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Has the Anglophone Crisis Diverted Cameroon’s Resources from Fighting Boko Haram?

As the crisis ravaging the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon rages on, the two northernmost regions of Cameroon have seen a resurgence in Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) activity. The fight against these extremists movements in the Far North was previously a major operational focus for Cameroon’s security forces, but the Biya government’s decision to militarize the Anglophone Crisis has strained the capacity of Cameroon to fight effectively on two fronts, reducing security everywhere. This strategy led the Biya regime to redeploy security forces extensively to the two Anglophone regions, and to invest significantly in defence infrastructure there. It is not hard to find evidence of this significant redeployment of personnel, vehicles, and aircraft over the last two years, and the following is a preliminary survey of some of that evidence.  

Bamenda Airport, already home to a BIR (Batallion D’Intervention Rapide) base, has seen major security investment since the crisis began. As shown in the satellite imagery below, a new helicopter facility has been added, complete with two helipads to the south of the airport apron. The buildings of the BIR complex have been reroofed, and some small new buildings added to that facility. Most notable, though, has been the major development of a new security-related facility with blue roofing. Individually, these developments may seem insignificant, but taken together it makes clear Bamenda’s strategic importance – these are expensive investments over a short period of time. It is also known that a DDR (Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) center has been under construction near Bamenda for some time. This large facility can be seen under development in this video at 23:09.

Development at Bamenda Airport: Before Image 1/20/2017. After Image 10/19/2020. Google Earth Imagery.

Arguably the Cameroon Air Force’s most important aircraft, the American-made C-130 Hercules, provides its most impressive strategic and tactical airlift capability. The Hercules is a mainstay of logistical support for operations in the Far North, but more sorties appear to be heading west rather than north. Cameroon has only three C-130H aircraft, and keeping them operable is clearly a priority, with a recently-signed maintenance agreement with Marshall Aerospace and Defence providing maintenance for the next five years (https://www.flightglobal.com/fixed-wing/cameroon-picks-marshall-for-c-130-maintenance/138232.article). One C-130 slid off the runway at Maroua-Salak airport in the Far North earlier this year, sustaining light damage. During 2019 and 2020, however, Cameroon’s invaluable C-130s have been photographed at Bamenda airport on multiple occasions, as demonstrated in the images below, another indicator of the operational tempo of security forces involved in the Anglophone Crisis.

The BIR’s main base can be found in the South-West region of Cameroon, at Man O’War Bay in Limbe. Two used Bell 412s were bought for the BIR in 2019, adding to the two already in service. Bell 412 helicopters have been used regularly on operations in the Anglophone regions, and it is known that at least some of Cameroon’s limited fleet are based at the Man O’War Bay base. The images below, taken from a documentary on the BIR , clearly show them in operation at Limbe, and some of the infrastructure that supports them. Various other documentaries on the Anglophone Crisis have featured journalists flying in these same helicopters.

This documentary is also of interest as it clearly shows Mack Defense/ACMAT Bastion APCs, donated to Cameroon by the US Department of Defense for use against Boko Haram, based in the Anglophone regions. Two examples are visible in the video, as shown below, whilst another image shows one on operations in Lebialem in the Anglophone regions. The video also shows a Polaris-type special forces vehicle in use, likely sourced from the United States.

Cameroon has also invested heavily in new armoured vehicles that have been regularly spotted in the Anglophone regions, but no evidence has yet been seen of any deployment to the Far North. UAE-based MSPV have exported a number of Panthera vehicles to Cameroon,  with the police, gendarmerie and army operating them. Photographic evidence also exists of heavy Chinese 07P IFVs being operated in the Anglophone regions, once a mainstay in the battles against Boko Haram in the Far North. In addition, shell casings from its unique 30mm cannon have been found and photographed by local residents after battles in Anglophone regions.

Finally, anecdotal reports from the Far North suggest that the security forces have reduced their strength, leading to a rise in insecurity. A report by Human Rights Watch alleges that civilians have been forced to perform Night Guard duty to protect against Boko Haram attacks. This suggested reduction in numbers in the Far North appears to be backed up by satellite imagery, with the Fotokol BIR base showing a dramatic reduction in the number of military vehicles stationed there in 2019-2020 compared to previous years. This is illustrated in the imagery comparison below.

Decrease in Activities at Fotokol Military Base: Before Image 12/29/2018. After Image 1/8/2020. Google Earth Imagery.

Ultimately, the preceding evidence illustrates that (1) the militarization of the Anglophone Crisis has caused the Cameroonian government to invest heavily in defence facilities and hardware in the Northwest and Southwest of Cameroon, thus (2) stretching resources and capabilities in the Far North, allowing for a resurgence of both Boko Haram and ISWAP, reducing security for civilians there and elsewhere, and increasing the economic strain on an already fiscally weakened Cameroon government. 

Billy Burton and Chris W.J. Roberts

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