Something very scary is happening in Central Africa: a toxic terrorist group responsible for the April kidnapping of 200 Nigerian school girls has recently reached across the border to nearby Cameroon, indicating that its influence is spreading.
Last month a top Cameroonian official’s wife was kidnapped, signaling that that the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, designated a terrorist group by the State Department last year, is no longer confined to its birth nation of Nigeria. The group has been spurred on by the possibility of new recruits and unfazed by corrupt governments. The conditions necessary for the rise of a large terrorist cell may be aligning all too quickly.
Cameroon, long criticized as a corrupt country, is not alone in its political ineptitude. Ranked 144th out of 177 on Transparency International’s public sector corruption index, it is joined by its neighbors Gabon, coming in at a strong 106th, and Equatorial Guinea, breaking away from the pack at an inspiring 163rd.
The region as a whole is simply plagued with corruption. Free media and press is stifled in the name of maintaining peace, and the fight to even achieve multi-party democracies took decades. In Gabon, an institutionally open political culture was a concession to quell riots spurred on by sinking oil prices, which provide 80 percent of export revenues, and the mysterious death of Joseph Rendjambe, a popular critic of then-ruler Omar Bongo. Furthermore, Bongo, who was succeeded by his son Ali Bongo Ondimba after his death in 2009, stood accused of embezzling an astonishing 25 percent of the country’s GDP over the course of his rule. Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, staged a bloody coup to achieve power; every election since has been an absolute sham.
Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon each have long-standing ruling families (32, 35, and 47 years respectively), all three fall within Africa’s top 20 oil producers, and Gabon and Equatorial Guinea are two of the top three GDP per capita nations in Africa. An absence of money, clearly, is not the region’s problem. Yet despite such economic promise and an ostensibly open political framework, each country has over 30 percent of their population living under the poverty line as of 2005. Equatorial Guinea again stands out with a whopping 76.8 percent of its people in poverty.
These governments have demonstrated that they are either incapable of or simply indifferent to caring for their people. Understandably, the masses have, at times, attempted to resist their dictatorial “presidents.” Cameroonian demonstrations in 2008, stirred by frustration at President Paul Biya, saw 100 protestors killed in the streets. Gabon’s 2009 third place presidential candidate returned from exile in 2011 to try to form a new government, but was met by Ali Bongo’s government troops and tear gas. Equatorial Guinea’s frequent kidnappings and humanitarian atrocities, which have earned them every human rights organization’s black mark in the book, have so far held their people in check.
Until now, these countries have been allowed to fester in isolation, forming their own spheres void of conflict save that which they themselves create. Unfortunately, they may all be soon united by a very dark force.
Boko Haram is making gains in both Nigeria and Cameroon, recently seizing Damboa in northeastern Nigeria and raiding various Cameroonian villages. Northern Cameroon’s indigenous Muslim population and the understandable frustration of a people so deprived of both a basic necessities and a compassionate leader makes these fringe villages on the border prime recruiting grounds. This could mean new bodies, new local experts, and new fervor for a particularly brutal group. However, it may not be just human capital that’s Boko Haram’s biggest gain in Cameroon.
Gabon, as per a 2002 mandate, created 13 national parks to protect their African forest elephant population, representing 40,000 of the remaining 100,000 left in the world. For those seeking the modern-day gold mine of ivory, Gabon is the ultimate destination. Ivory currently fetches around $1,000 a pound on the black market and the average bull’s tusk weighs at least 110 pounds. Between 2004 and 2013, the Central Africa elephant population declined by 62 percent, according to a peer-reviewed study by PLOS One. This industry has even been brutal to baby elephants, with tusks weighing no more than a few pounds, that are killed for their ivory. Poaching is an enormous problem that would only be magnified with Boko Haram around.
It is also no secret that the floundering central governments of these three nations pay off local tribal leaders to maintain peace and ensure political stability. If Boko Haram were to even begin taking over small villages, that bribery money would flow right into their pockets — and in turn exacerbate turmoil in the region.
It is due time that the region take hold of itself and learn to tackle pressing issues. This begins with serious governmental reform towards truly serving the people and away from skimming off 25 percent of the GDP to stuff into its own back pockets. These governments have an existential interest in cooperation; they will see only turmoil and a loss of influence from Boko Haram’s expansion.
Their deprived populations, the international community, and the elephants are all holding their breath.
Ben Rutan is a First Year Fellow at Dartmouth College and an intern with the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy.