Cameroon finds little unity in diversity

For some time now, the sporadic eruption of inter-ethnic conflict in most of Cameroon, sometimes with tragic consequences, has prompted concern about the future of this Central African country.

The first notable tensions between ethnic groups date back to the beginning of the 1990s, also the time when single-party rule came to an end in Cameroon. According to official statistics, the country’s population of about 16,5-million encompasses 350 ethnic groups.

“Since the advent of ‘multiparty democracy’ at the beginning of the 1990s, ethnic conflicts have increased in force and intensity,” said Alawadi Zelao, a sociologist based in the capital, Yaoundé.
“Factors undermining social equilibrium [and] struggles that determine the interaction between various ethnic groups in all the provinces have consequences that are ... tragic [and] which should be taken into account as soon as possible.”

According to local analysts, democracy gave citizens the freedom to express themselves through groups that reflected their regions or ethnicities.

“Our country has always had inter-ethnic conflict, which has often been ignored or not covered by the media,” said Jules Ayissi, a member of the Self Help and Development Association, an NGO based in Yaoundé. “Cameroon has more than 20 potential centres of conflict between the coast and the south-west; the centre and the south; and the north, the north-west and the west.”

In the past months alone, ethnic tensions have taken a severe toll.

On October 17, a land dispute in Nyokon in the Centre province pitted indigenous people against the Bamilékés—who are originally from West province. The violence caused the death of six persons. Conflict between the Banfaw and the Bororos in Mamfé (south-western Cameroon) on October 9 left three dead.

Clashes between the Banyangui and the Bororos in the north-west claimed 13 lives during September, while another 13 were killed in conflict between the Bagam and the Bameyan in the west, in May. A further bout of inter-ethnic violence that month in the southern town of Kyé-Ossi opposed indigenous and non-native peoples, killing two and leaving about 10 seriously injured.

Conflict between the Gbaya and the Foulbé in Meiganga, northern Cameroon, in 2005, resulted in the deaths of 20 people.

More than meets the eye

However, Charly Gabriel Mbock, an anthropologist from Yaoundé, cautions that there is more to ethnic conflict than meets the eye.

“Most of the so-called ethnic conflicts are the consequences of poorly studied and poorly resolved social problems. The conflicts, before they are called ethnic, are initially—and remain essentially—social,” he said. “Of all the declared social sources of identified conflicts, the main cause is concern about land ownership.”

Charles Djappa, a tomato grower in the central community of Nyokon, is a victim of the types of problems highlighted by Mbock.

“I arrived in Nyokon in 2002 from Douala [Cameroon’s financial hub] where I was out of work for three years,” he said. “After acquiring a patch of land with the last of my savings, I grew tomatoes there ... which made many people jealous. It was this success in agriculture that brought down the wrath of the local people, who only live off hunting. They ... chased me from my farm without compensation.”

This happened in September. He is now waiting for the results of a complaint lodged with the public prosecutor’s office at the Bafia County Court.

Religious divisions such as those between the Muslim Peuls and the traditionally Christian Kirdi also play a role, as do concerns about the infringement of one ethnic grouping on the territory traditionally occupied by another—notably with the Choa Arabs and the Kotoko in the extreme north of Cameroon.

“The cause of these incessant conflicts is found in the Kotokos’ failure to assimilate among the Choa Arabs ... or in the refusal to integrate the Arabs into the Kotoko community through sharing the main institutions of traditional power,” said MPKang Mandeng, a teacher at the University of Ngaoundéré in northern Cameroon.

Political and religious gain

In addition, ethnic divisions are often exploited for political and religious gain, he said.

“An analysis of the economic, political and religious foundations of ethnic conflicts in northern Cameroon proves that the antagonisms between local populations are constructed and exploited by socio-political and religious actors, and result in a quasi-cyclical displacement of power from one ethnic group to another.”

Mbock voiced similar sentiments. “The elites of Cameroon ... instigate or worsen inter-ethnic divisions for personal gain,” he noted. “The public powers clearly draw an advantage from the disorder provoked by the elites, to the extent that ethnic manipulation has become a business for most politicians and senior government officials.”

Marcel Abena, an official in the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation, said the government sets great store by overcoming divisions in Cameroon.

“The construction of national unity counts for the most in the eyes of the state,” he said. “Cameroonians must behave as citizens and no longer as ‘natives’ of this or that tribe, region or religion. Our duty is to protect Cameroonians and give equal opportunities to all.”

However, certain observers accuse authorities of obsessively denying the existence of violent conflicts and antagonisms between ethnic groups.

Now, the Ecumenical Service for Peace (SEP), an NGO based in Yaoundé, is taking action to manage these conflicts.

“It’s time to deconstruct the mentality of denying ethnic conflicts, to evolve towards a peaceful transformation of ethnic conflicts,” Dupleix Kuenzop, the director of programmes at SEP, said concerning a project that got under way last month.

“Our project ... will last three years. It is focused on 20 priority conflict zones that we have identified. Our objective is to prevent conflicts from degenerating into general violence, whether they are political, economic or related to land ownership,” he said. “We have created committees for peace in the pilot zones.”—IPS

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