Boko Haram heat is warming Nigeria’s cold relationship with Cameroon

Nigeria and Cameroon have for the past twenty years been cold neighbours at best, and warring nations at worst. It is like the US and Cuba before their current rapprochement, only that Nigeria’s enmity with Cameroon was about territory and not political ideology. Although the dispute between both countries have received a final ruling in court which they have now both accepted, there has remained a high level of animosity and low level of bilateral cooperation between both nations, until Boko Haram came along. Attacked by a common enemy which they are unable to defeat individually, both countries are finally learning to sulk it up and work together, a move that is bound to open the path to further cooperation.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari traveled to Cameroon on Wednesday to meet with the country’s longtime leader Paul Biya. Both leaders pledged this morning to improve the exchange of intelligence and security cooperation along their border in a bid to tackle the insurgency that has devastated the northeastern region of Nigeria and destabilized parts of northern Cameroon. Biya has been in power since 1982, a year before Buhari took power in a military coup. While the latter was ousted in another military coup twenty months later, the former managed to remain the leader of his country and saw through a tense two decade standoff with Nigeria over the sovereignty of the Bakassi peninsula–an oil rich strip that lies between the deep south of both countries.

The Bakassi conflict preceded both leaders. It is rooted in the 19th century Scramble for Africa and escalated in 1961 after Southern Cameroons voted in 1961 to leave Nigeria and become a part of Cameroon. Agreements between both countries in the 1970s failed to resolve the dispute and it came to a head in 1981 when both countries went to the brink of war in a fight to control the oil rich region. More armed clashes broke out in the early 1990s, and in 1994 Cameroon took the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In 2002 the ICJ ruled in favour of Cameroonian sovereignty but Nigeria would only bow to the judgement five years later.

  The Bakassi contest left a lot of bad blood between both neighbours which negatively impacted bilateral partnership especially in trade. Despite sharing a 1,600-kilometer land boundary that extends from the Lake Chad to the Gulf of Guinea, trade between Nigeria and Cameroon is abysmally low. Cross border travels remains very difficult; on land, the routes are poorly established, on water, illegal ferrying dominates, while on air there is still no direct flight to the next door neighbour. Last year, the respective quality regulators of both countries–the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and the Standards and Quality Agency of Cameroon ( ANOR)–signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to remove all technical barriers to trade. Despite this, the bulk of trade between them remains in the informal sector.

The weak cooperation between both countries also gave strength to Boko Haram insurgents who leveraged the deep mistrust and blame-game between their security forces to strike both countries. Now, awake to the reality that they have no option than to work together, both countries are seeking to mend fences at least, against the common enemy. “The heads of state are going to discuss the best means of eradicating this new form of belligerence and the strategies to reduce Boko Haram,” Cameroon’s Information Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakari told Reuters, referring to Buhari’s meeting with Biya. Part of the means is closer security ties between the states with shared borders, Buhari’s spokesman Femi Adesina said on Twitter. “Nigerian govs [governors] who share borders with Cameroon to open communication,” he wrote, adding that the joint security patrols and infrastructure development would be established with their Cameroonian counterparts.

The talks also focused on how to forge ahead with the African Union-mandated 8,700-strong regional task force that is headquartered in the Chadian capital N’Djamena. The mobilization of the joint force has been hampered by funding, but President Buhari’s meeting with Cameroon and the regional members is expected to resolve it. He has already met with the leaders of Chad and Niger, and will travel to Benin republic on Saturday for talks with President Boni Yayi.

The strengthening of the military relationship between Nigeria and Cameroon could also lead to more bilateral economic cooperation as well as a larger partnership at the Lake Chad region level. It is an opportunity to turn momentary military coalition into an enduring regional relationship that crisscrosses all sectors, especially the economy.

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