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The Humanitarian Fallout from Cameroon’s Struggle Against Boko Haram
The Humanitarian Fallout from Cameroon’s Struggle Against Boko Haram
Report 160 / Africa

Cameroon: Fragile State?

Cameroon’s apparent stability is deceptive: even if it overcomes its near-term challenges, longer-term deterioration could lead to conflict.

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Executive Summary

Cameroon’s apparent stability in a turbulent region cannot be taken for granted. The co-option of elites through the distribution of state largesse, and the emigration of many educated young people provide a certain safety valve for tensions, but the failure of reform and continued poor governance mean people no longer believe in the rule of law or peaceful political change. Multiple risks of conflict exist in the build-up to presidential elections in 2011 and beyond. This background report, Crisis Group’s first on Cameroon, analyses the historical roots of the current impasse.

Cameroon’s history shows a pattern of apparent stability followed by violent crisis. For long periods (early 1950s, 1970s), problems have been masked but not dealt with. In the late 1950s, widespread unrest occurred as the main party opposed to French rule was banned, leading to a bloody and protracted guerrilla war. Independence came in 1960, but in the context of extensive violence. In 1961, though the southern region of British-controlled Anglophone Cameroon voted to re-join Francophone Cameroon, the north voted to remain with Nigeria.

The late 1960s and the 1970s was a period of relative peace. The regime was obsessed with unity and stability following the traumas of the 1950s, but, having fought against the only genuine liberation movement, lacked historical legitimacy. It was autocratic, and pluralism and diversity were considered unacceptable threats to the nation-building project. Nevertheless, the economy grew, and some genuine development took place.

The resignation of President Ahidjo in November 1982 and the hand-over of power to his prime minister, Paul Biya, initially passed off smoothly. But tensions soon emerged, culminating in a coup attempt in April 1984, blamed on Ahidjo loyalists. It was violently put down, no process of reconciliation followed, and the trauma of this period is still a source of bitterness for many from the north, Ahidjo’s home area. Equally, some from the south, including in the security forces, fear communal reprisals stemming from the unfinished business of 1984.

In the early 1990s, opposition parties emerged, and multi-party elections were held. For two and a half years, the regime was seriously threatened at the ballot box and in the street, and frustrations led to widespread violence in 1991. But having pulled through, President Biya and his ruling party started to push back on reforms and restore authoritarian rule behind a façade of democratic practice.

Today, the nation-building project has become frayed, as the economy has stagnated, and unemployment and inequality have risen. The economy is weighed down by corruption and inertia, and the population sees very little from what economic growth there has been, mainly through exploitation of natural resources. While potential organising forces are weak and dissipated, popular anger is high.

The regime retains its old conservative reflexes, but the experiences and expectations of a youthful population have moved on. The political opposition is weakened by internal fractures and an erosion of democratic space, leaving few channels to express legitimate discontent. The explosion of anger in February 2008, stimulated by Biya’s decision to alter the constitution to seek a further term in office, showed the dangers of this situation.

Cameroon has many features of other countries which have fallen into conflict, including highly centralised and personalised leadership, political manipulation of ethnic tensions and very widespread corruption. Even if it overcomes its near-term challenges, the possibility of longer-term deterioration leading to more open conflict cannot be excluded. In Côte d’Ivoire a protracted struggle for succession of a long-serving president laid the ground for a civil war. With President Biya now 77, and in the absence of any clear signals over his intentions, the question of presidential succession also looms large.

Events in Guinea in December 2008, when weak rule of law and manipulation of the constitution were seized on by junior officers with disastrous consequences, should be sobering for anyone concerned about Cameroon. Respect for the constitution and for rule of law more generally is low. The end of Paul Biya’s presidency, only the second the country has known, is likely to be fraught with risk. But it could also be an opportunity to initiate the reforms needed to ensure the country’s longer-term stability.

The international community has frequently provided the Cameroonian regime with decisive help. Though this help has come with pressure for reform, very little has been forthcoming. The danger is that the regime now sees any opening as a fundamental threat to its survival and is likely to harden its stance as the presidential election approaches.

Most donors and other international partners are very reluctant to criticise the regime and seemingly willing to go along with its cat and mouse game of fake political and economic reform. But an unstable Cameroon, or just more years of bad governance, would threaten a fragile region. The problems are of legitimate wider concern and present a classic case of possible early conflict prevention. But strong international and domestic vested interests have to be challenged to enact the changes needed to avoid instability. Donors should use their leverage, both financial and diplomatic, to send far stronger messages to the Cameroon government.

Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels, 25 May 2010

A woman works near piles of firewood in a camp for Nigerian refugees in Minawao, in the extreme north-west of Cameroon, on 13 November 2014. AFP/Reinnier Kazé
Commentary / Africa

The Humanitarian Fallout from Cameroon’s Struggle Against Boko Haram

The plight of refugees and the internally displaced from the Boko Haram conflict in Cameroon’s Far North is adding to the many burdens of an already impoverished population.

Cameroon has been fighting the Boko Haram jihadist group in its Far North region for the last three years. The conflict has killed nearly 1,600 people in Cameroon alone and has led to a humanitarian crisis in what was already one of the country’s most impoverished and least-educated regions. As donors and experts convene on 24 February at the Oslo Humanitarian Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin, the international community must find ways to improve overcrowded refugee camps and mitigate growing problems for the local population.

The Far North now hosts 87,000 of Cameroon’s over 360,000 refugees, 191,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and 36,000 Cameroonian returnees. Overall, including local Cameroonians, an estimated 1.6 million people in the Far North now need urgent humanitarian assistance, more than half of 2.9 million people who share the same plight throughout the country.

The government, preoccupied with its military campaign against Boko Haram, has done little to support affected civilians. International agencies and NGOs have taken welcome steps to meet the needs of refugees, and to a lesser extent IDPs, even if these efforts have been underfunded and sometimes insufficiently coordinated. Earlier and much better-funded attention to the wider problems of displacement will make that response more effective, more sustainable and better able to prevent conflict recurring.

Minawao camp: the visible tip of the humanitarian crisis

Opened in July 2013 in the Far North’s Mayo Tsanga department, Minawao camp hosts Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram atrocities. Initially it hosted 18,000 refugees. Now 60,000 people live there, three times its official capacity. Each week 150 more people arrive and 60 babies are born. It now covers a sprawling 623 hectares, as the authorities decided to expand the camp rather than set up a second site in the Mayo Danay department, as proposed by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2015. When Crisis Group conducted research in Minawao in January, assistance was being given by ten NGOs and UN agencies. 

In 2013, the refugees’ situation was dire, due to a lack of government experience with refugees and an absence of international attention and funding. Since then, things have gradually improved, especially in education. Some 68 per cent of children go to school in the camp, far above the Far North’s 46 per cent education rate average, but still below the 84 per cent national average. Germany has helped some who finish high school in the camp to attend universities in Buea or Yaoundé. In last year’s First School Leaving Certificate Examination (a Cameroonian test taken between the ages of eleven and thirteen), Minawao camp students, taught by Anglophone Cameroonian teachers, ranked first in the entire Mayo Tsanaga department.

However, because of funding shortfalls, humanitarian assistance still covers only about one third of the urgent needs in the Far North. As a result, key problems remain, including shortages of food, water, healthcare assistance, school equipment and social activities.

The work of NGOs and religious leaders has also reduced initial communal and religious tensions caused by the crisis. But problems have emerged recently between established and newly arrived refugees. The former often suspect the latter of being Boko Haram sympathisers. “How did they manage to stay in Boko Haram-controlled areas for more than a year if they were not sympathisers? Why do they only leave their place and seek asylum now, when Boko Haram is weakened?”, one refugee asked us. These suspicions explain why the earlier refugees are reluctant to allow new ones to join their 184 strong camp security group, or the camp’s nine committees dealing with issues like the environment, water, youth and women’s needs.

Such suspicions take little account of the complex route many new arrivals have taken to get to the camp. Most of those who arrived recently were already in Cameroon, living either in the border towns or with Cameroonian families. Very few have come directly from Nigeria, and many among them were previously in Nigerian IDP camps. “We were told by our friends and families that refugees are better looked after here than in IDP camps in our country”, one refugee said. Other newly arrived refugees told Crisis Group they moved to Minawao due to scarcity of resources in other parts of Cameroon. “My in-laws’ family in Mozogo (in Mayo Tsanaga) was no longer able to feed us and our four children. We had no access to land and no NGO support, so we decided to move in Minawao”, says recent arrival Yacoubou, a Nigerian from Balavrasa in the Gwoza local government area. The prefect, or head civilian administrator, of Mayo Tsanaga noted: “most new refugees have already been living in Cameroon for a year or more”.

Tensions are also surfacing between new arrivals and local people. Between 2015 and 2016, Cameroonians from the town of Zamaï near Minawao camp accused refugees of destroying their trees for firewood. The spokesman and elected president of the Central Committee of refugees told Crisis Group: “We need that for cooking and build[ing] our shelters”. After the UNHCR and Plan International mediated between the refugees and the Zamaï traditional chief, the cutting of trees now appears to have been solved with compensation given to the local community, including through the replanting of 30,000 trees. 

The displacement crisis beyond the camps 

Despite needing far greater resources as ever more people arrive seeking refuge, Minawao offers the best humanitarian assistance in the region. It benefits from international aid, partly as a result of concern generated by visits from the former UNHCR head António Guterres, in March 2016, quickly followed by then U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power in April. 

But not only refugees need help. More than 1.6 million are in urgent need of food aid in Cameroon’s Far North, where even before the crisis three of the region’s four million inhabitants lived under the poverty line. Some of the 30,000 unregistered refugees and most IDPs live in host communities, not in camps. Those host communities have to share what they have with them and lack the funds and support to do so. Few of the 191,000 IDPs receive help from the government, which relies on the international community to deal with the humanitarian aspects of the conflict while it focuses on the military response. In Gassama, Labado and several other villages, the army has pushed inhabitants out of their homes to secure areas round their bases, but without giving any support or making plans for their return. 

Lacking food, shelter and revenues, IDPs struggle to send their children to school, as, unlike refugees, they have to pay school fees.

International NGOs and UN agencies see IDPs primarily as a national problem and would prefer to follow and support a policy led by the government. In Logone et Chari department, the northern tip of the region that hosts half of Cameroon’s IDPs, security is a major problem for the provision of aid, according to several international NGO and INGO heads of delegation. The result is that very few INGOs work in Logone et Chari, and it has received less assistance than the two other affected departments. Lacking food, shelter and revenues, IDPs struggle to send their children to school, as, unlike refugees, they have to pay school fees. In Tourou, Hilé Alifa, Makary and Kousseri, several families told Crisis Group they cannot pay and their children are working in markets. Djene Abouga, the president of a women’s association in Kousseri, said some girls have turned to prostitution or begun relationships with much older local men.

Since 2014, the government has urged public school directors to be lenient toward those who could not immediately pay fees. Now more IDP children are going to school, but they still face problems. According to Abbo Mahamat, a primary school head in Kousseri, “the IDP’s children are still traumatised, they are sometimes violent, fighting with other children, they have the lowest results of the school, and it is difficult for them to integrate with other children”. Assiata, a teacher in the same school, confirms: “I have 80 children in my classroom, including seven IDP children, none of the IDP children have got over eight out of 20 average marks, while the other children get between eleven and seventeen”. On this point, the regional education ministry delegate in Maroua told Crisis Group: “This is a general situation in the region. UNICEF has organised trainings for some school directors on how to deal with traumatised children, they have also distributed books to some of them. We hope things will change”.

The story of Maimouna, a 32-year-old Kanuri woman from Fotokol on the Nigerian border, illustrates the desperate plight of IDPs, but also how things have improved for some. She fled with her five children in August 2014 after Boko Haram killed her husband and burned her house. Pregnant, she walked 40km over two days with her children, without eating, until a government truck picked them up. When they arrived in Kousseri, they were accused by locals of supporting Boko Haram and had no family support. Her first son, Issa, now fifteen, remembers not even thinking about their father, but about how to eat and sleep. A local woman then offered them work, for food, some livestock and 5,000 CFA (9 euros) per month. The situation improved again when WFP arrived in Kousseri and gave Maimouna material for a shelter and then some food each month. The family was full of praise for the WFP. 

Maimouna’s first two boys have gone back to school, and are doing exceptionally well for a displaced family. They are helped by Maimouna’s good education, which was cut short when she married aged sixteen. But the other children, Aminatou, Nafissatou, Ali, and the last one Boukar are not going to school as she cannot afford school fees and books for all six. Asked what she expected from the government and the NGOs, Maimouna replied she wanted her children to go to school up to the end of high school, and that she needed a sewing machine, costing 70,000 CFA (110 euros). 

Tensions between IDPs and locals have spread everywhere, especially over access to land and water.

Families hosting IDPs, already suffering from poverty, have opened their doors to extended family or friends. But the conflict and the closure of the border with Nigeria have made things worse. Tensions between IDPs and locals have spread everywhere, especially over access to land and water. In 2015, the WFP started giving rice to some host families. While this has eased some tensions, local communities often still resent IDPs and consider that they get favourable treatment.

For a wider, more sustainable and more locally rooted response

These stories of displacement, local tensions and missed education are part of the devastation wrought by the Boko Haram conflict, impacting on health, the economy, social relations, local politics and the role of women. The government has done little to support those affected. President Biya allocated $10 million to an emergency fund in 2014, mainly for rehabilitation of schools, and he has set aside some discretionary funds for vigilante committees and gifts of foods and cooking oil for the IDPs. Even though most IDPs want to return home, they have had very little help to rebuild their livelihoods. Much more needs to be done, with a special focus on helping IDPs return to areas that are now safer, but where the local economy has been devastated. National and international responses need to shift from a humanitarian-centred approach to longer-term development that can make people more resilient and help ensure a more sustainable peace.

The improvement in the international response in 2016 now needs to move on to focus on sustainability and local ownership.

The improvement in the international response in 2016 now needs to move on to focus on sustainability and local ownership. Local researchers, civil society leaders and traditional chiefs worry that NGOs have done little to incorporate qualified people from the north into their response teams, preferring instead southern Cameroonians or mainly African expatriates. This risks creating resentment among locals who already feel disempowered as two largely external forces (Boko Haram and the national army) fight it out on their soil.

Accelerating sustainable recovery and development is all the more vital as humanitarian funds are limited and Cameroon, like other central African countries, faces numerous challenges. The East region is host to 276,000 refugees, mainly from Central African Republic, and is at risk of being neglected. At the same time as opening offices in the Far North, several NGOs have closed their offices in the East, while some UN agencies like the WFP have reduced their staff and funding. 

Improved international coordination is also needed. Between July 2015 and March 2016, citing security reasons, the Cameroonian government expelled more than 40,000 Nigerian refugees, to the consternation of Nigeria and the UNHCR. In December 2016, it restarted such repatriations of Nigerians. Nigeria, Cameroon, and UNHCR have drawn up a tripartite agreement for a peaceful repatriation of Nigerian refugees from outside Minawao camp. But Nigeria has not yet signed, claiming it does not have the funds to deal with returnees. 

Nationally or internationally, the response to the chaos caused in Cameroon by Boko Haram needs to be stronger and more joined-up, not only to alleviate suffering, but to start to forge a more secure future for all in the region.