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Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism
Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis is Escalating. Here’s How It Could Be Resolved.
Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis is Escalating. Here’s How It Could Be Resolved.
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.

Op-Ed / Africa

Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis is Escalating. Here’s How It Could Be Resolved.

Originally published in African Arguments

Improving decentralisation countrywide would appeal to Anglophone protesters, but without seeming to give them special treatment.

On 22 September, massive protests across Cameroon’s Anglophone regions brought an estimated 30-80,000 people onto the streets. These were far larger than those which sparked the crisis at the end of 2016. In clashes with security forces, three to six protesters reportedly died – the first deaths in the crisis since January.

The demonstration came in the context of an already-deteriorating situation marked by the use of homemade bombs by militants, the failure to open schools for a second year due to ongoing strikes, and mounting incidents of arson.

The violence followed incidents in Western capitals throughout the previous month. On 1 August, a meeting in Washington between a senior delegation from the Cameroonian government and the US-based diaspora descended into farce, interrupted by angry exchanges. In Belgium, the delegation’s meeting was interrupted by violent scuffles. In South Africa, activists who had been denied access broke into the meeting, which was then cut short. The same happened in Canada, where the flag of Ambazonia, the putative homeland of Anglophone secessionists, was raised inside the High Commission. And in the UK, the invite list was reduced to a select and vetted group.

The resurgence of violence demonstrates that the roots of this crisis run deep, as detailed in the recent report from International Crisis Group, and that the measures taken by the government so far have failed to address grievances. By jailing the legitimate representatives of the Anglophone movement back in January, the government may have even played into the hands of the more radical elements.

As 1 October approaches, the anniversary of reunification of Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon, some militants are preparing to declare independence. If serious measures are not taken and a willingness to start genuine dialogue not forthcoming, protests are sure to erupt again, and could be worse this time.

Anglophone Grievances

Cameroon’s Anglophones make up 20% of the population. Most live in former British territories in the North-West and South-West regions. Their anger was sparked off in 2016 by the government’s refusal to respond to Anglophone lawyers who were aggrieved at the nomination of magistrates who neither spoke English well enough nor were trained in British common law.

After demonstrations were met with sometimes brutal force, teachers and students joined the growing movement, adding similar concerns about a way of life being progressively taken over by Francophone practices. At least nine people have now died in subsequent violence, and militants have frequently used sabotage and arson.

After negotiations broke down in January of this year, the government imprisoned the most prominent Anglophone activists alongside many others caught up in protests. They also cut off the internet in Anglophone areas for three months, causing huge damage to the economy.

Broken Promises

Anglophones feel marginalised and often humiliated in their own country. Many look back to the independence era. In February 1961, Anglophone Cameroonians, then under British rule, voted in a controversial UN-organised referendum to re-join francophone Cameroon. For the previous 40 years, they had been ruled by the British following the defeat of Germany, the first colonial power of all of Cameroon, in the First World War.

The constitutional conference which followed in July 1961 was hopelessly one-sided. A weak Anglophone negotiating team sparred with a Francophone side which had already gained independence and had strong support from its former colonial power, France. The result was a series of vague promises that Cameroon would be an “equal federation” in which the English language and customs derived from British rule would carry equal weight at the federal level.

The reality was anything but. First, in October 1961, only weeks after Anglophone Cameroon joined the federation, President Ahmadou Ahidjo (a Francophone who enjoyed very close ties to France) reorganised the country from two federal states to six regions. With the regions’ powers unclear, this move deliberately introduced confusion into local governance that has remained to this day.

Ahidjo then named federal inspectors in each region, who enjoyed more power than locally elected politicians. In 1965, he banned opposition parties, forcing all political aspirants, including Anglophones, into his orbit. At the same time, he chipped away at customs and institutions the Anglophones had inherited: their currency was discarded; membership of the British Commonwealth was not considered; imperial weights and measures were dispensed with. In 1971, through a national referendum, Ahidjo abolished federalism altogether, crushing the now fading Anglophone hope that they could enjoy a partnership of equals.

For three decades, Anglophones, like many of their Francophone compatriots, cowed by the brutal civil war that had raged in Francophone Cameroon in the 1960s, more or less accepted their lot. But in the 1990s, political freedoms blossomed again, and Anglophones were encouraged by the fact that the most important opposition party to emerge at the time, the Social Democratic Front, had one foot, if not two, firmly planted in the Anglophone region.

But as President Paul Biya, in power since 1984, slowly crushed hopes of pluralism and freedom, Anglophone frustrations grew again. Movements calling for a return to federalism, and even outright secession, proliferated. For many years these groups were largely based in the diaspora, hence the anger seen in Western capitals. But the movement of 2016 and 2017 has more domestic roots, based on widespread anger on the ground.

Decentralisation as the Start of a Sustainable Solution

After repressing the movement at the start of the year, the government has made some concessions, most notably restoring the internet in April and allowing the release of some (but not all) detained activists in August. But Yaoundé continues to treat the Anglophone movement as subversive and illegitimate. Militants were imprisoned in January for publicly discussing federalism, a discussion which should be perfectly allowable. The government refuses to acknowledge widespread feelings of marginalisation and humiliation.

To reach a sustainable solution, especially important with national elections looming next autumn, the government must start by acknowledging the well-founded grievances of Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. For trust to be re-built and maintained, concrete actions need to be taken.

Decentralisation is the most promising and is set out in the new constitution of 1996 and in laws of 2004. Since then, mayors and local councils have been elected, and the law stipulates that they should have their own budget and be responsible for local public services. But even these vague legal texts – for example the percentage of locally raised taxes to be devolved to local government is not specified – are not respected in practice.

Regional councils, led by elected regional presidents, are foreseen in the constitution, but have not been created 21 years on. Shortly after creating local councils, the government created its own delegates nominated by the president and accountable only to him. In day to day matters, the delegate has far more power than their elected counterparts, even those from the ruling party.

The problem of partial decentralisation is a frustration in all parts of the country. Improving it countrywide would have the distinct advantage of appealing to the Anglophones without seeming to give them special treatment. Regional councils should be created, or else a national debate started on whether they are needed. Local councils should have the powers over public services foreseen in the law and autonomy over their budgets.

Improved decentralisation would, if handled properly, reassure Anglophones that they have control over their own legal and educational system, rather than feeling that any gain they make is subject to the whims of central government.

Of course administrators in Yaoundé, and President Biya himself, who has created one of the world’s most centralised decision-making machineries, would lose some of their discretion. But the up side would be significant: a reinvigorated sense of national purpose and cohesiveness and less risk of renewed violence in Anglophone areas.