The Lake Chad Basin region is plagued by insecurity. In addition to the terror inflicted by Boko Haram, organised crime and kidnappings for ransom in the area, it’s feared that Cameroon’s community conflicts could spread, further destabilising the entire region.
Land and water are at the root of the inter-communal rivalries in Cameroon’s Far North that have claimed the lives of 15 people and injured 50 since May. The availability of illegal homemade or manufactured weapons makes the clashes deadlier.
People in these areas make a living from livestock, agriculture and fishing. These livelihoods are concentrated around rivers and streams that offer grazing, water and arable land. Climate change increases the competition for scarce resources, which, fuelled by identity-based politics, leads to bloody conflicts.
Many communities live in the large cross-border areas shared by the four Lake Chad Basin countries – Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. For example the Kanuri, Shuwa Arabs and Boudouma can be found in all four countries, while the Kotoko and Musgum reside in Chad and Cameroon. The borders are extremely porous, especially when located on rivers or the lake.
On 11 August, the Shuwa Arab and Musgum communities clashed over land in El Birké canton in the Logone-Birni district. Twelve people died and 48 were seriously injured. Since then, more than 11 000 people from Cameroon have crossed the Logone River to seek safety in Chad’s Ondouma and Ngama Kotoko areas.
Conflict zones in Cameroon's Far North Region
The attacks occurred in the middle of the rainy season when extensive flooding makes it difficult to get emergency aid to the refugees. This is on top of the growing humanitarian needs caused by the protracted Boko Haram crisis.
In June, bloody conflicts over land pitted the Shuwa Arab against the Kotoko community in the Aboudangala canton, also located in Logone-Birni. Two people were killed and four seriously injured. In May, a dispute over access to water led to battles between the Kanuri and Chuwa Araba in Waza. One person died and four were wounded.
These communal tensions are not new. Clashes between the Kotoko and Musgum in Zina in 2007 left eight people dead and 60 wounded. Similarly, violence between the Shuwa Arabs and Kotoko in Kousseri in 1992 left 68 people dead and 395 wounded.
Almost all those involved in these conflicts live in Cameroon and Chad, and along the border between the two countries. The Shuwa Arab also live in parts of Borno State in Nigeria, and in Niger. During the latest August conflict, Institute for Security Studies research revealed an influx of people from various Chadian communities into the Cameroon conflict zone to join forces with their families. Porous borders in the area, especially rivers, make this movement easier.
There’s a strong likelihood that these problems could worsen regionally. Security issues in the Lake Chad Basin often become regional because of the anthropological, historical and economic proximity of the people living in the area.
The circulation of firearms in the hands of former rebels, national army members and smugglers is nothing new because of the long-standing armed conflicts in Chad, Sudan, Libya, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. But the increasing use of guns in community clashes in this already volatile region requires urgent attention from Lake Chad Basin governments.
The Cameroonian authorities have already stepped up with the launch of a disarmament operation after the August violence in El Birké. This should be maintained and extended to the entire conflict zone and coordinated with other Lake Chad Basin countries to effectively ‘silence the guns’ in the region.
Finally, responses to the local rivalries should be reassessed. The reconciliation initiatives led by Cameroon’s government, while attracting media attention, are unlikely to resolve the disputes. They consist of official meetings of community leaders under the aegis of higher authorities, and as such, remain merely protocol. A long-term approach is needed that addresses the nature of the conflicts and their historical and economic underpinnings.
Understanding the underlying causes of the clashes rather than their sporadic manifestations would help craft sustainable solutions. Transitional justice mechanisms are also worth exploring to address prosecutorial concerns, truth-seeking, reconciliation and healing of the affected communities. Investigating and prosecuting the alleged perpetrators of attacks and compensating the victims could help quell the thirst for intra- and inter-community reprisals.
The role of traditional authorities (village and community chiefs and religious leaders) and the means they use to manage resources and prevent and resolve conflict, must also be strengthened. Because of their social standing and their vital roles as guarantors of tradition, these leaders are best placed to organise reconciliation processes that their communities will trust and participate in.
Written by Remadji Hoinathy, Senior Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin and Celestin Delanga, ISS Research Associate
This article was produced with funding from the government of the Netherlands.