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Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism
Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Humanitarian Fallout from Cameroon’s Struggle Against Boko Haram
The Humanitarian Fallout from Cameroon’s Struggle Against Boko Haram
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.

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.