YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari began a two-day visit to Cameroon on Wednesday in a bid to soothe fractious ties between the West African neighbors and strengthen cooperation against Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
Buhari’s first visit to Cameroon since his election in March comes as the militant group, which has sworn allegiance to Islamic State, has launched a fresh wave of attacks in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
Buhari, wearing a white traditional robe, was greeted on arrival at Yaounde international airport by 82-year-old Cameroonian President Paul Biya. The two were to hold talks at the presidential palace on Wednesday, before making a joint statement ahead of Buhari’s departure on Thursday.
Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger waged an offensive against Boko Haram this year that broke its grip over swathes of northeastern Nigeria, but it responded with suicide bombings and raids that have spilled the conflict across borders.
Tensions are running high in Cameroon’s Far North region after three suicide attacks in the past week killed at least 60 people, prompting the local government to announce the closure of some mosques, ban burqas and forbid street hawkers.
In Nigeria, suspected Boko Haram attacks have killed at least 600 people since Buhari took office two months ago.
Cameroon’s Information Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakari said Boko Haram had switched to attacking civilian targets because it was no longer capable of military engagements.
“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,” he said.
An African Union-mandated, 8,700-strong regional taskforce, headquartered in the Chadian capital N’Djamena, was due to start operations at the end of this month but has been delayed by questions over funding.
The Nigerian presidency said the talks would focus on the activation and deployment of this force. Buhari is due to visit Benin, the fifth member of the operation, on Saturday.
Relations between Cameroon and Nigeria have been strained by a border dispute that flared into conflict in 1993. Biya, in power since 1982, did not attend Buhari’s inauguration and the Nigerian leader’s trip comes nearly two months after he visited Chad and Niger.
In the past, Abuja has accused Yaounde of dragging its feet over tackling Boko Haram, which analysts say established rear bases on the Cameroonian side of the Mandara mountains.
Cameroon has complained that its efforts to combat the militants have been hampered by Nigeria’s refusal to grant its forces the right to pursue them onto its soil, which both Chad and Niger enjoy.
“Buhari’s visit should help ease the climate of mistrust between Cameroon and Nigeria,” said Njoya Moussa, a Cameroonian political analyst.
“I pray that they should talk about security because mostly it’s what we need here in Cameroon and Nigeria,” said Doris Onuorah, a Nigerian business woman in Yaounde.
Additional reporting by Julia Payne, Alexis Akwagyiram and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Janet Lawrence