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Ethnic Clashes in Cameroon Aren’t About Religion

There have long been tensions between Muslim Mbororo pastoralists and Christian groups, but the war between Anglophone secessionists and the government has enflamed them.

By , a writer whose reporting and analysis have been published in the New Humanitarian, African Arguments, and other publications.
Cameroonian army soldiers secure the perimeter of a polling station in Lysoka, near Buea, southwestern Cameroon, on October 7, 2018 during presidential elections.
Cameroonian army soldiers secure the perimeter of a polling station in Lysoka, near Buea, southwestern Cameroon, on October 7, 2018 during presidential elections.
Cameroonian army soldiers secure the perimeter of a polling station in Lysoka, near Buea, southwestern Cameroon, on October 7, 2018 during presidential elections. MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images

In early April, separatist fighters attacked houses belonging to members of the Mbororo, a seminomadic pastoralist group of Fulani or Fulbe lineage, in a village in the Northwest region of Cameroon. The attack resulted in a dozen homes being torched and at least as many people killed. One militia belonging to the immensely divided Anglophone separatist movement took responsibility, claiming that it targeted the house of an Mbororo who had been cooperating with the Cameroonian military.

The attack occurred only a month after the assassination of a traditional ruler from the Esu community, also in Northwest Cameroon. The attack was suspected to have been carried out by Mbororo youth and resulted in local Esu youths setting fire to homes, businesses, and farms belonging to the ethnic group. The Cameroonian military deployed an unspecified number of troops to quell the unrest in the already militarized region.

The recent violence is just the latest example of long-standing tensions, visible across the Northwest, between local communities and the Mbororo. The Mbororo, who are seminomadic herders and Muslim, have long been seen by the villagers, who are mainly sedentary farmers and Christian, as outsiders who are not native to where they reside and their cattle graze. Tensions between the two communities have existed for more than a century but have recently become enflamed and much more deadly.

In early April, separatist fighters attacked houses belonging to members of the Mbororo, a seminomadic pastoralist group of Fulani or Fulbe lineage, in a village in the Northwest region of Cameroon. The attack resulted in a dozen homes being torched and at least as many people killed. One militia belonging to the immensely divided Anglophone separatist movement took responsibility, claiming that it targeted the house of an Mbororo who had been cooperating with the Cameroonian military.

The attack occurred only a month after the assassination of a traditional ruler from the Esu community, also in Northwest Cameroon. The attack was suspected to have been carried out by Mbororo youth and resulted in local Esu youths setting fire to homes, businesses, and farms belonging to the ethnic group. The Cameroonian military deployed an unspecified number of troops to quell the unrest in the already militarized region.

The recent violence is just the latest example of long-standing tensions, visible across the Northwest, between local communities and the Mbororo. The Mbororo, who are seminomadic herders and Muslim, have long been seen by the villagers, who are mainly sedentary farmers and Christian, as outsiders who are not native to where they reside and their cattle graze. Tensions between the two communities have existed for more than a century but have recently become enflamed and much more deadly.

The Mbororo, who are seminomadic herders and Muslim, have long been seen as outsiders by  villagers, who are mainly sedentary farmers and Christian.

This is due to the country’s ongoing Anglophone crisis, in which armed separatists are attempting to create an independent state, known as Ambazonia, comprising the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions. In the context of this conflict, long-standing communal tensions between the Mbororo and local communities resulted in the perception that the Mbororo are aligned with the Cameroonian government, which is engaged in a brutal conflict across the two regions.

The conflict began as peaceful protests demanding greater linguistic autonomy but quickly evolved into an armed conflict following harsh repression by security forces. It has caused long-standing communal tensions to escalate in an unprecedented manner. The tensions between the pastoralist Mbororo community and agrarian populations across the Northwest are no exception, with some of the most gruesome episodes of the conflict involving clashes between the two.

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

This created a sense of dependency on, and in some cases loyalty to, the Cameroonian government. For instance, the 2020 Ngarbuh massacre that killed 21 civilians, including 13 children and a pregnant woman, saw armed Mbororo groups killing people alongside the Cameroonian military. Conversely, attacks and alleged cattle-rustling by separatist fighters have displaced thousands of Mbororo and forced them to move their cattle outside the Anglophone regions. In some instances, mosques have been torched alongside properties owned by Mbororo.

The clashes between the two communities in the context of the Anglophone crisis have led to accusations that the conflict now includes religious dimensions, with Muslim Mbororo engaging in combat with Christian separatists driven by religious motivations.

For instance, organizations monitoring persecution of Christians globally have expressed concern over the growing risk of persecution of Christians in the Northwest and Southwest regions, blaming Mbororo for attacks on churches and speculating that the communal tensions have religious undertones. While stopping short of calling the clashes religiously motivated, the U.S. State Department cited them as a cause for concern in its 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Social media is also awash in rumors by both parties of targeted attacks that purportedly have a religious basis. The emerging narrative is not uncommon from that in neighboring Nigeria, where similar clashes between sedentary and pastoralist communities have been described—dubiously—as religious conflicts. Therefore, it is important to examine the nature of the clashes to determine to what extent, if any, those religious differences are a factor.


The origins of the ongoing tensions between sedentary communities and pastoralist Mbororo in Cameroon’s Northwest region can be traced to the early 20th century, when the first Mbororo settlers arrived in Cameroon from modern-day Nigeria in search of fertile grazing grounds. Their migration to the Northwest was supported by the British colonial authorities, who sought to diversify the regional economy and collect taxes on cattle.

While initially welcomed by local populations, the grazing patterns of the Mbororo’s cattle began to clash with systems of crop rotation, resulting in sporadic violence. After the initial arrival of the first Mbororo communities around 1910, their numbers continued to increase in the coming decades.

By the mid-1940s, many had established camps in the Northwest region, where they would reside permanently with only select individuals traveling with their livestock. Even though many Mbororo communities were largely sedentary, the British colonial headquarters rejected demands for their classification as “natives,” upholding their status as “settlers.”

At times, the Mbororo sought protection from the government and military, solidifying the perception that they were cooperating with the state against Anglophones.

Later, a system of issuing permits was implemented that limited the locations and time frames during which grazing could occur. As a result, the Mbororo had a dubious legal status that required them to maintain good relations with the colonial authorities to uphold their livelihoods.

This legacy of being classified as settlers and depending on the colonial authorities continues to have an impact on the relationships between the Mbororo herders, the state, and local communities. This created a sense of dependency that resulted in the Mbororo having to maintain good relations with governing authorities, a trend that has continued in postcolonial Cameroon.

The status of the Mbororo changed greatly after the formation of modern-day Cameroon in 1961. The colonial constraints on grazing were eliminated, allowing them largely unrestricted grazing rights, and the Mbororo were granted full Cameroonian citizenship in 1972. The Mbororo communities were further seen as benefiting from the 1974 land ordinances that nationalized communal land. While implementation varied greatly by local area, the new rules indisputably led to some wealthy Mbororo groups acquiring large amounts of land for grazing that was previously viewed as communal and used by subsistence farmers.

Even though the vast majority of Mbororo remained poor, tensions with local communities that are Anglophone grew, and prolonged episodes of intercommunal violence occurred. At times, the Mbororo sought protection from government authorities and the military, solidifying the perception that they were cooperating with the government against local communities.

These tensions have resurfaced in nearly all sociopolitical events in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon since the mid-20th century. For instance, during Cameroon’s first multiparty presidential election, held in 1992, the opposition Social Democratic Front, which had massive grassroots support across the Anglophone regions, promised to enact land reforms if elected.

The Mbororo saw this as a threat to the size of their grazing lands and in response voted heavily for the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement. In the unrest and strife that followed the election, many Mbororo and their properties were attacked, largely in retribution for being seen as close to the government.

As such tensions have become a societal cleavage in the Northwest region, it should not come as a surprise that they have arisen in the Anglophone crisis. The armed groups that are now referred to as “Amba Boys” began forming in large numbers after the Cameroonian military burned down villages in rural areas of the Northwest and Southwest in late 2017 and early 2018.

One of the areas most impacted was the Menchum division, where tensions between Anglophone militants and the Mbororo were particularly acute. As a result, some of the initial groups of secessionists fighters came from groups that had generations-long tensions with the Mbororo. This series of events led to the separatist fighters naturally seeing the Mbororo as allies of the state from which they hoped to secede and that had committed horrific abuses against their communities.

As the crisis escalated, secessionist fighters began kidnapping, killing, and holding for ransom those seen as opposing their cause or supporting the government. This included Mbororo in the Northwest 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 has continued as the Anglophone conflict in Cameroon has escalated with pastoralist Mbororo fighting separatists drawn from Christian agrarian communities. Categorizing the conflict as an emergence of tensions that are religiously driven is erroneous and ignores the complex and localized drivers of escalation in intercommunal conflict. It is merely an escalation of previous tensions between the two communities in the context of a war that has wreaked havoc on the Anglophone regions of Cameroon for more than five years.

R. Maxwell Bone is a writer whose reporting and analysis have been published in the New Humanitarian, African Arguments, and other publications. He holds an MPhil in African Studies from the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @maxbone55

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