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Border porosity and Boko Haram as a regional threat
28 May 2012

The militant Islamic movement Boko Haram, which has its roots in Nigeria, poses a potential danger to Nigeria's neighbours should its influence spread beyond the country's borders. This potential threat should be evaluated and managed as Nigeria and the international community attempt to address the challenge posed by Boko Haram. The risks presented by the militant group are amplified primarily through the prevalence of porous borders in the West African sub-region. Countries like Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger are all potential targets due to their proximity to Nigeria, their demographics and their socio-economic realities. At greatest risk are Cameroon and Niger, which share considerably vast borders with Nigeria.

Nigeria's borders with Benin and Chad are fairly short - 773km and 87km long respectively. In comparison, Nigeria's borders with Niger and Cameroon span 1 497km and 1 690km respectively. The porous nature of these borders heightens the potential spread of terrorist activities into the neighbouring countries. Their vulnerability to the spread of Boko Haram is compounded by the fact that Niger and Cameroon have borders with the northern Nigerian states, where Boko Haram already exerts a strong influence. The border with Niger, for example, stretches along Sokoto, Katsina, Jigawa and Yobe states. This proximity to northern Nigeria is therefore a particular threat to Niger's already fragile security, given the relative ease with which terrorist elements can cross into the country. Cameroon faces a smaller risk than Niger as only two of the four Nigerian states bordering Cameroon (Taraba and Adamawa states) are part of northern Nigeria, while Cross Rivers and Benue states are in the south-eastern and middle eastern regions of Nigeria. However, the Boko Haram risk to Cameroon should not be underestimated.

It should be noted that citizens of Cameroon and Niger have been suspected of participating in Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria. This alleged involvement implies that Boko Haram activities could already be spreading across Nigeria's borders and that it could possibly already be conducting some of its activities in neighbouring countries such as training recruits, and planning and executing terrorist acts. It could also be using neighbouring countries as safe havens. Allegations that some Boko Haram militants have migrated to Niger and Cameroon after committing attacks in northern Nigeria buttress the need for swift action in addressing the problem. In addition, there have been incidences of Boko Haram attacks on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. The May 21 suicide attack on a police station in Taraba state, on Nigeria's border with Cameroon, illustrates the growing level of insecurity at this border post. Although Boko Haram has not claimed responsibility for this incident, the attack is in line with the modus operandi of the militant group and, needless to say, exposes the vulnerability of this border area.

Niger has been identified as fertile ground for terrorist activity due to its weak government, socio-economic challenges and the marginalisation of certain components of society. Furthermore, the existence of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) suggests the presence of Salafist ideology, which Boko Haram is also rooted in, and adds to Niger's fragile security situation. The spread of Boko Haram into Niger would therefore create further national and regional insecurity.

While Cameroon's vulnerability to terrorism is not as substantial as Niger's, socio-economic malaise and dissatisfaction with the government do exist. If left unchecked, the combination of these two elements might allow for fundamentalist ideology to thrive and result in the sprouting of terrorist activities in this country. It is therefore crucial to prevent the movement and infiltration of any elements such as Boko Haram into both countries.

The governments of Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon have made efforts to strengthen border security and prevent the spread of terrorism. For example, the Nigerian government closed down sections of its border with Cameroon and Niger as part of stricter border control measures. However, this is insufficient and tighter, more efficient border control measures need to be put in place to prevent the movement of Boko Haram and other criminal elements across borders. In addition, the closure of borders is not a permanent solution as it has various repercussions. It is notable, for instance, that citizens in Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria rely on cross-border trade for economic sustenance. Nigeriens in particular have borne the brunt of the closure of their border with Nigeria as drought in Niger means that many citizens rely on trade with Nigeria for food. The closure of this border has compounded the food shortage problem in Niger.

Other efforts towards border security include the agreement to create a Nigeria-Cameroon trans-border security committee. The committee's establishment should, however, be matched with immediate and precise action to prevent wide-scale terrorist movements across borders. Action is required to redouble efforts to secure the countries' vast borders.

In this regard, action constitutes deeper collaboration between the various border agencies. Information and resource sharing, as well as the standardisation of policy, are crucial in this respect. Relevant legal instruments and frameworks should also be harmonised. More so, regional and international organisations should support efforts geared at tightening borders and restricting the flow of terrorists within the sub-region. Funding infrastructural development for enhancing border security is one way in which border control efforts can be supported.

Uyo Salifu, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria 

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