Cameroon’s rising religious tensions

Boko Haram attacks are the most visible sign of radicalisation in Cameroon. But changes in the country’s religious landscape run much deeper.

In Cameroon's Far North. Behind the mountains lies Nigeria. Photograph by Alvise Forcellini.

In Cameroon’s Far North. Behind the mountains lies Nigeria. Photograph by Alvise Forcellini.

The image of Cameroon as an island of peace amidst regional turmoil ended in 2013, when Boko Haram’s violence first crossed the Nigerian border. The militant group is affiliated with so-called Islamic State or Daesh, and even renamed itself Islamic State in West Africa earlier this year. But the brutal form of African jihadism it represents is hardly a result of the Islamic State’s rise in Iraq and Syria. In fact, it is in part a consequence of Africa’s changing religious landscape – not least in Cameroon.

Traditional Sufi Islam in the country is increasingly being challenged by the rise of a fundamentalist Islamist ideology, mostly Wahhabism or closely related Salafism. Historical Catholic and Protestant churches are also facing religious competition and losing ground, mostly to Revivalist Churches. This is undermining the formerly peaceful coexistence of religions and planting the seeds of intolerance. By focusing only on one symptom of the problem – Boko Haram’s bloody actions – the authorities will be unable to deal with all its root causes.

Boko Haram has been a critical actor in Cameroon since 2004 when its fighters fled from Nigerian counterinsurgency operations into Cameroon’s Mandara Mountains. This happened again in 2009, when the group’s founder Mohamed Yusuf was killed. Since then, the group has radicalised, and under new leadership significantly expanded its proselytising in the country. Cameroon’s North is no longer a mere transit area, but an operational base.

In 2013, Boko Haram started to abduct foreigners in Cameroon for ransom. Since 2014, it has been in direct confrontation with Cameroon’s armed forces. Over the past two years, 90 soldiers have died in over 150 attacks, and more than 500 civilians have been injured. In July and September alone, about 80 people died and more than 200 were injured when Boko Haram fighters attacked the towns of Fotokol, Maroua and Kerawa.

It is clear that the group has gained strength among Cameroonians, mostly in the North, recruiting more than 3,500 Cameroonian combatants in three years. The reasons have not been all religious. Most recruits came from the Kanuri tribe of Boko Haram’s new leader Abubakar Sheakau, and a majority are forced recruits or people driven into the arms of Boko Haram by poverty.

As in Nigeria and Chad, Boko Haram is now resorting to suicide attacks to strike in Cameroon. These suicide attacks have spread a climate of fear, especially in cities. In the extreme North, the authorities have ordered beggars to stay off the streets and families to keep their children indoors. The government has taken steps to tighten security, but its actions are serving the short term situation rather than addressing the roots of the problem.

Some measures are provoking new tensions. An anti-terror law introduced in 2014 is criticised by the opposition and civil society actors who say it creates a legal grey zone that facilitates human rights abuses and arbitrary arrests. Communities living close to the border with Nigeria have reported arbitrary detentions, acts of torture and other human rights violations. In the North, the capital Yaounde, and in the port city of Douala, where wearing a burqa has been prohibited, women wearing a burqa or just a simple hijab veil have been harassed. Some have even had this outer clothing publicly stripped off.

Boko Haram’s attacks coincide with rapid change in Cameroon’s religious landscape. The country is home to about a thousand religious organisations – including Christian, Muslim, and traditional beliefs – of which not even half are legally recognised. At present, 63% of the population is Christian, 22% is Muslim, 14% adhere to traditional faiths, and 1% is gnostic. While Cameroon has no history of religious violence, the growing popularity of radical movements is now putting the climate of religious tolerance at risk – with likely violent consequences.

Wahhabi, Salafi, Revivalist and other religious currents arriving in Cameroon during the past 30 years have also triggered competition within faiths.

The transformation within Islam is mainly promoted by radical young Cameroonian Muslims from the South. These southern youths speak Arabic, are often educated in Sudan and the Gulf countries, and are opposed to the political and economic domination of the Muslim community by the ageing, traditionalist Sufi establishment. The fight for supremacy between Sufi and fundamentalist groups has increased the risk of local violence.

Within Christian communities, the rise of Revivalist Churches has ended the historic monopoly of Catholic and Protestant churches. Often without legal status, these movements preach religious intolerance and avoid interreligious dialogue.

Distracted by the brutality of Boko Haram’s campaign, Cameroon’s political and religious authorities underestimate the polarising effect of these underlying religious changes in the country.

Above all, Cameroon needs a coherent, comprehensive strategy to counter the root causes of radicalisation. The government should immediately improve its monitoring of fundamentalist proselytisation, reform the country’s Muslim Koranic schools, and create representative bodies for Revivalist Churches and Muslim communities. It should also avoid only pursuing a security approach and the risk it carries, and instead focus on supporting those associations that promote interreligious dialogue, and improve communities’ understanding of how to stop religious differences turning violent.

Hans de Marie Heungoup is Crisis Group’s Cameroon Analyst.

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10 thoughts on “Cameroon’s rising religious tensions

  1. Boko Haram existence is not a god-given attribute, so is the caliphate confedercy. So we humans can make it become in-existent. Let the military surround the mountain and the thick jungle areas with bunker buster bombs geographical cardinally ( N,E,W, and S). Casualties will include the innocents but it is c’est cera cera.

  2. The Baha’i Faith teaches that the World is one country and mankind its citizens; let no man glory that he loves his country but that he loves the whole world.

    Again, Bahau’u’ llah (The Glory of God) teaches that that God desires that mankind should leave in hamony and peace; and that if the religion should be the instrument to bring this peace. If religion should therefore be the cause of disunity, it is better to be without it and leave in peace. All the manifestation of God are like teachers in a school. Each religion is like a class and the teacher teaches what the pupils need for that level. His Holiness Jesus Christ said that he could not tell his disciples everything as their mind could not bear it and that when the spirit of truch shall come, it will lead them unto all truth. So, why fight for religious sake.

  3. Insights into Cameroon: Part I ( from the book “Triple Agent Double Cross” )

    If you board a plane or ship plying any of the international routes and ask to be taken to the heart of Africa, do not be surprised to find yourself disembarking in Cameroon. It is a beautiful country per se, situated opposite the middle portion of Brazil, on the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean. Bordered by six countries of which Ni-ge-ria is the most prominent neighbor, Cameroon appears on maps like a heavily pregnant mother carrying a baby on her back.

    This peculiar geopolitical entity was created by accident and apportioned to Germany during the 1884 Berlin conference that carved up Africa. Thereafter, Berlin treated German Kamerun as its treasured colony for thirty-two years until Great Britain and France captured the land during the First World War, partitioned it into British Cameroons and French Cameroun, and then went on to lord it over the people for four decades. However, they too were challenged by Cameroonian nationalists who campaigned for the divided territory’s reunification and self-rule. Today, English and French are the country’s official languages, mirroring the dominance of the two Indo-European languages in Africa.

    They say the gods have a design even in the most outrageous acts of mortals. If that is the case, then it also applies to Cameroon. The country has defied so many odds in its history that the people now pride themselves with the saying that “Impossible isn’t a Cameroonian word.”
    Renowned voices tend to call Cameroon “Africa in miniature”, not only because of its fanciful shape and turbulent history, but also because of the physical and human aspects of its geography. It is the point in Africa where the East meets the West and where the North meets the South. It is a country that features plains and mountains, plateaus and valleys, rivers and seas, lakes and waterfalls and other landmarks that mirror the rest of Africa. The south is dominated by equatorial and tropical rainforests, the north is covered by Sahelian vegetation, and the middle portion of the country is graced with high savannah of mixed grassland and forest. In fact, all the different flora and fauna in Africa can be found in this carelessly drawn triangle called Cameroon.

    The curious eye is apt to notice varying statures, facial types and shades of complexion as it travels throughout Cameroon—a legacy of the territory’s history as the crossroads of African migrations. Anthropological linguists hold that all of Africa’s four major language groups converge in Cameroon.

    The southern portion of the country is the base from where Bantu speakers spread to southern and eastern Africa. The furthest spread of Afro-Asiatic peoples is in the north of this territory, featuring groups like the Semitic-speaking Arabs, Berber-speaking Tuaregs, Chadic-speaking Hausas and Batas, and Fula or Fulfulde-speaking Fulanis or Peuls. Nilo-Saharan speakers dominate the north of the country in their furthest spread to the west of the African continent. Also present in Cameroon are small ethnicities of the fourth major subgroup called #$%$-Congo-A that occupy the southwestern border regions with #$%$ia. Settled in the northwestern portion of the country that looks like the pregnant part of mother Cameroon is the fifth and unique indigenous group that you will find only in Cameroon. Named semi-Bantu, Graffi or southern Bantoid, this group has characteristics of all the four major language groups or sub-races in Africa. Legends and lore hold that semi-Bantus are originally of Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan descent and that they assimilated all the peoples they encountered in the course of their migration. The Bamileké people are the dominant ethnicity in this group.

    It is true that Cameroon’s human and physical wealth has been the source of its turbulent history, its pride and the ingredients that give its people a unique flavor. The flavor has produced colorful Cameroonian characters that the curious eye and mind is likely to enjoy by hating or loving them, pitying or angrily denouncing them. These characters provide insights into the human nature and the African continent that is haunted by leaders with the evil disposition.

    While other African peoples have picked up arms and warred among themselves to have their country split up, Cameroon is the only geo-political entity in the continent whose inhabitants went to war to reunite its people separated by the legacy of Anglo-French partition of the former German colony of Kamerun. It is the only country where those who fought for its reunification and independence are yet to assume political power, as they continue to languish from the defeat suffered in the hands of the French overlords and the puppets they installed in power. It is the land where you will find Africa’s biggest political deception and sleaziest mafia. It is the country in Africa with the lowest number of heads of state in its history, yet it is a country that is unlikely to engage in internecine war to get rid of the suffocating system.

    An insight into Cameroon: Part II ( from the article “Cameroon and Boko Haram (Africa’s No 1 Specter of Terrorism) ) on the blog “New Cameroon Views”

    In power since 1982 is Africa’s absentee dictator Paul Biya,who was made the successor of his predecessor Ahmadou Ahidjo by an order from former French President Francoise Mitterand; Ahidjo, who himself was brought to power by the French to usurp the aspirations of Cameroonians in their liberation struggle led by the UPC that the French banned in 1955, a party with more than 80% of the land’s intellectuals and even more national support. France had made sure Ahidjo’s power was secured by decimating its support base in a 12-year war against the party and by killing all the UPC leaders (Un Nyobe 1958, Felix Moumie in Geneva 1960, Ossende Ofana 1966, Ernest Ouandie 1971 etc), leaving Cameroon a nation haunted by an “Unfinished Liberation Struggle”. Today, Cameroonians are out not only to get rid of the Dictator Biya’s autocracy, but also to get rid of the French-imposed system that its custodians want to continue with someone else after Paul Biya departs.

    Compounded by the retrogressive system and the lunacy of the Biya regime is the specter of Boko Haram, a distorted form of Islam espoused by a group that sees glory in the murder of the innocent (women, children and other civilians), a spillover from the Nigeria’s religious tension and an amalgamation of geopolitics as foreign interests extend the exploitation of resources in the Lake Chad basin. Only a Cameroon rid of the retrogressive French-imposed system and headed by those who put the interest of the land above their personal interests or the interests of foreign entities who have no genuine concern for the land, can the citizens of Cameroon be certain that the country and government would be able to handle the insecurity posed by anti-people and dehumanized groups like Boko-Haram. In fact, Boko-Haram in North Cameroon and the system/Biya regime are in symbiosis as they make each other relevant in a space where both are loathed by the vast majority of Cameroonians.

    Janvier Tchouteu-Chando, author of “Disciples of Fortune”

  4. This is very poor journalism and bad analysis. Whoever wrote this, needs some serious slaps. Complete waste of time.

  5. It it clear that he who wrote this article does not know neither cameroon nor cameroonians. No cameroonian can be a kamikaze. those who do that are fake refugees from Nigeria. You speak of civil society;they are very quiet people and against violence they are made up of 75 percent of rivival christians. all revival churches here have one thing in common : tolerance; because they believe that christians should behave as JESUS and according to Jesus the true christian should love every body no matter his religion and it is thanks to these churches (that pray every day for unity preservation among all cameroonians of all religions) that this country is not in chaos. we often have many interreligeous meeting and we see it in television and we have really discovered that this boko haram attacks have made us more united.
    we can see that this article is more destructive for cameroonians than boko haram. He who has wrote this rubbish just want to create fear and and tension. for us we are confident in our army . we remain a paeceful land no matter boko haram attempts, europeans, africans, asians,and americans who know very good cameroon continue chosing cameroon for its beauty no matter the lies that the ennemies of cameroon say in this article about this peaceful land we christians of all churches revival or not , with muslims wahhabits or not we are all fighting to keep security and peace in our country. We are winner and we have won already no matter what happend. even if the number of deaths you gave about this issue is totally fake. But we know what is your goals and the civil society is more against liars like you who produce this article. Come and see how our country is been made great , and secure by our president. Long live Cameroon, Long Live Paul Biya and to our God of peace be all the Glory in JESUS’ Name.

  6. No Cameroonian muslim wants the loss of peace for extremism in Islam. We are all trying to solve the problem. We love our peace despite the surrounding ocean of crisis in Nigeria, Chad, CAR, Niger and we cherish it. The only thing is getting our boarders secure from all of them now that they are exploiting our peace. We have no internal religious issues and will only want the indoctrinated bad eggs from Sudan or Nigeria to be taken immediately.

  7. This piece is sharp and right, except the title that exaggerates the threat.
    Stop emotional and rubbish comments.
    Each one who has been in Foumban knows that the central mosque was burnt there during fightings between wahhabiyya and tidjaniyya. They know that Muslim brother (Ikhwan in Cameroon), Tabligh and salafiyya re present there, as well as in Douala and Yaoundé where Yan Izala movement (the Cameroonian name of Ahali Suna the ancestor of Boko haram in Nigeria) fought against Soufi and muslim traditional Marabous at the briqueterie area. Stop denying the reality or if you are ignorant lock it. When you are in school and some children refuge to speak to others, isn’t it radicalism? Hw do you call venez and mupltipliez vous churches? When some born again churches refuse to join l’ACADIR on the reason that it is lead by cathoAhmadou moustapha, Abu Usama, Mamann Nur of Boko Haram, aren’t there Cameroonian? Stop living in your fake illusion. Go and tell to the 100 people killed just one day in February in Fotokol that this figures are fake, as well as mothers of soldiers died in the far North. Amadou Ali the vice PM recognised that only in his village more than 700 young joined BH.
    I know very well the writer or this piece and despite I told him the title is exaggerated, the rest is OK. Those who have never put their foot in the far north should stop emotional shut. You don’t have the monopole of Cameroon and you are totally ignorant of the changes of religious landscape in Cameroon. Recommendations at the end are there to monitor that as well as BH attacks. Go and read peer review article of prof Gilbert Taguem Fah, Maud Lasseur, Amadou Adama. read the last 100 issues of L’oeil du sahel. Discuss with imams of CIDIMUC and ACIC and you will tell me if these changes are fake.
    Slap the author, this a proper reaction of intolerance attitude. I was there when the author was doing this research and I have been his guide in Adamoua, North and far North province, and I can tell this is true. My critique is about the title, because there is no religious tension but growing of religious fundamentalism as well ans plants of religious intolerance in Cameroon.

    Boubakari Salaman

  8. Poorly thought out analysis about religion in Cameroon. The assumption that religious vibrancy equals intolerance is flatly wrong.

    Mixing Islamic fundamentalism and pentecostanism is not different from mixing pears and mangoes. The two are worlds apart in terms of pathways of intolerance and ultimately violence. The business model of pentocostal churches remains domestic-based tides, by their followers who have more interest in order and maintenance of the status quo, rather than some puritanist transformation of society as underpinned by foreign funded Islamic sects.

    I have read the fuller study presented in the ICG report. It was really a wasted opportunity to focus at the underlying signs of crisis in Cameroon. Hypothesis misaligned, evidences unsupportive , and conclusions and recommendations disjointed.

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