The rationale for American aid and assistance to Cameroon since 2001 has never been in question. Nigerian‐based Boko Haram — a group briefly affiliated with the Islamic State — is indeed a violent group. It is responsible not only for the famous kidnapping of over 276 schoolgirls in 2014 but also for tens of thousands of deaths in Nigeria (and many in Cameroon, as people fled across the border from Nigeria to escape) since 2009. Beyond this, Cameroon is Central Africa’s second‐biggest economy after Nigeria and is a development hub with regard to paved roads and sea ports, both of which play a large role in the region’s future. Though Boko Haram does not pose a direct threat to American national security (it has never attacked the United States), it certainly remains a destabilizing force in Africa today. As such, making efforts to help local partners confront and manage Boko Haram is a reasonable policy.
Unfortunately, the very states like Nigeria and Cameroon that suffer from violent insurgencies and terrorism are also extremely unreliable partners. Cameroon ranks among the world’s 25 most fragile states, rife with corruption and political instability. As noted, the government has a track record of human rights abuses and makes extensive use of the military and police to oppress political opponents. Putting money and weapons in the hands of such governments is a recipe for disaster.
Thus, even though American “advise and assist” efforts were designed to enable Cameroonian forces to better fight terrorist groups, the United States has effectively strengthened a military that now uses its newfound abilities against civilians, spawning further human rights abuses and raising the risk of state failure.
Nor is this just a problem in Cameroon. American intervention and assistance in Somalia, Ethiopia and Nigeria, just to name a few, risk similar unintended outcomes, or perhaps even worse. Academic research has shown that, over the past four decades, foreign military training increases the likelihood of a military‐led coup d’état because of the way it strengthens military organizations relative to civilian ones within a state.
And despite all of the American money and aid, it also looks like there is a real chance that U.S. counterterrorism efforts could backfire in Africa. A recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that the American military presence in Africa has not only created backlash against local governments but spawned increased resentment of the United States. U.S. Africa Command’s own force posture statement recognizes that “abusive security forces” can make local populations “prime targets” for exploitation.
Given how small the threat of African‐based terrorism is to the United States today, it makes little sense to take actions that may wind up increasing the threat in the future. Though there are no easy answers to the question of how to combat terrorism, especially in places like Cameroon, Washington needs to take steps to ensure that it does not enable the torture and oppression of Cameroonians in the name of American national security.