Nigerians have fled in droves to neighbouring Cameroon to escape violence claimed by the Islamist Boko Haram group and revenge attacks by Christians.
“Everybody is insecure in Nigeria. The fear is all-pervading,” said a Christian priest, speaking on condition of anonymity, in Fotokol, a Cameroonian border town where dozens have taken shelter in the last few weeks.
It is located about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Nigerian city of Maiduguri, the bastion of the shadowy Boko Haram sect which has been blamed for a slew of terror attacks that have sowed panic in Africa’s most populous nation.
Boko Haram has claimed to be fighting for an Islamic state in the north, but its demands have varied. “Many Nigerians like myself have fled their villages in the south. We feel secure in Cameroon,” the priest said in Fotokol.
“That is why I am sheltered here,” he added. He has rented a house which is about 10 minutes by motorcycle to the nearest town in Nigeria, Gamboru Ngala, where he heads the local Catholic church.
It is difficult to gauge the exact number of Nigerians who have fled to Cameroon as they cross the border illegally, but there are easily dozens sheltered here since the attacks and tit-for-tat ripostes by Christians.
Mahamat Tujani, a Muslim trader from Maiduguri, fled to Kousseri near Fotokol. “I abandoned my business and my family to seek refuge at the home of my cousin,” a Cameroonian, he said. “I escaped out of fear.”
He hoped to return home soon, he said, “but if the killings continue, I will bring over my family members here.”
Boko Haram has been blamed for scores of bomb attacks in Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated north. It claimed responsibility for January 20 coordinated bombings and shootings in Nigeria’s second-largest city of Kano that left at least 185 people dead — Boko Haram’s deadliest attack yet.
The August suicide bombing of UN headquarters in the capital Abuja which killed at least 25 people was also attributed to the group. “When you scent danger, you must escape,” the priest said.
“Even in the Gospel, the Lord says the moment you sense danger, you must escape. If you don’t it’s suicide,” he said.
The priest said two Christians from the mainly Christian Igbo ethnic group were killed in Mobi in Adamawa state about three weeks ago. “When the other Igbos went to reclaim their bodies the Boko Haram struck and killed 29 others,” he said.
Sectarian violence has been rising since elections in July last year. He urged both Christians and Muslims to “return to God.”
The priest said Muslims were also targeted by Boko Haram. Between January 28 and 30, three people — including a Muslim — were killed in Gamboru Ngala, Nigerian and Cameroonian police and medical sources said.
The priest was following an Africa Cup of Nations match on television at a bar, along with six other compatriots. In another room, eight other Nigerians sat, drinking.