Political economy of violence in the Far North of Cameroon

The political economy of violence in the Far North. Cameroon National Report
[ version française ]

Research managers
National Report
Prof. Nadine MACHIKOU, political scientist, Institute of Public Management at the University of Yaoundé II

Field survey
Claude LINJUOM MBOWOU, political scientist, Panthéon-Sorbonne University (Paris 1)


Study areas
Focusing on the Far North Region, the part of Cameroon most exposed to insecurity and violent extremism, this study emphasises the voices of people living in three departments near Lake Chad: Mayo-Sava, Mayo-Tsanaga and Logone-et-Chari. These departments provide examples of inter- ethnic and sectarian tensions, fragile security, and cross-border social and economic dynamics. Reporting on perceptions in Cameroon brings with it the challenge of explaining historical trends and contemporary variables which are associated with understanding the mechanisms of radicalization.

State and citizenship, religion and identity
Ethnic diversity in Cameroon’s Far North is polarized around two groups, the Fulani and the Kirdi. Society is also affected by the impact of religion from the second wave of Islamisation in the 19th century and during colonialism. Regarding “its identity dimension, religion in Cameroon remains a matter of ethnicity”. National identity is coping with a structural crisis. The post-colonial order created a structure of territorial fragmentation, especially between the north and south, as well as solidarity mechanisms which are the basis for a patronage system managed by the elite. The positioning of the elite, partisan competition, election issues and access to state finance have all weakened the region’s cohesion, which is marked by cyclical ethnic hegemony. For two centuries, the instruments of political power have passed from hand to hand, “wandering from one ethnic group to another, according to the influence of Islam and the state”.

Inter-communal and cross-border relations
There is a tangle of ethnic groups and cross-border nationalities across the region and this relativizes the significance of the border. The stigmatization of the Kanuri community, suspected of complicity with Boko Haram, is indicative of the climate of inter-ethnic tensions prevailing in the area. The Far North, the region most exposed to violence, has been largely abandoned by public policy. Already weakened by bad governance, the presence of Boko Haram has increased the population’s precariousness as prices for basic products have soared with the violence. The economic and financial dimensions of the border are most noticeable around Lake Chad. The need for a certain degree of ungovernability against a background of generalized insecurity (crime and trafficking) is not surprising given the desire of some local people to hold onto the profits of the various transactions.

Radicalization: clues and process
Although radicalism is perceived as being primarily guided by economic interests, it is part of a crisis in religious socialization. Itinerant religious training (in the form of the “Mahajirs”) is highlighted as a critical dimension of this crisis. Places where religious knowledge is transmitted are poorly controlled and have become a disciplinary framework for humiliation and training in violence which is likely to fuel Boko Haram. In addition, the disintegration of frameworks which are designed to foster integration have resulted in a crisis in societal relations and the development of radicalization. Social constraint, organised by gender and generation, becomes unbearable in a context of cronyism. Finally, communities are squeezed between two mechanisms of violence which fuel radicalization: the terror of Boko Haram and the violence of the state’s response to an exceptional situation. Both promote religious tensions whose intensification is dangerous.

The role of women and young people
Young people and women are traditionally considered ‘social juniors’. Many young people, in situations of social distress and humiliation, have joined radical groups and the community offers no way for them to return. Women are, at the same time, objects of reward for extremist engagement, victims and producers of violence.

Avenues for reflection
Taking up the challenge of countering radicalization requires the building of a comprehensive response. The study suggests that it could be structured around three areas:

  • Empower exposed zones: provide needed institutions for the border region around Lake Chad;
  • Develop a national strategy to counter radicalization based on a comprehensive approach (i.e., security, governance and development);
  • Build an argument against radical discourse which is ethnically neutral and free of ideology.


1. The state, its founding heterogeneity and the crisis in national identity
2. Fragmentation of identity between religion and ethnic group: fluidity and contingency

1. The tangle of cross-border ethnic groups and nationalities
The cross-border space: fluid and ever changing
Ethnic mistrust and stigmatization
2. The Far North, that sad border
A structural abandonment by public policies
Economic and security issues on the border

1. The crisis in religious socialization: intinerant marabouts and Quranic school
2. The crisis in social renewal
3. Violence suffered: between terror and the state’s response
Terror from insurgents
State response: a climate of exception

1. The mobilization of young people, or the revenge of the humiliated
2. Women and insecurity: The paradox of presence-absence




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