Cameroon: Religious Tensions on the Rise in the North

Earlier this year, conflict in Nigeria’s Plateau state, resulting in part from religious tensions, sparked concern about relations between Christians and Muslims in that country.
Now, another West African state appears to be grappling with a similar problem: Cameroon.
Garga Aoudou, a community activist with a Dutch development organisation, says efforts are being made to create violence between Christians and Muslims in the country’s North and Extreme North provinces.

"At first, we thought people were just spreading rumors to try to terrorize Catholic communities. But then here in Garoua (capital of the North province), we’ve been literally inundated with fliers inciting Muslims towards a hatred of Christians," he noted.

"Religious fanatics exhort Muslims to increase the number of marriages between young Muslim men and Christian girls in order to convert them to Islam, to refuse to rent houses or sell land to Christians – or to get them to move by raising the rent," Aoudou adds.

Yves Steven, the Bishop of Maroua – capital of the Extreme North province – and the town of Makolo, says "Several Christian families have come to me to complain. They were subjected to physical violence. Some of them were forcibly evicted from their homes with bats and at knifepoint before they could collect their property."

Islam and Christianity are the religions most widely-observed in Cameroon. The Central Bureau of the Census and Population Studies estimates that Muslims account for 32 percent of the country’s population, although they predominate in the northern province of Adamaoua, as well as those of the North and Extreme North. The Cameroonian constitution defines the country as a secular state.

Religious strife in Cameroon is not a new phenomenon. Clashes between Muslims and Christians occurred in June 1991 in the commercial capital, Yaounde; as well as in Adamaoua province in 1993, and in Beroua, capital of East province, in 2001.

To date, these incidents have not resulted in any fatalities. The Chief of Police in the North province, Lele Lafrique, fears this situation may change for the worse, however.

"Now more than ever, an extremist current threatens the national unity for which we paid so dearly," he told IPS in a telephone interview from the town of Benoue in the North Province.

"As a government authority, we’re taking this threat at its word. And we’re calling upon...all Cameroonians not to fall prey to those seeking to create the chaos we’ve so often witnessed in neighboring countries," he added.

Mahmoudou Mal Bakari, imam of the main mosque in Maroua, is equally concerned.

"What’s happening right now in despicable," he said in a telephone interview. "The only goal of these fanatics is to discredit other religions and sow hatred among believers."

Bakari is at pains to describe those who have made the call for actions against Christians as "outside agitators". The Koran, he says, "advocates peace, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence."

Thomas Mbaye, the head of a missionary group in Garoua, echoed Bakari’s view that a relatively small number of people was behind the effort to raise religious tensions. "I think we need to step up vigilance against these little groups trying to manipulate public opinion," he told IPS.

In response to these developments, government has created a special joint task force to conduct raids against those suspected of encouraging religious extremism. Provincial governors also met towards the end of last month to discuss the situation.

"We’re on our guard because of what’s happening right now in the north," Mbonji Edjenguele, an anthropologist at the University of Yaounde I, told IPS, adding "We’re not immune to the sociopolitical events currently taking place beyond our borders, which continue to be porous."

Edjenguele believes that a lack of education in northern areas plays a key role in enabling the advance of extremism.

"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," he says.

Added Emmanuel Ousmanou, First Vice-president of the Convention of the Baptist Church Union of Cameroon, "We firmly denounce this destructive attitude. That’s why we’ve just convened a conclave of Protestant churches in Garoua to examine and analyze the facts and come to some appropriate conclusions."