Cameroon has been officially at war with Boko Haram since May 2014. Despite a gradual lowering in the conflict’s intensity, which peaked in 2014 and 2015, the continuing violence, combined with the sharp rise in the number of suicide attacks between May and August 2017, are reminders that the jihadist movement is by no means a spent force. Since May 2014, 2,000 civilians and soldiers have been killed, in addition to the more than 1,000 people kidnapped in the Far North region. Between 1,500 and 2,100 members of Boko Haram have reportedly been killed following clashes with the Cameroonian defence forces and vigilante groups.
The fight against Boko Haram has exacerbated the already-delicate economic situation for the four million inhabitants of this region – the poorest part of the country even before the outbreak of the conflict. Nevertheless, the local population’s adaptability and resilience gives the Cameroonian government and the country’s international partners the opportunity to implement development policies that take account of the diversity and fluidity of the traditional economies of this border region between Nigeria and Chad.
The Far North of Cameroon is a veritable crossroads of trading routes and cultures. Besides commerce, the local economy is based on agriculture, livestock farming, fishing, tourism, transportation of goods, handcrafts and hunting. The informal sector is strong, and contraband rife. Wealthy merchants and traditional chiefs – often members of the ruling party and high-ranking civil servants – are significant economic actors.
Up until the 1980s, the region’s different ethnic communities were engaged in specific economic activities depending on their respective geographic zones, climates and traditions. Before the arrival of Boko Haram, desertification and poverty had already debilitated these specialisations, such as fishing for the Kotoko, livestock farming for the Choa Arabs, agriculture for the Mafa, with the exception of trading in the case of the Kanuri. Forced to move, people have taken their traditional skills with them and diversified their sources of livelihood: in the Logone and Chari, the Kotoko, who were formerly fishermen, now also farm rice and exploit natron deposits; and many Choa Arabs, traditionally livestock breeders, are now involved in commerce and agriculture.
Over the past four years, the struggle against Boko Haram has further destabilised people’s lives and shaken up traditional socio-economic roles. In response, local communities have come up with everyday survival and resilience strategies, which the government and international partners should integrate into their development policies. This briefing is based on documentary research and some sixty interviews conducted from January to September 2017 in Yaoundé and the Far North. It stresses the need to move from an emergency approach to a pro-development approach, and recommends adapting development policies to local socio-economic realities.
(c) 2017 International Crisis Group