By Dibussi Tande
“Biya was concerned about the threat of Islamic extremism.… He was beginning to worry about Islamic extremists infiltrating Cameroon from Nigeria and making inroads through Cameroonian mosques.” Wikileaks
The wave of Christmas Day bombings in Nigeria carried out by Boko Haram, the extremist Islamist sect which has its base in northeastern Nigeria, has once again raised the specter of religious extremism gaining a foothold in Cameroon.
So what links, if any, exist concretely between Boko Haram and the Cameroonian Muslim community? Are the conditions that gave rise to the sect in Nigeria also present in Cameroon? Can the dominant brand of Islam practiced in Cameroon withstand the influence of Islamic extremism? Or, is Cameroon already fertile ground for the rise of extremist Islamic groups similar to Nigeria’s Boko Haram or the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which operates in the Sahel countries (Mali, Niger, Mauritania)? To answer these questions, we must start with a quick look at Boko Haram and its ideology
Introducing Boko Haram
The origins of Boko Haram and the conditions that made Northern Nigeria susceptible to this brand of Islam, which is violently opposed to the modern state and its institutions, and seeks to establish an Islamic state governed by Sharia, are well documented elsewhere. According to Nigerian scholar N. D. Danjibo [Islamic Fundamentalism and Sectarian Violence: The “Maitatsine” and “Boko Haram” Crises in Northern Nigeria],
“The ideology and philosophy of the movement can best be understood by explicating the two words- “Boko” and “Haram”. In Hausa language, the word “boko” is an equivocal term which means either “Western” or foreign; while the word “haram” is an Arabic derivative meaning “forbidden”. Piecing the two words together, ‘boko haram’ means to forbid everything Western and Western education. The intent is to replace modern state formation with the traditional Islamic state, because Western values run contrary to Islamic values. Umma Mahammadiya (Muslim faithful) and Dar-ul-Islam (Islamic community) cannot be compromised in the face of Western influence. Evil in the society is as a result of the embrace of Western civilization, and in order to curb such evil an Islamic society must be entrenched by destroying modern state institutions. The philosophy goes hand in hand with the entrenchment of the Shari’a law in the society. This accounts for the reason why police formations and government establishments and properties became the target of destruction by the sect." (7)
A distinguishing – and disturbing - element of Boko Haram’s evolution (at least for neighboring countries, particularly Cameroon), is its identification with the current global Jihadist struggle, manifested in an evolution in its rhetoric, and its links to Al-Queda, al-Shabab in Somalia and AQIM, which announced last year that it would support Boko Haram with weapons and training. This has led to fears of a Boko Haram “infiltration” into Cameroon, or of a Boko Haram-inspired homegrown radical Islamic movement.
Boko Haram’s Cameroon Connection
So what exactly is Boko Haram’s connection to Cameroon at the moment? According to Nigerian security officials, the sect uses Northern Cameroon both as a staging ground for its attacks and as a source for weapons. For example, in February 2011, the police in Borno unearthed a cache of arms (AK 47 rifles, pistols, rocket launchers, RPG Bombs, detonating bomb cables) which had supposedly been smuggled from Cameroon.
And, following the Christmas Day attack, Nigeria declared a State of Emergency in Northern Nigeria, and closed Nigeria’s porous border with Northern Cameroon.
Equally significant, is the fact that many Boko Haram foot soldiers are from Cameroon. According to one report:
"In June this year, the Shehu of Borno State accused aliens from Chad and Cameroon of masterminding of Boko Haram attacks that left several people dead. A month later, 36 nationals including Chadians and Cameroonians were identified among those killed in a gun battle between police and suspected Boko Haram activists. Earlier this month, 43 Cameroonians, suspected of belonging to the group were expelled."
Sheik Ibrahim Mbombo Mubarak, Imam at the Central Mosque in Douala and the President of the Association of Cameroonian Imams, confirms the involvement of Cameroonians in Boko Haram, and recently claimed “that some prominent members of the group, including Mohammad Nour and Mohamed Kahirou are Cameroonians who actually grew up in Douala and have since returned following the ongoing crackdown against the sect in Nigeria.”
The involvement of Cameroonians in Nigerian Muslim fundamentalist groups is not a new phenomenon. The most notable case is that of Al Hadji Mohammed Marwa (also known as "Maitatsine") an Islamic scholar from the Northern Cameroon town of Marwa, who was the founder of the Maitatsine” sect. The sect was behind the Great Kano Massacre of December 1980 which left over 4,000 dead, including Marwa himself. The Maitatsine sect is generally considered the precursor to Boko Haram because of its penchant for violence and murder, and its anti-establishment and anti-Western philosophy (See Islamic Fundamentalism and Sectarian Violence: The “Maitatsine” and “Boko Haram” Crises in Northern Nigeria):
[Marwa] believed that Islam had been corrupted by modernization (Westernization) and the formation of the modern state.
He was opposed to most aspects of modernization and to all Western influence. He decried such technological commonplace as radios, wrist watches, automobiles, motorcycles, and even bicycles. Those who use these things or who read books other than the Qur’an were viewed as hell-bound ‘pagans’.”
Cameroonian Fears of Boko Haram Infiltration
What is most worrying to Cameroonian political and religious authorities, however, is not the fact that some Cameroonian Muslims may be actively involved in the activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Their main concern is that Boko Haram members have infiltrated Cameroon’s Muslim community, and are spreading the group’s extremist message within that community and winning converts who may eventually plunge Cameroon into sectarian mayhem similar to Nigeria’s. In February 2010, for example, President Biya expressed his fears to former US ambassador Janet Garvey:
“Biya was concerned about the threat of Islamic extremism.… He was beginning to worry about Islamic extremists infiltrating Cameroon from Nigeria and making inroads through Cameroonian mosques… His concerns about Islamic extremism echoed similar concerns we have been recently picking up in the north and among our moderate Muslim contacts, who worry about dangerous influences both from Nigeria and Iran.”
Marafa Hamidou Yaya, the former Minister of Territorial Administration (Interior) also expressed similar fears in another meeting with the US ambassador:
“Marafa was very concerned about Islamic extremism in Nigeria and Cameroon. There were a lot of desperate people among the Muslim communities in the north and Douala, in particular, and some of them had unexplained money. The GRC didn't have enough means to monitor the situation, he worried.”
These fears have been amplified in recent months by Muslim traditional rulers and clerics such as Alim Garga Hayatou, the Lamido of Garoua, who in August 2011 warned the faithful to guard against “foreign influence”, and urged them to stick to "basic Islam" and steer clear of alien doctrines which have nothing to do with their religion. "We understand our Islam and we don't need those who think they understand this religion better than us," he added.
Still in August, 2011, Sheikh Ibrahim Mbombo Mubarak revealed that Boko Haram already had a foothold in the country:
“I make this claim based on clear indicators. The administration has been served several indices which have confirmed that these people are in Cameroon and are even propagating their doctrine in various chapels and mosques. There are other indicators like CDs which carry their ideology and are being distributed across the national territory.”
Early in December 2011, Bernard Okalia Bilaï, the Senior Divisional Officer for Wouri Division, met with Imams in Douala to discuss strategies to counter the spread of Boko Haram ideology in Cameroon’s economic capital:
“We have been informed of attempts of Boko Haram infiltration. Their doctrine is anti-social as it condemns western education. It’s a doctrine that persuades young graduates to rip their degrees because it’s satanic. It’s a doctrine that condemns what today constitutes the values of our society and top authorities of the country don’t accept that such hateful dogma is established in our communities, and thus the necessity of this meeting. We must be vigilant.”
During a meeting on December 29, 2011 between President Biya and President Idriss Deby of Chad, the main item on the agenda was the question of staving off Boko Haram’s influence in these two countries which share a common border with Northeastern Nigeria.
And most recently, in January 2012, media reports in Cameroon identified the Northern town of Lagdo (southeast of Garoua) as the new base for Boko Haram activities in Cameroon, from where its members go from village to village proselytizing, setting up branches and distributing huge sums of money to those who agree to adhere to their extremist ideology.
So, is the increasing concern and near panic over a potential or even ongoing Boko Haram spillover into Cameroon justified, or is this fear simply overblown? To begin to answer this question, one must first understand the similarities and differences between the type(s) of Islam practiced in Cameroon and Nigeria, the evolution of Islam in Cameroon, along with the receptiveness (or lack thereof) of traditional Cameroonian Islam to Islamic fundamentalist teachings.
To be continued...
Next: Part 2 - The Changing Face of Islam in Cameroon…