Cameroon has lifted a curfew that prevented movement along the northmost border with Nigeria, in the first strong indication that authorities in the Far North are confident the four-year war on Boko Haram is in its last days.
The reopening of the border to trade and the movement of people came as attacks by the terrorist group became fewer, smaller and less devastating over the past several months.
After a multilateral force went operational last year Boko Haram soon began to lose territory, firepower and fighters. Large scale assaults gave way to targetted suicide bombings and landmine explosions killing only a few people at a time.
But it is the work of self-defence groups in spotting and stopping suicide bombers and in providing the military with intelligence that might have broken the back of the group, which said it wanted to establish a Sharia territory around the Lack Chad area.
Far North governor Midiyawa Bakari praised both the military and civilian vigilantes for reducing insecurity to a comfortable level as he announced the reopening of the border in Maroua.
He said, the crisis was now “firmly under control”, in a departure from the dominant talk of attacks and counterattacks as early as the start of the year.
Schools and markets along the border will also reopened, even though security controls throughout the region are unlikely to be lifted. Troops are also not pulling out and the military is yet to declare an end of offensive operations.
Inhabitants have welcomed the move but will hesitate travelling to the borders right away, said our correspondent in Maroua. “People still have to get used to the fact that it is safe to travel to the border again,” he said. “It will take time to transition from more than four years of fear to a return to normal life.”
Boko Haram assaults and military reprisals forced around 170,000 people from their homes along the border. They shut down hundreds of schools and scattered more than 30,000 of students and pupils to campuses around the region.
Last month, regional officials said the conflict cost the Far North more than FCFA 90 billion in economic losses. Cross-border trade and tourism received the hardest hit, with activities coming to a halt. The UN said more than two million people faced the impact of food insecurity, malnutrition and the lack of basic services as a result of the prevailing insecurity.
Nearly 2000 people in Cameroon have died in the conflict, including senior military personnel.
In response to the carnage, authorities imposed a travel ban to high-risk zones. They outlawed motorcycles, the main means of transportation, completely from most of the countryside and at night in the main cities and towns.
Nightlife stalled, business crippled, and the cost of living shot up. Foreign embassies issued travel warnings, tourists stayed away and development agencies scaled down their work.
This week’s announcement of relative return to normal times was pitched as the beginning of a long road to recovery. The immediate challenge facing authorities is to restore a sense of safety to levels that can encourage businesses, humanitarian services and development work to resume, our correspondent said.
There had been signs that this was coming. In June, Cameroon, Nigeria and the United Nations Refugee Agency announced plans to begin resettling more than 60,000 Nigerian refugees, who had fled Boko Haram attacks to live at a camp near Mokolo in the Far North. Conditions inside Nigeria had become safe for their return, they said.
The political dividends will be huge for President Paul Biya and his ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement. In spite of being an unpopular leader blamed for running up poverty and allowing corruption to thrive, he currently enjoys public sympathy for his handling of the conflict.
An end of active combat may also pave the way for his agenda to hold an early presidential election next year. Critics of the plan, currently championed by his closest allies, including ministers and lawmakers, have cited the conflict as a reason not to hold the early poll.