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Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism
Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency
Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency
A Cameroonian farmer stands near the mosque where he was praying when Boko Haram militants stormed the town of Fotokol, in northern Cameroon, on 17 February 2015. REUTERS/Bate Felix Tabi Tabe
Report 229 / Africa

Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism

​Religious intolerance is a growing but seriously underestimated risk in Cameroon, both between and inside the major faiths. To halt the spread of violent extremism in the country, Cameroon needs to bring all sects into a new social compact and within the bounds of a charter for religious tolerance.

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Executive Summary

In Cameroon, the rise of Christian revivalist (born again) and Muslim fundamentalist movements is rapidly changing the religious landscape and paving the way for religious intolerance. Fundamentalist groups’ emergence, combined with communal tensions, creates a specific risk in the North and increases competition for leadership of the Muslim community: such competition has already led to local conflicts. Moreover, the various religious groups have negative perceptions of each other. The state and the mainstream religious organisations’ response to the emerging radicalism is limited to the Boko Haram threat and therefore inadequate, and in some cases carries risk. A coherent and comprehensive response has to be implemented by the government and religious organisations to preserve religious tolerance and to avoid the kind of religious violence seen in neighbouring Nigeria and the Central African Republic.

Unlike these two countries, Cameroon has never experienced significant sectarian violence. However, the emergence of radical religious groups risks destabilising its climate of religious tolerance. Traditional Sufi Islam is increasingly challenged by the rise of more rigorist Islamic ideology, mostly Wahhabism. The current transformation is mainly promoted by young Cameroonian Muslims from the South, whereas the Sufi Islam of the North, dominated by the Fulani, seems on the decline. These southern youths speak Arabic, are often educated in Sudan and the Gulf countries, and are opposed both to Fulani control of the Muslim community and to the ageing religious establishment. Disagreements between Sufi leaders, traditional spiritual leaders and these newcomers are not only theological: the conflict between “ancients” and “moderns” is also a matter of economic and political influence within the Muslim community.

These changes have divided Muslim communities and already degenerated into localised clashes between Islamic groups. Fundamentalist groups’ growth in the North, combined with local communal tensions, is a potential source of conflict. In the South, the competition between Sufi members and Wahhabi-inspired groups over leadership of the Muslim community will increase and could lead to localised violence.

Within Christian communities, the rise of Revivalist Churches has ended the monopoly of Catholic and Protestant Churches. Most Revivalist Churches have no legal status and are poorly-regarded by Catholics. Born again pastors often preach religious intolerance, stay away from interreligious dialogue and are kept out of official religious spheres, although they mostly support the regime.

In the face of these new forms of religious intolerance, interreligious dialogue initiatives are weak, dispersed and only reach a small fraction of the population. Yet, the religious changes are not perceived as problematic by Cameroonian political and religious authorities. They underestimate their conflict potential as their attention is focused only on Boko Haram. It was only after Boko Haram launched attacks in the Far North that the government launched awareness initiatives, but they were late and ineffective, as seen in the harassment and stigmatisation of Kanuri populations from border villages, as well as arrests and arbitrary detentions by the security forces. The religious developments are worrying in the present regional environment as both Central African Republic and Nigeria are experiencing conflicts with religious dimensions, and the consequences are having impact on Cameroon.

The struggle against the threat of religious radicalism in Cameroon requires a coherent and comprehensive strategy including a better understanding of the current religious changes, support for a charter on religious tolerance, the creation of representative bodies for the Muslim communities and Revivalist Churches, and the economic and social development of fragile regions. More immediately, the government must improve its monitoring of fundamental proselytisation, support interreligious dialogue and improve communities’ awareness of the dangers of radicalism.

Commentary / Africa

Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency

The Boko Haram insurgency is weakening in the Lake Chad basin, but its underlying socio-economic drivers remain to be addressed. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017, we urge the EU and its member states to support regional governments with winding down vigilante groups, funding youth employment projects, rebuilding agriculture and trade, and restoring public services.

This commentary on counter-insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

In the Lake Chad basin, the Boko Haram insurgency has hugely exacerbated pre-existing violence and underdevelopment. Despite recent military setbacks the jihadist group remains a significant regional threat, recruiting members and attacking civilians and security forces in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and has brought in its wake a humanitarian catastrophe. Failure to bring security, other basic public goods and visible socio-economic dividends to affected areas risks derailing recent progress. That would have severe consequences for the security and long-term stability of the four countries bordering the lake.

Divided, but still deadly

Boko Haram faces strong pushback due to falling societal support, the mobilisation of vigilante units and pressure from relatively well-coordinated regional security forces. This pressure has precipitated a wave of surrenders, mainly by women and children, and exacerbated internal tensions leading to a rift between two factions. One remains loyal to the group’s erstwhile overall leader, Abubakar Shekau, and is mostly present to the south of Lake Chad and along the ­Nigeria-Cameroon border. The second claims allegiance to Abu Musa al-Barnawi (Habib Yusuf), is based in the north of Nigeria’s Borno state along the border with Niger and mostly operates on the lake.

Boko Haram, though torn, remains a significant threat.

But Boko Haram, though torn, remains a significant threat. In the region’s border areas and the swampy, heavily vegetated and inaccessible Lake Chad it has found ideal areas to seek refuge, resupply and regroup. Over the last three months the dry season has allowed fighters to move more freely, which may explain the recent small increase in attacks. The spike may also be intended to prove, in response to military pressure, that the movement is far from down and out. Nigeria and Cameroon launched a joint military operation in late 2016, but there are signs that Shekau and his core units had dispersed beforehand. They are now regrouping and have increased suicide bomber attacks (deploying a notable number of female assailants) against soft targets, including in the city of Maiduguri in northern Nigeria.

The faction led by Barnawi is less active. It seems to be trying to rebuild connections with the local population and is focusing on military targets. However, it appears to be suffering significant losses as members surrender to national security forces.

Al-Qaeda’s release of a statement on the Boko Haram conflict in January 2017 – the first in a long time – suggests that it may be trying to use the current rift within Boko Haram to regain influence in the area. But its traction on the ground remains unclear.

A deepening humanitarian emergency

Across the region, over 10 million people are in need of assistance.

The severe humanitarian fallout is getting worse. Across the region, over 10 million people are in need of assistance and about 2.3 million are displaced, of which an overwhelming majority are women and girls. Food insecurity has increased significantly over the last twelve months due to displacement; over a third of the 1.5 million displaced children suffer from severe acute malnutrition. Aid workers are only now gaining a clearer sense of the deeper damage to agriculture and trade.

Despite a steady increase in international assistance, the response remains under-funded, lacks gender-sensitive assistance and is still hampered by insecurity. In 2016, donors provided only 53 per cent of the $739 million needed that year. That the cost of the response plan for 2017 has risen to $1.5 billion reflects the deteriorating situation. While more funding is only part of the solution, donors do need to finance adequately the 2017 plan as part of efforts to halt a further worsening of the crisis.

The cost of a militarised approach

Lake Chad countries and their international partners need to be aware that the social and economic costs of continued military operations carry risks for the region’s political future and security. They should balance gains made by the region’s armies against the displacement caused by their operations and the negative impact on livelihoods, including on cross-border trade. This is exacerbated by a military ban on trade in some local goods, for fear Boko Haram could tax it, which is only slowly being lifted.

If the negative impact on livelihoods is not mitigated quickly, it could increase resentment against authorities, make it harder for displaced people to return home (if farmers miss the upcoming sowing season they could become more dependent on humanitarian aid) and possibly make people more susceptible to recruitment by Boko Haram or violent criminal groups. The militarisation of much of the area previously under Boko Haram’s influence risks generating a cycle of alienation and exclusion.

Peeling away Boko Haram

Many fighters, both male and female, have surrendered or been captured in recent months, although evidence suggests very few of the hard core are among them. It is vital to encourage this trend to peel away the outer circle of Boko Haram support, increase intelligence gathering through debriefing defectors and exploit the movement’s declining social legitimacy. To do so, it is necessary to deal with captives quickly and decently, according to their role in the organisation and in strict compliance with international human rights standards. Quick and fair processing could significantly lighten the burden on prisons and justice systems in all four countries.

The European Union (EU) and its international partners should assist in encouraging more Boko Haram members to surrender by ensuring the Lake Chad countries deal appropriately with captured suspects, including by avoiding keeping them in lengthy pre-trial detention and taking into account gender-specific needs. They should also support the four countries to differentiate between hardliners and others, establish community restorative justice programs where appropriate and start to build acceptable penitentiary services.

Planning for the aftermath

While Boko Haram continues to pose a security threat, the temptation is to allow military tactical demands to dominate thinking. This would be a mistake as only by paying early attention to the economic and social consequences of the violence can national and international actors prevent Boko Haram from regrouping or stop a similar group emerging. To deal with the consequences of displacement, the EU and member states should encourage countries of the region to ensure civilians handle much of the response, invest more in creating livelihoods, establish quick-impact youth employment projects and stimulate the longer-term recovery of agriculture and trade.

The EU should support better coordination between the military and civilian branches of the state, particularly problematic in Nigeria, including through its program “Strengthening the management and governance of migration and return and long-term resettlement in Nigeria”. Re-establishing markets and securing cross-border trade routes should be a priority of the EU’s Lake Chad Inclusive Economic and Social Recovery Programme (RESILAC).

The EU and its member states should raise awareness about women’s roles, including in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction.

In partnership with civil society, the EU and its member states should strengthen programs to tackle gender stereotypes and raise awareness about women’s roles including in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction. They should develop and support programs to increase women’s recruitment in local police forces and deploy them in camps for the internally displaced as soon as possible.

The EU should also be cognisant of the longer-term risks of over-reliance on vigilante committees; member states supporting security efforts should press regional governments to formulate plans for winding them down as and when the Boko Haram threat recedes.