By Dibussi Tande
January 2012 was a particularly hectic and nerve-wracking month for Cameroonian security and intelligence services, along with political, administrative and religious authorities in the “Grand Nord” as they frantically tried to put measures in place to hold back what they viewed as a potential, if not imminent, Boko Haram tidal wave across Northern Cameroon.
Although some observers argue that fears of Boko Haram moving or extending its operations into Cameroon are grossly exaggerated, and that the sect is not particularly interested in exporting its ideology to neighboring countries, others point to mounting evidence of a Boko Haram recruitment campaign in Northern Cameroon, and its use of Cameroon as a staging ground for attacks in Nigeria and as a source for arms – factors which will ultimately put the sect on a collision course with Cameroonian security forces. As a recent study points out,
It does constitute a very real danger in the area of western Africa, where there is every chance that if Boko Haram manages to establish a quasi-state in northeastern Nigeria, it will move toward other states in the region that have a long history of Muslim grievance and instability (such as Cameroon, Niger, and Chad). (24)
This view is supported by statements by Boko Haram indicating that it intends to eventually fan out its operations beyond Nigeria. As Musa Tanko, a spokesperson of the group, stated in March 2010,
“Islam doesn't recognize international boundaries; we will carry out our operations anywhere in the world if we can have the chance... but for now our attention is focused on Nigeria, which is our starting point. (16)
The operative word being “for now”...
Others also point out that while Boko Haram, as we know it today, may not necessarily be interested in setting up base in Cameroon, Niger or Chad, it nonetheless has the potential to become a franchise jihadist organization just like Al Queda by inspiring local Islamists to create homegrown and largely independent versions of the sect in neighboring countries with similar socio-economic conditions that gave rise to the movement in Nigeria. To assess the probability of this happening in Cameroon, it is necessary to review those conditions that led to the birth and growth of Boko Hara mand gauge if there a similar conditions in Cameroon.
Boko Haram and the Politics of Exclusion
Although Islamic fundamentalism is the driving force behind Boko Haram, the general consensus is that its emergence is directly linked to “the dynamics of exclusion” in Northern Nigeria, along with the inability of successive Nigerian governments to address the dire socio-economic situation in Northern Nigeria, particularly in Northeastern Nigeria where Boko Haram has its base, and which is considered the poorest region in the country. According to Salisu Suleiman,
The forces fanning the flames of these extremist activities are fired not by any ‘jihadist' agenda as much as by failure of governments at all levels to create economic opportunities... Dysfunctional governments, ignorance and hopelessness have led people to the arms of extremists. This explains (but certainly does not excuse) the mindless violence that has become a national security threat... unless and until the challenges of illiteracy, poverty, unemployment and loss of hope are addressed, the armies of unemployed youth on the ranks of extremist groups will remain ever ready to vent their angers, real or imaginary, on whatever represents the state.
The Politics of Thuggery
While the emergence of Boko Haram is deeply rooted in the socio-economic situation in Northern Nigeria, it is worth noting that its rise to prominence in Northern Nigeria was largely facilitated by an increasing tendency among Nigerian politicians to ally with local militia groups, constituted primarily of impoverished, unemployed and disenfranchised youths, for purposes of political control and hegemony, specifically “to terrorize opposition electors at constituency level or to combat other gangs engaged by their political opponents.” In the process, they have institutionalized “violence as a legitimate part of political process” in the region, particularly during elections. (See Politics of Thuggery and Patronage in Northeastern Nigeria). Suleiman notes, for example, that:
Taking advantage of youth unemployment, the Gombe State government supported the ‘kallare' group; Bauchi State gave tacit support to the ‘sara suka', while the Borno government openly related with the ‘ecomog' group which directly or indirectly metamorphosed into the ‘boko haram'.
Haruna and Jumba note that “After elections, these boys trained to maim and kill political opponents are left helpless without any tangible means of sustenance.” Many of these youths, particularly in Northeast Nigeria, quickly become easy prey to radical Islamists who exploit their desperation.
A widely-accepted, albeit controversial, narrative is that Boko Haram rose to prominence in Borno State after it helped Ali Modu Sheriff to defeat Governor Mala Kachalla in the 2003 elections, and that the sect developed its antipathy towards the state after it fell out with the new governor. While downplaying or writing off
Sheriff’s role in the emergence of Boko Haram as a powerful force in Borno, analysts such as Olly Owen nonetheless concede that “it is fair to say that the [Sherrif]administration, and others like it in the region, created the conditions for the spread of extremism by fostering thuggish, winner-takes-all corrupt politics at the same time as completely neglecting basic services and education.”
Today, Boko Haram’s tentacles run deep into the fabric of the Nigerian state with members, sympathizers and financiers in high places; a situation which led the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to complain recently that Boko Haram had infiltrated all levels and sectors of the Nigerian state apparatus:
Some of them are in the executive arm of government; some of them are in the parliamentary/legislative arm of government, while some of them are even in the judiciary. Some are also in the armed forces, the police and other security agencies. Some continue to dip their hands and eat with you and you won’t even know the person who will point a gun at you or plant a bomb behind your house.
The Cameroon Situation
Economically, Cameroon’s “Grand North” region is largely similar to Northern Nigeria with an ever growing disenfranchised and economically-deprived youth population. Like their counterparts in Nigeria, many of these youths are steadily retreating from the secular state and becoming easy prey to groups dangling the carrot of fundamentalist Islam as the way out of their misery and alienation. Still, the specific political conditions that gave rise to Boko Haram in Nigeria do not (yet) exist in Cameroon. While the neopatrimonial and prebendal political system in Cameroon is as dysfunctional as Nigeria’s, the violent political turf wars that have become characteristic of (Northern) Nigerian electoral politics since the reinstitution of civilian rule have not manifested themselves in Cameroon. Hence, the likelihood that a Boko Haram-type organization will emerge out of local political rivalries in Northern Cameroon is highly unlikely.
Second, Cameroon is unlike Nigeria where “religion plays a very vital and influential role in the society that has manifested itself as a potent force in the political development of the Nigerian state from pre-independence to post-independence,”(3) [Islamic Fundamentalism and Sectarian Violence: The “Maitatsine” and “Boko Haram” Crises in Northern Nigeria], and where “The conservative Muslim elite in the north has never given up the idea of spreading its religion to the south.” As we saw in Part II, since independence, and beginning with Cameroon’s first President, Ahmadou Ahidjo, a Muslim, the Cameroonian state has been quite adept in keeping Islam on a tight leash and out of the public sphere. As Hamadou Adama explains (Islam and State in Cameroon: Between Tension and Accommodation),
The “whip” was resorted to in holding back attempts at emancipation from the state and discouraging the emergence of Islam in the public sphere, while the “carrot” was displayed to lure prospective traditional rulers as well as compromising religious leaders to rally round and relay state policy to lower levels of the society. In the development of the independent Cameroon nation state, habits developed over a long period of time and could not be stifled. In the forefront of these formations were prominent actors such as Ahmadou Ahidjo and Paul Biya who employed similar strategies to keep Islamic militancy at bay while secretly negotiating with obstreperous and prominent Muslim scholars. (8)
The result has been a Cameroonian Muslim establishment which rarely attempts to instrumentalize Islam for political purposes. Even during major crises of the last three decades that have pitted the Muslim community against the government, for example, the failed coup attempt of 1984 and its aftermath, or the explosive Yaounde Ntougou land dispute of 1992, these confrontations have never been framed in religious terms (i.e., Muslims against the state).
Thus, unlike in Nigeria where the reinstitution of civilian rule led to the emergence of a Muslim elite which used religion to directly and indirectly subvert the secular state and place Islam at the center of the public sphere in a particularly conflictual manner (especially with the adoption of sharia law in virtually all Northern Nigerian states), multiparty politics had the opposite effect in Cameroon; it brought the Muslim community, which had been in the political wilderness since 1984, back into the political mainstream, while reactivating the North-South axis on which Cameroonian politics has historically revolved.
Thus, the disconnect or chasm between the state and Islam in Cameroon is not as wide and increasingly unbridgeable as in Nigeria. Muslims across the board still operate within the framework of the secular state, and generally view any form of Islamic fundamentalism as an existential threat to their interests – one which puts their religion and the region on an unnecessary and potentially unwinnable collision course with the state. Among Cameroonian Muslims, Sharia law is unlikely to ever become a mainstream issue…
That said, the cooptation of virtually the entire Northern political and religious class into the Biya regime is a double-edged sword; while it gives the Northern elite access to rents and privilege within the system, it simultaneously erodes their political, religious and even cultural legitimacy particularly among the youths who are in increasingly disenchanted with the secular state and turning to groups and organizations— backed by deep pockets from the Arab world—promoting fundamentalist Islamic ideologies in the country. These groups continue to extend their reach as we saw in Parts 1 and II. In fact, the national council of Imams recently expressed concern over relatively lax laws which make it very easy for religious groups to set up shop in the country and operate without any effective oversight. “There [is] no legislation limiting foreign funding and it [is] difficult for local authorities to track down the origin of funds that [are] used to build new mosques, franco-Islamic schools or carry out Islamic Non Governmental Organizations’ activities,” says Gilbert Fah (in When the Periphery becomes the Center: New Islamic Dynamics in Douala-Cameroon, 11)…
Hamadou Adama (Islam and State in Cameroon: Between Tension and Accommodation) however minimizes the disruptive potential of these groups, arguing that the type of “political Islam, which they [Arab speaking intellectuals] have been trying to (re)introduce in the public sphere through associative movements, is actually in the process of transforming itself into a counter-cultural phenomenon, poorly defined for the moment, but is serving to alleviate current Muslim discontent with the Cameroon secular state.”
However, the fear that permeates the politico-military and religious establishment in Cameroon is that this new Islam also has the potential to aggravate and channel that discontent into a violent rejection of the State, as in the case of Boko Haram. The real question then is whether the Islamic fundamentalist groups that are steadily gaining a foothold in Cameroon have the capacity and penchant for violence. We will quickly look at two of these groups for possible pointers.
The Wahhabi Movement
Although they don’t have a history of violence in Cameroon other than their involvement in the intra-sectarian clashes with the Tijanis in the 1990s and 2000s, many observers believe that the Wahhabi are most likely to turn to violent extremism if it ever came to that. A recent PBS report highlights the fact that “Wahhabism's rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.”
We can also point to Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, a cleric who “embraced Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi/Salafi strain of Islam in the mid-1990s” and whose “cosmological beliefs can be traced to Wahhabi fatwas”. Hence the description of Boko Haram as a “Salafi-Jihadist organization”.
It should be noted, however, that in spite of its Wahhabi roots, Boko Haram has never been embraced by mainstream Wahhabis in Nigeria. In the same vein, Boko Haram is violently against the Wahhabi movement in Nigeria, which it accuses of deviating from, and not being representative of true Islam. In 2010, for example, Boko Haram assassinated Bashir Kashara, a prominent Wahhabi cleric and an outspoken critic of the sect. Boko Haram has also denounced Yan Izala, the leading Wahhabi group in Nigeria (which incidentally shares the same fundamentalist ideology with Boko Haram) for its close ties with the Muslim religious establishment, and its reluctance to wage Jihad against the Nigerian state.
Nonetheless, many observers believe that Wahhabism, which is already at loggerheads with moderate Islam in Africa, is also on a collision course with African states:
Islamism is on the rise throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, transforming a moderate and integrated Muslim population into an ever more extremist one that is isolated from its non-Muslim neighbors. For African Muslims, the Islamist arrangement will entail an erosion of human rights and lead to intra-faith conflict between moderates and extremists. For African governments, Islamism will present a challenge to central authority and generate increasingly unmanageable inter-communal strife between Muslims and non-Muslims. And for non-Africans, Islamism will mean the continued development – in a region that, ominously, traditionally receives little attention from the Western security community – of a hospitable environment for terrorists with an international agenda. (An African Vortex: Islamism in Sub-Saharan Africa, 16)
As we saw in Part II, another Islamist group with a foothold in Cameroon is the Tablighi Jamaat. Although it claims to be “strictly non-political” and has not been directly linked to any act of terrorism, some have labeled it a jihadist organization and a preparatory school for Al Qaeda because many of its members eventually gravitate towards Al Qaeda. Notable among these are Khalfan Khamis Mohammed and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani who were indicted for the US embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998; Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” who tried to blow up a plane bound for the US; and, Jose Padilla jailed in the US for conspiring to murder, kidnap and maim people on behalf of Al Qaeda. John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” was also a member of the group. It is also alleged that "dozens of the captives the USA holds in extrajudicial detention in its Guantanamo Bay detention camps, in Cuba, had their continued detention justified in part through their alleged association with the Tabligh Jamaat." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tablighi_Jamaat
The Tablighi Jamaat is another group which is expected to eventually get in the crosshairs of those African states where more tolerant and moderate strands of Islam are practiced. According to one report,
The group's strict adherence to Islamic law and Mohammadan tradition (following the example of how the prophet did basic acts unconnected with religion) puts it at odds with many of the prevailing Islamic authorities in countries where TJ operates, especially those in Africa. It is building a structure of youthful Islamic rigor, and therefore… many Islamic scholars see its precincts as not-so-subtle training camps for future jihadists.”
It is also reported that the United States has also recently raised concerns that “Tablighi Jamaat’s expanding presence [in Sub-Saharan Africa] and conservative brand of Islam has the potential to serve as a recruiting ground for Al Qaeda and radical Sunni salafist organizations.”
Without doubt, the issue of militant Islam is a complex one, particularly in a country such as Cameroon which has traditionally practiced a moderate and tolerant strand of Islam. The spread of fundamentalist Islamic ideologies in the country is directly linked to the prevailing socio-political situation and to the sometimes violent doctrinal wars within the Islamic movement itself. Also, external factors such as the role of Arab countries, specifically Saudi Arabia, including developments in nearby countries such as Boko Haram’s violent terror campaign in Nigeria have played a significant, if not pivotal role. Hence, there is no quick and easy fix in the horizon.
The deployment of troops to the Grand North and increased security measures in the region are necessary stop-gap measures to hold back any significant Boko Haram incursion into Cameroon. However, while strategies used by the Rapid Intervention Unit (BIR) to crack down the infamous ‘coupeurs de routes’ or highway robbers who once held sway over the region may prove useful, a more broad-based and regional approach is most likely to yield fruits. Possible options range from creating joint cross-border patrol teams in line with the recommendations of the 9th Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) of 1996, to fully implementing Decision No 4 of the 10th Lake Chad Basin Commission Summit (2000) which called for the creation of a permanent multinational security force for the Lake Chad basin "to restore security atmosphere favorable for the development and movement of persons and goods within the Lake Chad basin".
In the meantime, Cameroon should seriously consider joining the Multi-National Joint Task Force Operation in Lake Chad, a security organization established by Nigeria, Chad and Niger to jointly monitor and enforce cross-border security in the Lake Chad region. Given that the task force is already operational, it may be the most appropriate regional military tool to deal with the Boko Haram threat.
In the end, however, the long term solution to the Boko Haram threat and the rise of militant Islam in Cameroon is socio-economic and political, for example, increased educational opportunities that allow youths to integrate the modern secular state rather than be stuck on the margins of that state as is the case today. As Mbonji Edjenguele, an anthropologist at the University of Yaounde I points out:
In a region such as the far north, where the rate of illiteracy remains high...prophets of doom from neighboring countries or elsewhere are able recruit followers to spread their disastrous ideas.
In addition, jump-starting economic development in the region, particularly through programs that target the unemployed youth, establishing a more representative system of local governance that includes a broader spectrum of the populace, improving social services and infrastructure to widen the safety for the disenfranchised, and strengthening the hand of civil society organizations that operate in the region, are some of the measures that can help diffuse the Islamic fundamentalist time bomb. Easier said than done in a region with deeply entrenched patterns and policies of social exclusion and systemic inequalities…