Ransom kidnappings challenge North Cameroon

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In just three years (2015–18), kidnappers in North Cameroon collected ransom money of around €3 million (CFAF 2 billion), according to Garoua police. This crime has soared despite government measures such as military deployment and the creation of vigilante committees.

Kidnappers are from different African countries and cross borders to capture or hide their victims – making this a complex transnational crime and difficult to contain.

On 2 September, four Forests and Environment Sector Programme employees were kidnapped on the Mayo Djarendi-Madingring road in the country’s Mayo-Rey department. The abductors demanded CFAF 40 million to release them. On 22 October, at least 40 people of Chadian and Cameroonian nationality were abducted near Touboro in North Cameroon.

Between 2015 and 2018, kidnappers in North Cameroon amassed €3 million in ransom
Kidnappings for ransom have increased in the context of North Cameroon’s active agricultural and animal husbandry economy. These activities generate significant revenue, adding to border trading, which is particularly lucrative.

Mayo-Rey, Bénoué and Mayo-Louti, on the border with the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad and Nigeria, are the departments most targeted by kidnappings for ransom. Persistent issues of weapons possession and trafficking in these countries, partly driven by sociopolitical crises and rebellions, provide kidnappers with the means to carry out their activities.

Sources in North Cameroon told the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) how hostage takers cross these long and porous borders to find targets. They subdue their victims and sow fear among civilians, rendering them more vulnerable. They usually target farmers, cattle breeders, shopkeepers and humanitarian workers, chosen for their perceived ability to respond to the ransom demands due to their apparent financial capacity.

The phenomenon is spreading beyond the northern and eastern regions (Far North, North, Adamawa and East) to neighbouring areas in Chad, the CAR and Nigeria. It also involves various nationalities, as evidenced by ex-hostages. In Garoua, one informant, who requested anonymity, said his abductors were Nigerian. Another was certain that some came from Sudan. This cross-border dimension reveals a connection between the Sahel, East Africa through Sudan and Central Africa.

Multiple ex-hostages interviewed by ISS researchers said kidnappers were predominantly Fulani, Mbororo, and Arab Choa herders, speaking Fulfulde or Arabic. Their accents varied and included those heard in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Sudan and Central Africa.

Regional kidnappers cross borders, moving hostages to the CAR, Chad or Cameroon
These accounts suggest potential links between transhumance across the border and ransom kidnappings in North Cameroon. Interviewees also mentioned that some of the nomadic shepherds crossing the Chad and Niger borders into North Cameroon were concealing weapons, subsequently used in abductions.

But the reality is more complex, with multiple independent groups all kidnapping for cash. Sources suggest that kidnappers include Cameroonian armed groups, former rebels, Central African and Chadian mercenaries, as well as rogue elements among the Cameroonian defence and security forces.

Their modus operandi comprises three stages. First, they collect information from their accomplices inside the communities. Then, they proceed with intimidation and blackmail, sending messages to their potential victims asking for a sum of money to be delivered to a specific address. Failing that, they threaten kidnapping. Finally, they track victims and set up an ambush or carry out raids to capture them.

They take their victims into difficult-to-access mountains, later crossing borders—hostages from Chad or the CAR end up in Cameroon and vice versa. Ransom negotiations occur over the phone. A cash drop-off point is provided. The kidnappers forbid the victims’ relatives from alerting the defence and security forces, threatening to harm captives. Throughout, accomplices in communities provide ongoing information on victims’ movements and transactions.

Strengthening vigilante committees would help curb the ransom kidnapping industry
While in captivity, victims frequently face attacks, with some tragically losing their lives, particularly if the ransom is not paid.

The cross-border nature of these ransom kidnappings limits the capacities of Cameroon’s forces, who struggle to cover the whole territory. Effective responses to this phenomenon demand a coordinated cross-border approach, with active cooperation between Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and the CAR.

The Multinational Joint Task Force, committed to fighting Boko Haram, could extend its actions to help address the problem, given that all these countries are member states of the Lake Chad Basin Commission.

Also, the flow of cross-border human trafficking must be systematically monitored by competent authorities in administration, the military, police, gendarmes, eco-guards and others. This will secure the essential pastoral and cross-border transhumance sector while impeding infiltration.

Reactivating vigilante committees, who are unmotivated and still untrained and who should include livestock farmers and hunters who control the rural tracks, must be stepped up. Strengthening their information and early warning capacity through training is crucial.

Lastly, cellphone companies could help geolocate kidnappers during ransom negotiations.

All these measures could help address the problem of kidnapping for ransom in North Cameroon, making the region safer for civilians.

Written by Célestin Delanga, Research Officer, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.