé,” he remarked. “In the capital, You can find a cow raised in the Far North for 150,000 francs CFA (around €230). A few years ago, the price was around 250,000 (around €380).” Mr. Wedjou, who graduated from the Institut Supérieur du Sahel in Maroua, misses his city’s energy.
“Maroua was taking off! The opening of the university in 2008 gave it a boost. Many people have left since then—Cameroonians from the south and foreigners, too. We never imagined such a thing could happen.” Mr. Wedjou says that some subsistence crops, such as millet and maize, have been banned to prevent terrorists from hiding in them, a decision that may have caused the start of a food crisis. “But things are better now,” he says. “Farmers were finally able to start working again last year.”
STILL IN THE RED ZONE
In May 2014, President Paul Biya attended mini-summit in Paris on security in central Africa after a string of abductions of foreigners in Cameroon. He declared war on Boko Haram and beefed up the army’s presence in the country’s north. After two and a half years of sporadic fighting, Brigadier General Valère Nka, commander of the 4th Inter-Army Military Region in Maroua and the head of Operation Emergence IV since late 2017, after general Jacob Kodji died in a helicopter crash, is relatively optimistic.
“Boko Haram is no longer the fighting force it was after stealing weapons from the Nigerian army and attacking Cameroon,” he says. “We’ve reached a stabilisation stage. Displaced persons are streaming back to their villages and life in Maroua is returning to normal.” He acknowledges that Boko Haram is still dangerous and far from vanquished, but his scope of action is now limited to the border strip. “Today,” he says, “the main threats are predatory attacks to steal livestock, food and weapons, suicide attacks and explosive devices on busy roads.” Mines regularly kill and maim soldiers and civilians. “Just yesterday, an army lorry blew up at the border south of Kerawa. Luckily, there were no casualties. But three weeks ago we lost three soldiers in the Mozogo sector.”
Although the threats are geographically limited, Western governments still strongly advise against travelling to the area, much to the dismay of tourism and hotel professionals. Norbert Stede, who owns Relais Porte Mayo, one of the region’s most famous hotels, is one of them. In 1979, the young German student crossed the Sahara in a lorry, fell in love with Maroua and, five years later, dropped out of university to buy Porte Mayo with a friend. “It was viable! There was international tourism. Foreigners working in Yaoundé and Douala and development aid workers came here. In 30 years, there were ups and downs, but now we’re in survival mode. The number of guests fell by more than half. We had to cut staff.” Early in the Boko Haram crisis, Mr. Stede did a thriving business after international humanitarian organisations arrived. Then one day he was asked to turn his hotel into a bunker.
“They wanted us to make it an armed camp with video surveillance cameras and barbed wire. But hotels with tight security are precisely the biggest targets. To me, this is no longer tourism, it’s a prison. And I’m living in it.” Like everybody else here, he has noticed an improvement in the security climate and hopes that “Western governments will give the go-ahead for people to come back. That’s our biggest problem.” Mr. Stede, who heads the Far North hotel and tourism business association, remains upbeat. He knows that attractions such as Waza Park and the Rhumsiki Mountains, located a few kilometres from Nigeria, are not safe yet, but the region is vast and “the security forces are active there,” he says. “It might reopen in a few months.”
“It’s peaceful again, but the peace is uncertain,” says a teacher near Mora, a town 60 kilometres north of Maroua that has seen many attacks and suicide bombings in the past two years. “Most of the schools around mine closed after Boko Haram attacked or threatened them.” Classes never stopped in hers. “But can you really say that we were holding classes? The few pupils we had left often arrived shaking all over…” She prays every morning on her way to school by motorcycle. But still, she goes. She has seen “recruiters” in towns and villages enlisting boys, often poor, by promising them money and work. To her, it is obvious that the fight against Boko Haram must include education. Parents have become aware of that. “Now that they feel reassured, they’re sending their children back to school.”
The school’s student population nearly doubled this year to nearly 560. The first two permanent classrooms have just been built, although the school opened around 30 years ago. brigadier general Nka also calls for public investment. “There are many humanitarian needs,” he says. “Militarily, the situation is under control but it will necessary to rebuild the region, re-open schools and restore government administration.”
All of these children and young people are probably dreaming of work and a brighter future. On a late afternoon in March, when the mosques start singing, men play football in the parched Mayo Kaliao riverbed. This quiet, carefree moment in the heart of Maroua may herald the return of peace. Presently, the players are no longer thinking about Boko Haram and war. All that matters now is the game. When it is over, they will go to a bar, mosque or home. Those who live far away might take a motorcycle-taxi.
“It’s peaceful but the peace is uncertain,” says a teacher.
MAHMOUD MAL BAKARI
“BOKO HARAM HAS UNITED EVERY COMMUNITY AGAINST IT”
Terrorism affects everybody in this multicultural city, where Mahmoud Mal Bakari, 70, professes inter-religious dialogue based on the values of peace and fraternity. “My parents were from Maroua, which was always quiet and appealing to tourists,” he says. “The economy was growing and people lived in perfect harmony. Insecurity has reduced economic, social and cultural activities, but Boko Haram’s acts have strengthened ties between different religious communities, who are all victims. We’ve intensified awareness-raising among Muslims and increased the number of meetings with other believers on the values of peace and fraternity. The situation is better. There are fewer attacks. Travel between cities has resumed and schools in the most affected areas are gradually reopening. That said, unfortunately the crisis has increased poverty and reduced young people’s job opportunities.”