Aristide Donald Bilounga, holder of a Masters in international relations with a concentration on francophone countries at the University Jean-Moulin Lyon 3 and of a Masters in political sciences at the University of Yaoundé 2 and Fabrice Fresse, expert at the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 and expert on Quality Assessment at the National Agency Erasmus + France. He is also the Head of International Relations / Life Long Learning for the non-profit organization EvalUE in Bordeaux.
Violent extremism and the factors leading to it have garnered considerable attention worldwide (1). Terms such as radicalization and de-radicalisation have been widely used after 9/11 especially in the American, British, German and North European scientific literature (2). The terms are particularly popular in the francophone sphere where researchers and policy makers are studying the radicalization process in the hopes of preventing it as well as the violence that it generates.
Francophone researchers have studied (3) such extremist groups such as AQMI, Ansar Dine and Al Mourabitoun since they have come into existence. The extremist group, Boko Haram, went beyond Francophone borders in 2015 (4) to permeate deep into West Africa. Recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Strasbourg, Brussels N’Djamena, Bamako, Abidjan are proof that violent extremism is anchored in French-speaking countries. They also serve as an important reminder of the importance of developing mechanisms to prevent radicalization before it starts. No country can afford to take a reactive approach when dealing with radicalization. Cameroon is one of them.
This article looks at how Cameroon is combatting radicalization but more importantly how the country is reacting to it.
It will explain the factors which contribute to violent extremism as well as sociopolitical mechanisms being used to prevent its proliferation.
Factors leading to violent extremism in Cameroon
The concepts of radicalization and violent extremism are subjective and have a different meaning depending both on the context and the perspective. Furthermore, their definition is constantly changing because of the way they are being used in different countries (5).
An extremist opinion is generally considered as very different from what’s considered as a mainstream opinion (6). Extremist viewpoints are not necessarily illegal and do not necessarily lead to violence. People who choose to espouse radical ideology without infringing on the civil liberties of other citizens are protected by state laws. However, a radical point of view ceases to be protected speech when it encourages violence or places constraints on people to meet their goals. It is in this context that violent extremism poses a threat to society. Radicalization can be defined as the process through which individuals become radicalized to the point that they act on it. Radicalized people often are inspired by charismatic leaders or through their communities.
Policy makers have made it their priority to prevent attacks rather than analyzing the root causes of radicalization. In Camaroon, researchers have uncovered some of the root causes of radicalization such as the difficulty of people to be accepted by society.
A. Not being socially recognized: a feeling more than a reality?
The human desire to be socially accepted is widely documented by researchers and ethnic, racial or religious minorities often struggle to be accepted in society. According to Axel Honneth, “experiencing recognition is a constitutive factor for human beings: in order to have a successful relationship with yourself, you need an intersubjective recognition of your skills and accomplishments; (7) if such an social acknowledgment is not obtained throughout your development, there opens within your personality a physical breach, enabling negative emotions to enter.” (8) These negative feelings are often the catalyst for radicalization.
Not being recognized can be protested legally, politically or socially. Many people feel, as some point in time, excluded or marginalized from the “in group”. (9) Ideologies that are being borrowed by an unrecognized body can lead to violent extremism when they have been misunderstood, ignored or oppressed by public authorities.
Since 2016, a small Anglophone minority in Cameroon, which represents 20 per cent of the total population, has protested against its marginalization in society . They want to create a new state called Ambazonia and to return to the federalist system that prevailed in Cameroon between 1961 and 1972. Much of the claims expressed not only by radical but also moderate Anglophones is centered on historical context (10). When President Ahmadou Ahidjo ended federalism in 1972 the Anglophones began to feel marginalized (11).
Ten years later, President Paul Biya implemented centralism. On August 22nd, the Anglophone region split into two: North West and South West. The following year, the United Republic of Cameroon became the Republic of Cameroon. Subsequently, the second star representing the Anglophone community in Cameroon disappeared from the national flag. Despite the emergence of Anglophone movements in the 1990s centralization kept developing and Anglophones lost even more political weight on the national level.
However, the Cameroon government doesn’t believe certain groups are marginalized and says those who believe this are “intellectually dishonest” (12). It believes that tension between Anglophones and Francophones was created and fueled by militant groups, lawyers and manipulated teachers. They accuse some of being financed by foreign bodies in order to destabilize Cameroon (13). From the government’s perspective, Anglophones have benefited from special treatment since President Biya accessed Supreme Magistracy in 1982 (14).
The marginalization of Anglophone regions in Cameroon remains a very politicized issue but it is an important issue for anyone who wants to understand the rise of violent extremism in Cameroon over the past two years.
B. Social circumstances: unemployment, poverty and the lack of quality education
Cameroon is a medium-to-low-income country with a population of 23.3 million comprising of 230 ethnic and linguistic groups. Eighty per cent of its population lives in eight Francophone regions while 20 per cent live in the Anglophone region. Fifty-four per cent live in the urban areas. Endowed with five agricultural zones, the country produces agricultural and natural resources, among which oil, gas, wood and gems. Ranked 153 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index (15) , the number of people defined as poor increased by 12 per cent between 2007. 8.1 million of its inhabitants are poor. The Extreme Northern, the Northern, the Eastern and the Adamaoua regions are where the poverty rates are at their highest as 90 per cent of their inhabitants need humanitarian aid (16).
The reasons why young people get involved in extremist movements are diverse and often the result of individual trajectories. However, there seems to be a set of factors that can favor enrollment:
– Poor economic conditions under which young people are living in small villages. They have no access to education and professional development. They are disappointed by the unproductive environment and therefore become more vulnerable targets. They are attracted by opportunities to become rich quicker, they exploit fishery resources and lands more easily, and get married quicker.
– Frustrations felt by certain groups of people, mainly young people, who did not win a case after litigation (mainly property related). They view the Sharia Law promoted by Boko Haram as an efficient alternative justice system.
– Conscious or unconscious agreement with the propaganda generated by Boko Haram, and conveyed in some mosques within youth groups. Young recruits are being offered money or dates that are thought to be mystical.
– Closing frontiers has deprived thousands of young people from their jobs. They have become more vulnerable and unable to meet family expenses. Due to the political instability of bordering states, Nigeria is therefore perceived as an Eldorado by young people.
– State programs fail to address the needs of the young people and their parents, failing to solve intergenerational crisis, have often been the catalysts of their child’s enrollment in Boko Haram.
– In the context of a traditionalist culture, the social and financial weight that a wedding entails has pressured young men to join Boko Haram in order to get married or find a spouse among the women enrolled in Boko Haram. As for some girls, they join Boko Haram to free themselves from social constraints placed on them by their families and community of origin (17).
Extreme poverty pervading the region, oppression by authorities and neglect from the central state, embodied by the new kirdi elites, are factors that can encourage young people to withdraw within themselves, and for some of them join Boko Haram. Their attacks against some chieftaincies and mosques demonstrate the new power they have gained within the movement which they use to exact revenge on a country that has excluded them from almost everything. This feeling has developed especially since the 1970s after the political elite failed them. “The elite may not be aware of it, but it has uprooted itself from reality, from its population and incidentally from its youth. You then realize that you have been seeing the same faces for years, the same people who deliver the same speeches and dwell on the same promises .” (18)
Security and sociopolitical mechanisms to prevent violent extremism in Cameroon
As a response to the development of extremist ideology in Cameroon, the government is trying to find ways to end violent extremism and prevent radicalization. The implementation of security and civil measures remains to be completed.
A. Safety mechanisms to prevent violent extremism: A focus on Vigilance Committees
Collaboration between defense and security forces and Cameroon citizens has developed over the past years. Citizens do not trust the army due to its inclination to its brutality and systematic violations of international human rights. The army used to not entrusts its adults, whose children joined Boko Haram.
Because of growing attacks, along with violent acts perpetrated on citizens and the asymmetric nature of the conflict imposed by Boko Haram to the army as opposed to conventional wars, collaboration emerged. Citizens need to be protected by the army and the army needs information (19). Both started to interact and exchange information through the Vigilance Committees and traditional authorities. They both provide information to defense and security forces operating in villages.
Created in the extreme north-eastern region, bordering Nigeria and regularly targeted by suicide terrorist attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram since 2014, Vigilance Committees are unique for two reasons. Implemented in almost all the cities in Cameroon, anti-terrorist vigilance committees are simultaneously a popular and institutional emanation aiming at ensuring security in their localities (20). These self-defense groups have been instituted by Law #68/LF/1 on June 11th 1968 to organize passive defense and are classified as auxiliary and supplemental forces as defined by the Cameroon national defense. They are defined as Type Two Forces, just as mobiles police units and mobile gendarmerie, a subdivision of the army specialized in restoring order (21). They also are specialized forces to maintain public order and mobilize if needed by authorities (22). Their range of action can go from information sharing to active participation to military operations (23).
The Vigilance Committees are also involved in organizing passive defense. Their mission is to protect civilians, material resources and diverse national assets from the effects of war (24). The immediate priority for Vigilance Committees is to prevent deadly attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram, and to keep an eye on suspicious movement and behavior and, if relevant, to inform the fighting unit of the regular army (25).
B. Sociopolitical mechanisms to prevent violent extremism: CNPBM and its emergency plans as institutional responses
The creation of the Commission Nationale de Promotion du Bilinguisme et du Multiculturalisme (CNPBM), National Commission to Promote Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, and the elaboration of emergency humanitarian plans are the main tools devised by the Cameroon government to prevent radicalization and violent extremism.
The CNPBM is an advisory body created by decree #2017/013 on January 23rd 2017 to promote bilingualism as a means to maintain peace, strengthen the unity of the country and reinforce the daily will and practice of vivre ensemble, meaning ‘living together’. It is meant to ensure the implementation of constitutional measures such as recognizing English and French as official languages, equally. It conducts studies and investigations and suggests measures to reinforce the bilingual and multicultural nature of Cameroon. It also formulates projects and texts submitted to the President on bilingualism, multiculturalism and vivre ensemble. So far, the CNPBM has adopted an organizational chart, rules of procedure and monthly action plans from June 2017 to December 2018.
It is also in charge of assessing the implementation of the constitutional measures on bilingualism in the 37 ministry departments from November 1st to November 3rd 2017.
As for strategies of humanitarian intervention, the State aims to reestablish quality of life ensuring the fulfillment and development of communities affected by the sociopolitical situation in the northwestern and southwestern regions. It also aims to provide emergency humanitarian assistance and promote social cohesion and vivre ensemble in different areas, such as access to decent housing, provide basic items, education and protection and reconstitution of individual documents.
Radicalization and violent extremism are realities in francophone countries in Africa, such as Cameroon. While the country has long been shielded from violence and destabilization by external and internal forces, modern day extremist violence in its transnational and infra-national dimensions is now a part of the daily lives of Cameroon citizens. In order to efficiently defend its people, state responses aiming at putting an end to or preventing violent extremism, even though they are relevant in wording, need to be truly inclusive, creating innovative spaces for anyone willing to act for peace and stability.
(1) E. VAN DE LINDE, et P. RADEMAKER, Een toekomstverkenning van de invloed van brede maatschappelijke trends op radicaliseringsprocessen. Den Haag: Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek- en Documentatiecentrum, 2010.
(2) Abdelasien El DIFRAOUI et Milena UHLMANN, « Prévention de la radicalisation et déradicalisation : les modèles allemand, britannique et danois », in Politique étrangère, Avril 2015, p. 171.
(3) L’extrémisme violent s’entend ici comme la volonté d’utiliser la violence ou le soutien de l’utilisation de la violence afin d’intensifier des croyances particulières, notamment de nature politique, sociale ou idéologique, y compris à travers des actes de terrorisme, voir à ce sujet : JL STRIEGHER, Violent-extremism: an examination of a definitional dilemma, 2015, http://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent. cgi?article=1046&context=asi.
(4) International Peace Institute, « L’extrémisme violent : Vers une stratégie de prévention dans l’espace francophone », janvier 2016, p. 1.
(5) European Commission, « Renforcer la résilience face à la violence et à l’extrémisme », Luxembourg, Office des publications de l’Union européenne, 2015, p. 4.
(7) Voir, Axel HONNETH, La lutte pour la reconnaissance, Paris, Cerf ; 1992 ; Thierry BALZACQ, Théories de la sécurité. Les approches critiques, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2016, p.114.
(8) Axel HONNETH, La lutte pour la reconnaissance, Op. cit. p.166.
(9) Florence RICHARD, « Cameroun anglophone : aux origines de la crise », in https://www.france24.com , mise à jour du 04 octobre 2017.
(12) Voir, Cameroon tribune, 28 novembre 2016.
(15) Programme des Nations Unies pour le développement (PNUD). Rapports sur le développement humain – Indice de développement humain, http://hdr.undp.org/fr/data.
(16) Bureau de la coordination des affaires humanitaires (OCHA). Aperçu des besoins humanitaires: https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/system/files/documents/files/hno_cameroun_2016.pdf.
(17) CEIDES, Op. cit. p. 8-9.
(18) Mocktar OUMAROU, « L’élite du Grand-Nord n’est pas une force de solutions, mais une force de positions », in L’OEil du Sahel, n° 610, 16 juin 2014, p. 3.
(19) CEIDES, « Dialogue participatif pour la prévention de l’extrémisme violent dans l’Extrême-Nord du Cameroun et son pourtour », Rapport final, Maroua-Cameroun, 24-25 juillet 2018, p. 9.
(20) Yves Rodrigue NOAH NOAH, « L’action des comités de vigilance dans le dispositif sécuritaire de lutte contre Boko Haram : entre efficacité conjoncturelle et défaillances structurelles », mémoire de recherche en science politique, université de Yaoundé 2, 2015-2016, p. 14.
(21) DECRET N° 68/DF/33 du 29 janvier 1968 Fixant les missions de défense des Forces Régulières Supplétives et auxiliaires.
(22) Décret n°70/DF/264 du 4 juin 1970 relatif à la sécurité interne et externe de l’Etat.
(23) Voir, Crisis group, « Cameroun : « faire face à Boko Haram », rapport Afrique n°241, 16 novembre 2016.
(24) Article 1er de la Loi du 8 mai 1968 portant organisation de la défense passive.
(25) Alain Didier OLINGA, « De la lutte contre Boko Haram à la structuration de la défense populaire », in l’Evènement Edition spéciale du 20 mai 2016, p13.