Ethnic violence in Cameroon is a matter of history, not religion

In early April, separatist fighters attacked houses belonging to members of the Mbororo, a group of semi-nomadic herders of Fulani or Fulbe lineage, in a village in the North West region of Cameroon. The attack resulted in the burning of a dozen houses and the death of at least as many people. A militia belonging to the hugely divided Anglophone separatist movement took responsibility, saying they were targeting the home of a Mbororo who had cooperated with the Cameroonian army.

The attack came just a month after the assassination of a traditional leader from the Esu community, also in northwest Cameroon. The attack was suspected to have been carried out by Mbororo youths and led local Esu youths to burn down homes, businesses and farms belonging to the ethnic group. The Cameroonian army has deployed an unknown number of troops to quell unrest in the already militarized region.

The recent violence is just the latest example of longstanding tensions, visible across the North West, between local communities and the Mbororo. The Mbororo, semi-nomadic and Muslim herders, have long been perceived by the villagers, mostly sedentary farmers and Christians, as foreigners not native to their place of residence and where their cattle graze. Tensions between the two communities have existed for over a century but have recently flared up and become far more deadly.

In early April, separatist fighters attacked houses belonging to members of the Mbororo, a group of semi-nomadic herders of Fulani or Fulbe lineage, in a village in the North West region of Cameroon. The attack resulted in the burning of a dozen houses and the death of at least as many people. A militia belonging to the hugely divided Anglophone separatist movement took responsibility, saying they were targeting the home of a Mbororo who had cooperated with the Cameroonian army.

The attack came just a month after the assassination of a traditional leader from the Esu community, also in northwest Cameroon. The attack was suspected to have been carried out by Mbororo youths and led local Esu youths to burn down homes, businesses and farms belonging to the ethnic group. The Cameroonian army has deployed an unknown number of troops to quell unrest in the already militarized region.

The recent violence is just the latest example of longstanding tensions, visible across the North West, between local communities and the Mbororo. The Mbororo, semi-nomadic and Muslim herders, have long been perceived by the villagers, mostly sedentary farmers and Christians, as foreigners not native to their place of residence and where their cattle graze. Tensions between the two communities have existed for over a century but have recently flared up and become far more deadly.

This is due to the ongoing Anglophone crisis in the country, in which armed separatists are trying to create an independent state, known as Ambazonia, comprising the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions. In the context of this conflict, longstanding communal tensions between the Mbororo and local communities have created the impression that the Mbororo are aligned with the Cameroonian government, which is engaged in brutal conflict in both regions.

The conflict began with peaceful protests demanding greater language autonomy, but quickly escalated into an armed conflict following harsh repression by security forces. It has caused long-standing communal tensions to escalate in an unprecedented way. Tensions between the pastoral Mbororo community and the agrarian populations of the North West are no exception, with some of the most horrific episodes of the conflict involving clashes between the two.

This is the case of the separatist fighters who are mainly drawn from rural communities in the two regions and the Mbororo herders who have developed strong relations with the Cameroonian government over many decades, largely due to the group’s precarious legal recognition. before the 21st century and its persistence. reliance on government for protection and permits.

This created a sense of dependency and, in some cases, loyalty to the Cameroonian government. For example, the 2020 Ngarbuh massacre which killed 21 civilians, including 13 children and a pregnant woman, saw Mbororo armed groups kill people alongside the Cameroonian military. Conversely, attacks and alleged cattle raids by separatist fighters have displaced thousands of Mbororo and forced them to move their livestock out of Anglophone regions. In some cases, mosques have been set on fire next to Mbororo-owned properties.

Clashes between the two communities amid the Anglophone crisis have led to accusations that the conflict now includes religious dimensions, with Mbororo Muslims engaging in fighting with religiously motivated Christian separatists.

For example, organizations monitoring the persecution of Christians around the world have expressed concern over the growing risk of persecution of Christians in the North West and South West regions, accusing Mbororo of attacks on churches and speculating that Communal tensions have religious overtones. While stopping to label the clashes religiously motivated, the US State Department cited them as a cause for concern in its 2020 report on international religious freedom.

Social media is also awash with rumors by both sides of targeted attacks allegedly based on religion. The emerging narrative is not unusual when compared to neighboring Nigeria, where similar clashes between sedentary and pastoralist communities have been described – dubiously – as religious disputes. Therefore, it is important to examine the nature of the clashes to determine to what extent, if any, these religious differences are a factor.


The origins of the continuing tensions between sedentary communities and Mbororo pastoralists in the North West region of Cameroon date back to the early 20th century, when the first Mbororo settlers arrived in Cameroon from modern Nigeria in search of fertile pastures. Their migration to the North West was supported by the British colonial authorities, who sought to diversify the regional economy and collect taxes on cattle.

Although initially welcomed by local people, Mbororo cattle grazing patterns began to clash with crop rotation systems, resulting in sporadic violence. After the initial arrival of the first Mbororo communities around 1910, their numbers continued to increase over the following decades.

By the mid-1940s, many had established camps in the Northwest region, where they resided permanently with only selected individuals traveling with their livestock. Even though many Mbororo communities were largely sedentary, British colonial headquarters rejected claims of their classification as “indigenous”, confirming their status as “settlers”.

Later, a permitting system was put in place that limited the locations and times during which grazing could take place. As a result, the Mbororo had a dubious legal status that required them to maintain good relations with the colonial authorities to maintain their livelihoods.

This legacy of being classified as settlers and dependent on colonial authorities continues to impact the relationship between Mbororo herders, the state and local communities. This created a sense of dependency that compelled the Mbororo to maintain good relations with government authorities, a trend that continued in post-colonial Cameroon.

The status of the Mbororo changed significantly after the formation of modern Cameroon in 1961. Colonial constraints on grazing were removed, granting them largely unlimited grazing rights, and the Mbororo were granted full Cameroonian citizenship in 1972. Mbororo communities were further seen as benefiting from the Land Ordinances of 1974 which nationalized communal lands. While implementation varied greatly by local area, the new rules undoubtedly led some wealthy Mbororo groups to acquire large amounts of land for grazing that had previously been considered communal and used by subsistence farmers.

Although the vast majority of Mbororo remained poor, tensions with local English-speaking communities grew and prolonged episodes of intercommunal violence occurred. At times, the Mbororo sought protection from government authorities and the military, reinforcing the perception that they were cooperating with the government against local communities.

These tensions have resurfaced in almost every socio-political event in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon since the mid-twentieth century. For example, in Cameroon’s first multi-party presidential election, held in 1992, the opposition Social Democratic Front, which enjoyed massive grassroots support in all English-speaking regions, promised to enact land reforms if he was elected.

The Mbororo saw this as a threat to the size of their pastures and in response voted overwhelmingly for the ruling Cameroonian People’s Democratic Rally. In the unrest and conflict following the elections, many Mbororo and their properties were attacked, largely in retaliation for being seen as close to the government.

As these tensions have become a societal divide in the North West region, it should come as no surprise that they have emerged in the Anglophone crisis. Armed groups that are now called “Amba Boys” began to form in large numbers after the Cameroonian army burned down villages in rural North West and South West areas in late 2017 and early 2018.

One of the hardest hit areas was the department of Menchum, where tensions between Anglophone militants and Mbororo were particularly acute. As a result, some of the earliest groups of secessionist fighters came from groups that had generations-old tensions with the Mbororo. This series of events led separatist fighters to naturally view the Mbororo as allies of the state from which they had hoped to secede and which had committed horrific abuses against their communities.

As the crisis escalated, secessionist fighters began to kidnap, kill and hold for ransom those who opposed their cause or supported the government. This included the Mbororo of the North West region, who were also victims of widespread cattle rustling. In response, the Mbororo quickly aligned themselves through formal and informal arrangements with the Cameroonian government and formed their own paramilitary forces.

This cycle continued as the Anglophone conflict in Cameroon escalated with Mbororo pastoralists fighting separatists from Christian agrarian communities. Categorizing the conflict as an emergence of religiously motivated tensions is misguided and ignores the complex and localized drivers of escalating intercommunal conflict. This is just an escalation of earlier tensions between the two communities against the backdrop of a war that has been wreaking havoc in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon for more than five years.

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