African leaders gather to counter Boko Haram

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. (AFP)

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. (AFP)

Leaders from five African nations have gathered in Paris for a half-day summit with officials from the US, France and Britain in hopes of co-ordinating a strategy against Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group that has abducted more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls and is believed to have attacked a group of road workers in northern Cameroon.

A Chinese national was injured, possibly killed, and 10 others were feared kidnapped after an overnight cross-border attack in Waza that the police believe was carried out by Boko Haram militants from neighbouring Nigeria.

“Boko Haram Islamists attacked a camp [of road workers]. A Chinese was killed. Ten Chinese cannot be found since the attack.
We think they have probably been kidnapped,” a local police chief said on Saturday on condition of anonymity.

Waza is 20km from the Nigerian border close to the Sambisa forest stronghold of Boko Haram, which has killed thousands in Nigeria in a five-year insurgency for an Islamist state and threatens to destabilise the wider region. The vast forest is close to the area where Boko Haram kidnapped the schoolgirls last month.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was already in Paris at the time of the attack, meeting with the leaders of Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin to forge a regional strategy against the Islamist group. Jonathan was expected to face pressure to co-operate much more closely with Nigeria’s neighbouring countries.

Missing and injured
A source close to the Chinese embassy in the Cameroon capital of Yaounde spoke of 10 missing and one wounded, but would not confirm or deny if one Chinese worker had been killed.

The incident began when power was cut in the evening. A five-hour gunfight followed, according to a guard at the Waza National Park. “Some of us decided to hide in the forest with the animals,” the guard said, requesting anonymity.

“Cameroonian soldiers retaliated and the fighting lasted until 3am,” an officer said.

“The Boko Haram militants were heavily armed. They came in five vehicles,” an official in Waza said on condition of anonymity.

He said the camp where the Chinese road workers stayed was usually guarded by soldiers from Cameroon’s elite Rapid Intervention Battalion. But “their numbers were thinner these past few days because many of them had gone down to Yaounde” for the traditional military parade marking National Day on May 20.

The governor of Far North province, Augustine Fonka Awa, confirmed the attack but declined to give details. 

The police officer said the militants had also attacked the police post in Waza and raided its armoury.

The Chinese embassy has suspended visits to the area. “For companies operating in the northern part of Cameroon in particular, they should instantly start security contingency plans,” it said.

At least two Chinese enterprises operate in the region. State new agency Xinhua said an engineering unit of state-run construction company Sinohydro, which is repairing roads, operated the camp. And Yan Chang Logone Development Holding Company, a subsidiary of China’s Yanchang Petroleum, is exploring for oil.

Cross-border attacks
Boko Haram has staged several attacks in northern Cameroon. It attacked a police post last month, killing two people. And the rebels kidnapped a French family in February 2013.

France, which has negotiated freedom for a priest as well as the French family abducted by Boko Haram in Cameroon and then held in Nigeria for two months, called Saturday’s summit to share intelligence and work together to find the kidnapped girls.

France has troops deployed on peacekeeping duty in the Central African Republic and in Mali, where it sent a force last year to combat al-Qaeda-linked militants who had seized control of much of the north of the country.

Although the French have said the intervention in Mali inflicted significant damage on groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), military planners remain concerned about the implications of potential alliances being forged between militants across the deeply unstable region.

In terms of concrete help for Nigeria’s anti-terrorism efforts, Paris has signalled that it could put Rafale fighter planes and drones based in the region at the disposal of Jonathan’s government for surveillance activities.

Nigeria has only reluctantly accepted outside help after citizens expressed outrage and heavily criticised Jonathan and his government’s slow response to the schoolgirl kidnappings.

Jonathan cancelled a trip on Friday to the town where the girls were seized, apparently on security concerns, fuelling further outrage. 

Long-running dispute
A long-running territorial dispute has soured relations between Nigeria and Cameroon, hampering steps towards joint action against the militants.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters just before the summit that regional countries, backed by Western powers such as Britain, the US and the European Union, would have to forge a “strategy to defeat Boko Haram more broadly”.

The group, which is waging a deadly campaign to create an Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria, has achieved a new level of notoriety since it seized the girls a month ago.

“This is one sickening and terrible incident but they continue almost every day to commit terrorist acts and atrocities,” Hague said.

“There are many borders here and they are porous. This is very relevant to finding the schoolgirls. We want to see the countries in the region working together in creating an intelligence fusion cell,” Hague said.

“Nigerian security forces have not been well structured” to deal with the threat posed by Boko Haram, he added. 

French President Francois Hollande discussed the conference and the hunt for the girls with US President Barack Obama in a phone call on Friday, the White House said.

US drones and surveillance aircraft are among the resources already at Nigeria’s disposal, but further Western military involvement is not on the agenda, officials say.

Instead, the emphasis is on sharing intelligence and knowledge about dealing with such groups.

ANC Women’s League support
The ANC Women’s League said on Saturday that Boko Haram was a group of terrorists that is not supported by any religious groups.

“[Boko Haram] is vehemently opposed by all religious groupings including Islam and goes against the fundamental principles of the Islam religion by removing innocent children from their families,” the league said after a meeting in Johannesburg. 

“We commit our solidarity to the women of Nigeria, both Muslims and Christians, in every effort possible for the safe return of the kidnapped schoolgirls.” 

Nigerian police have offered a reward of 50-million naira (about R3.1-million) for a lead on the whereabouts of the kidnapped schoolgirls. 

The women’s league called on leaders and people around the world to unite in efforts to find the girls. 

“We shall never sit back as spectators while our girls’ human rights are taken away,” it said. “We will keep the flame of awareness burning by holding various events to highlight the plight of these girls until they have been returned safely to their homes.” – Sapa-AP, Sapa-AFP, Reuters and Sapa

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