The image of Cameroon as an island of peace amid regional turmoil ended in 2013, when Boko Haram’s violence first crossed the Nigerian border. The group is affiliated with the 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 is increasingly challenged by the rise of a fundamentalist Islamist ideology, mostly Wahhabism or closely related Salafism. Historical Catholic and Protestant churches, too, are facing religious competition and are losing ground, mostly to revivalist churches. This is undermining the formerly peaceful co-existence of religions and planting the seeds of religious intolerance. But by focusing on only 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 since 2004, when its fighters fled from Nigerian counter insurgency 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 has 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 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 were 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 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 came from the Kanuri tribe of Boko Haram’s new leader Abubakar Shekau, 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 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 agnostic. 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 thirty 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, critics say 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 the rampant 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 a security approach only and the risk it carries and 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.