Islamic fundamentalism and the case for inter-civilizational dialogue in Nigeria and Cameroon

People in a rural area of Cameroon [Photokadaffi]

▲ People in a rural area of Cameroon [Photokadaffi]



In seeking to better understand the grounds of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa, it is worth to looks for the common denominators that make different areas prone to the insurgence of extremism. In the continent of boundaries that were mainly drawn by the Europeans, many countries contain a multitude of cultures and religions, all of them in constant interaction and more often than not – friction with each other. However, in order to classify the region as highly susceptible to the inter-religious or inter-cultural conflict to happen, there are more important factors that must be taken into consideration. Through quantitative study and document analysis, this article, with an example of the rise of Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria and the expansion of the group to the neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, will underline the most important problems that paved the path for the emergence and spread of the Islamic fundamentalism, discussing its historical, social and ideological origins, at the same time providing possible long-time solutions on social and ideological ground.    

The brief history of Islam in Nigeria and Cameroon

The arrival of Islam to Nigeria dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries, when it spread from North Africa through trade and migration. It incorporated Husa and Fulani tribes into the common cultural ground of Islam which extended throughout North Africa, introducing them to the rich Islamic culture, art, Arabic language and teachings. In the 19th century, Fulani scholar named Usman Dan Fodio launched a jihad, establishing a Sokoto Caliphate ruled under a strict form of Shari’a law, further spreading Islamic influence in the region, introducing it for the first time to the area which today forms the Northern part of Cameroon, another country of our analysis.

The Sokoto Caliphate remained the most powerful state in Western Africa until the arrival of the European colonists. As opposed to the Southern part of Nigeria which was colonized and Christianized, the North received a lesser portion of Western education and values, as the Europeans ruled it indirectly through the local leaders. The same happened with Cameroon, which was indirectly ruled by the Germans in the North and experienced a more direct Westernization in the South. Even the indirect rule, however, brought great changes to the political and judicial processes, which became foreign to the local inhabitants. “This was viewed by Muslim northerners as an elevation of Christian jurisprudence over its Islamic judicial heritage” (Thomson, 2012) and the experience was without a doubt a humiliating and painful one – a foreign body destroying the familiar patterns of a lifestyle led for centuries, implementing a puppet government, diminishing the significance of a Sultan to that of a figurehead.

After their corresponding independence in 1960, both Nigeria and Cameroon became what American political scientist Samuel Huntington called cleft countries – composed of many ethnical groups and two major religions – Christianity in the South and Islam in the North. This situation, as described by Huntington, can be called the clash of civilizations between Islamic and Western tradition. He identifies the similarity between the two religions as one of the main reasons for their incompatibility: “Both are monotheistic religions, which, unlike the polytheistic ones, cannot easily assimilate additional deities, and which see the world in dualistic, us-and-them terms” (Huntington, 2002).

The independence also brought secularization of the two countries, thus undermining in both the political Islamism and the idea that Muslims should be ruled by the law of God, and not the law of men. However, the long-lasting Islamic tradition uniting the Northern Nigeria (and to some extent Northern Cameroon, although it was introduced to Islam much later) with the rest of North Africa and separating it from its Southern counterpart prevailed. “The Sokoto Caliphate remains a not-so-very distant and important reference point for Nigeria’s Muslims and represents the powerful role that jihad and Shari’a law played in uniting the region, rejecting corruption, and creating prosperity under Islam” (Thomson, 2012).

Fertile ground for fundamentalism

Out of the romantic sentiments of long lost glory, it is not too difficult to incite resentment for modernity. To a certain extent, a distaste for the Westernization, which was an inevitable part of modernizing a country, is justifiable. After all, European imperialism selfishly destroyed indigenous ways of life enforcing their own beliefs and political systems, ethics, and norms a practice that continued even after decolonisation. Yet, the impetus for the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria as well as other places in Africa can be found as much in the current situation as in the past grievances. 

In Nigeria specifically, the gap was further enhanced by different European policies concerning the Northern and Southern parts of the country. Along with the more direct Westernization, the Southern part of Nigeria was also better educated, familiar to Western medicine, bureaucracy, and science. It had an easier time to adapt to forming part of a modern liberal state. According to the data published in Educeleb, by 2017 Nigeria’s literacy rate was 65.1% (Amoo, 2018). All the Southern states were above the national average and all the Northern ones were below. The same statistics also depict the fact that the difference between literacy level between genders is barely noticeable in the Southern states, while in the Northern states the gap is much wider.

Apart from the differences mentioned above, the Southern region is the place where the oil-rich Niger delta, which in 2018 contributed to 87.7% of Nigeria’s foreign exchange, is situated  (Okpi, 2018). It can be argued that the wealth is not equally distributed throughout the country and while the Christian South experiences economic growth, it often does not reach the Northern regions with Muslim majority. “Low income means poverty, and low growth means hopelessness”, wrote Paul Collier in his book The Bottom Billion: “Young men, who are the recruits for rebel armies, come pretty cheap in an environment of hopeless poverty. Life itself is cheap, and joining a rebel movement gives these young men a small change of riches” (Collier, 2007).

The rise of Boko Haram

In this disproportionally impoverished Northern part of the country and with the goal of Islamic purification for Northern Nigeria, a spiritual leader, Muhammad Yusuf, founded an organization which he called People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad. The locals, however, named it Boko Haram, which literally means books are forbidden and reflects the organization’s rejection of Western education and values. Boko Haram was founded in 2002 in Borno state, Maiduguri, where Yusuf established a mosque and Koranic school in which he preached Islamic teachings with a goal of establishing an Islamic state ruled by Shari’a law. “Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam” (Yusuf, 2009).

Although the organization seemed to be peaceful enough for Nigerian government to ignore it for the first seven years of its existence, from the start Boko Haram was antagonistic towards the secular government which they associated with corruption, Christian-domination and Western influence. In 2009 the confrontation between the group and Nigeria’s security forces led to and extrajudicial killing of the Muhammed Yusuf in captivity (Smith, 2009). The event became an impetus for the pre-existing animosity Boko Haram felt for the state to grow into an actual excuse for violence. Since 2009 the group was led by Abubakar Shekau who replaced Muhammad Yusuf after his death.

The attacks of the organization became more frequent and brutal, killing many civilians in Nigeria and neighboring countries, Muslims and Christians alike. Although its primary focus laid on the state of Borno, after being pushed out of its capital Maiduguri, Boko Haram became a rural-based organization, operating in the impoverished region around Lake Chad basin (Comolli, 2017). Apart from Nigeria, the countries in which Boko Haram inflicted damage include Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Cameroon, the latest being the subject of analysis in this essay.

Impact of Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon

To illustrate the impact the terrorist group had on the socio-economic development of the region, we will look at the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance (Ibrahim Index of African Governance, n.d.). As an example, we will evaluate the perception of personal security and level of national security in Nigeria – a country in which the Boko Haram had originated, and Cameroon – one of the countries where it spread after Nigeria’s government launched their counter-terrorism program. The timeline for the graphs runs from the year 2000 to 2016 in order to capture the changes in national security and personal safety in Cameroon and Nigeria. This aid the study in drawing concrete conclusions over a period of time.


Figure 1: Impact of Boko Haram on Personal Safety and National Security in Nigeria.

Source: Mo Ibrahim Index


The perception of personal safety in Nigeria, according to Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, started decreasing since 2010. The tendency can be explained by the fact that in 2009 Nigerian government confronted the fundamentalist group, after which it became more active and violent. The perception of personal safety also dropped after 2014, the year that was marked by the infamous capturing of 276 Chibok schoolgirls out of their school dormitory. When it comes to the index portraying the level of national security, similar tendencies can be seen characterized by the drop of national security in 2009 and after 2014.


Figure 2: Impact of Boko Haram on Personal Safety and National Security in Cameroon

Source: Mo Ibrahim Index


Another example can be Cameroon, the second most affected country after Nigeria which was infiltrated by Boko Haram in 2009. During that time, however, the presence of the terrorist group in the North of Cameroon was rather unassertive. At first the group was focusing on establishing their connections, gaining Cameroonian recruits, using the country as a transit of weapons to Nigeria (Heungoup, 2016). With the beginning of the kidnapping of foreigners, however, the year 2013 is marked by the drop of national security in the country. By 2014, the Cameroonian government declared war against Boko Haram, to which the group responded with a further increase of violence and thus – further drop of national safety.

An additional peak of terrorist attacks can be noticed after the renewed wave of governmental resistance after the 2015 elections in Nigeria which strongly weakened Boko Haram’s influence, at the same time leading to increasingly asymmetric warfare. In Cameroon only, Boko Haram executed more than 50 suicide bombers attacks, which killed more than 230 people (Heungoup, 2016). In the end, it is clear that despite the efforts of Nigerian and Cameroonian governments in fighting Boko Haram by declaring the war against terrorism, it cannot be said with certainty that the response of the governments of these countries were effective in eliminating or even containing the terrorist group. On the contrary, it seems that pure military resistance only further provoked the terrorist group and led to an increase of violence.

Response of the government

The outbreak of violence at the instigation of Boko Haram elicited a similar response from Nigerian armed forces in 2009 (Solomon, 2012). The office of president Goodluck Johnson launched a military mission in Maiduguri, which united the Nigerian Police Force with the Department of State Security, the army, the navy and the air force (Amnesty, 2011). Extra attention was bestowed upon the emergency regions of Borno, Niger, Plateau and Yobo (Economist, 2011).

In order to prevent Boko Haram from hiding and regrouping in the neighboring states after being actively fought in Nigeria, the government tightened the border security in the North, however, as it has already been explained, the tactics failed miserably as Boko Haram was able to hide and regroup in Nigeria’s Northern neighbors after being pushed out of Nigeria. The effort to prevent Boko Haram from gaining foreign support, financing and reinforcement were also dysfunctional, as the terrorist group was successful in finding allies. With the support of other Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda, the previously local problem is becoming more globalized and requires equally global and coordinated efforts to fight it.

And yet, so far the policy of Goodluck Johnson was proven counterproductive due to the internal problems of Nigerian security process such as corruption, unjustified violence, extrajudicial killings as opposed to intelligence-based operations (Amnesty, 2011, p. 30). Another problem can be identified in the specific case of Nigeria being a melting pot of cultures and religions. Each region requires a unique approach based on the understanding of the culture, values and customs of the area. Yet, the Nigerian soldiers in charge of the safety of the Northern states were National instead of local, making the indigenous population feel controlled by the foreign body.

So far, the policy of president Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected in 2015, was not much more successful than his predecessor’s. At the beginning of his presidency, Buhari was successful in reclaiming the territory occupied by Boko Haram and was quick to announce the defeat of the terrorist group. However, after losing their ground in Nigeria, Boko Haram again retreated to regroup in the neighboring countries, only to reemerge again multiplied into two distinct terrorist organization, further complicating the resistance. Overall, the use of force has proven to be ineffective in striking down terrorism. The previous examples lead to the conclusion that the use of dialogue and changes in national policies, as opposed to pure force, are crucial for the long term solutions.

Solution to Boko Haram

According to United Nations development program report “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment” the main factors that make a person prone to get involved with fundamentalism are childhood circumstances, lack of state involvement in their surroundings, religious ideologies, and economic factors (UNDP, 2017). In order to prevent violent extremism, it must be tackled in the roots, because, as we have already seen before, facing violence with further violence approach provided little improvement on the status quo.

Childhood experience may be one of the fundamental reasons for joining extremism later. Members of marginalized communities, in which children were facing personal problems such as lack of parental involvement, lack of education, lack of exposure to different ethnicities and religions, are especially vulnerable. In these borderland areas, the children are rarely entitled to social security, they are often distrustful of the government and do not develop any sense of national belonging. The trust that the government favors some over others is only strengthened by personal witnessing of bribe-paying and corruption. The staggering 78% of the responders of the UN research reported being highly mistrustful of the police, politicians and the military (UNDP, 2017).

The isolation and minimum exposure to other ethnic and religious groups also contribute to the feeling of segregation and suspicion towards others. 51% of recruits have reported having joined due to religious beliefs, some in fear of their religion being endangered. However, even a higher percentage of 57 confessed their understanding of the sacred texts to be limited. This closes the circle of poverty and lack of education, with unemployment being the priority factor for 13% of the volunteer recruits questioned. In the end, are there any possible solutions for this continuous lemniscate (UNDP, 2017)? If there are any they must be in line with the theory of security-development nexus. By increasing the quality of the former, the later will be activated into motion and vice versa. Eliminate one of them and the other will stabilize itself naturally. 

The few solutions tackling both lack of security and slow development can be named, starting with combating the traumatizing childhood experiences. Long term solutions are undoubtedly based on the provision of education and social security which would aim to ensure the school attendance, community support for the parents and child-welfare services. The civil education is no less important to encourage the sense of national belonging and trust in the government, which also includes harsher anti-corruption regulations and more government spending directed to the marginalized communities. Strategies to promote a better understanding of the religion as a counterforce for the ignorance leading to easy recruitment, encouraging religious leaders to develop their own anti-extremism strategy, are also solutions that address the often expressed fears of religious groups who feel excluded, their faith being depreciated. The last but not least are the provision of work opportunities in the risk areas - promoting entrepreneurship, facilitating the access of the markets, upgrading infrastructure, basically creating economic opportunities of dignified employment and livelihood. 

Ideological background-check

In the end, underlying question when analyzing Islamic fundamentalism is this: when a Western liberal state, such as the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and Islamic faith meet, is there a possibility of reasonable conversation? Originating in Europe, liberalism, as a political doctrine, grew as an opposition to religious doctrines, seeking to establish a secular government founded on reason. And although functional in the Western societies, is liberalism really compatible with Christianity, and even more unlikely, is it compatible with Islam?

While liberal societies are open to freedom of religion, the Abrahamic Religions, being based on a notion of a singular truth, are not that welcoming of the freedom of thought, at least when it extends beyond the dogmas. Neither are they originally very tolerant of the beliefs that diverge from their own doctrines. Looking back at the Middle Ages, the time of prosperity of the Catholic Church, it can be said that Catholic social structure stands on the obedience to the Pope and the official doctrine of the Church. When it comes to Islam, following similar logic, one can argue that the caliphate with a society (ummah) ruled under the shari’a law is a basis of Islamic social order. In its fundamental forms, both are considered unalterable and divinely originated and neither is compatible with a relativist liberal state whose basis of legitimacy lies far from God’s will. When the two religious doctrines meet in a nation-state, as in the case of Nigeria, there are arguably only two ends to the story.

The first one, which was already mentioned is Huntington’s idea of the clash of civilizations. He argued that the conflict that happens when Islamic and Western civilizations meet is inherent in their doctrines. A secular modern state, being a Western creation, when incorporating Muslim societies only further enhances the friction due to the fact that "the Muslim concept of Islam as a way of life transcending and uniting religion and politics versus the Western Christian concept of the separate realms of God and Cesar" (Huntington, 2002). This makes it more difficult for the Muslims to adapt to the contemporary reality, as in Islam the idea of nation-state is undermined by the concept of ummah (Huntington, 2002).

And although Huntington’s argument that the inherent beliefs of a single truth in both religions in their fundamental forms make them incompatible with each other as well as with the present-day reality of a nation-state based international order, this line of thinking does not promote any kind of solution to the continuous problem of religious and cultural differences, which often manifest themselves in the oppression of one group by another creating friction – a fertile ground for further religious fundamentalism. In a world where the colliding of the different religions in everyday situations are inevitable, we must search for a middle ground.

This brings us to the second outcome, which is arguably the only one that can ever lead to a peaceful end. It, of course, requires compromise from religious groups, a compromise which nobody is likely to make when it comes to their fundamental beliefs, and much needed yet the same, because only the dialogue can lead to mutual respect and understanding, two things that wipe out hostility and fear rooted into ignorance. The second outcome of inter-religious interaction would be what John Rawls called an overlapping consensus between different comprehensive doctrines (Rawls, 1933). As by definition comprehensive doctrines are those, which are compatible with political liberalism, it inherently carries an idea of the necessity of some doctrines to give up on the segments of their ideologies that are incompatible with the aforementioned system.

The capitalist system, for example, originally was not willingly received by the Catholic social teachings, being considered a source of injustice. However, the Church, although never particularly eager for it, learned to accept the dominance of capitalism as a current reality and live with it (Fred Kammer). But would it be possible with the doctrine of shari’a law, for example, which is, after all, a basis of Muslim faith, as some Muslims believe that being ruled by the law of God is the only righteous path? This kind of comparison is hardly just from the beginning, as Jesus, unlike Muhammad, was never a political leader and Christianity was always religious and never political tradition, while Islam was always both. Shari’a law, as the sovereignty of God over people, is completely incompatible with democracy which is based on the idea of the sovereignty of the people over themselves, and we are forced to come back to the question of willingness to compromise again.

John Rawls argues that “A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines,” (Rawls, 1933). The doctrines might as well be incompatible and coexist together, but in the end, they will still have to compromise in order to be compatible with liberalism. The modern world will have to learn to do so sooner or later, to give up their universalist beliefs and give them the benefit of the doubt. This is the price for peace everybody must pay: the weak will have to pay more than the strong, but even the strong cannot use the principle of coercion forever. 


In the end, it can be concluded that the insurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa is grounded in common traits such as historical and religious grievances, the relative poverty of one group in proportion to the other, lack of governmental presence and aid in some of the regions. On the micro-level, people are more willing to be recruited when they are uneducated, belong to segregated religious communities, live in relative poverty, do not receive support from the government and live without hope for a better future.

The solution to the spread of extremism, as it has been demonstrated by the example of Nigeria and Cameroon, cannot be rooted purely in the military missions, as they tend to get violent and further decrease the trust of the civilians in their government, closing a circle of us vs. them mentality. The means for solving the problem should include higher governmental presence and aid in the development of the afflicted regions, in the effort of further integration of currently segregated societies by helping them form a part of wider national identity. The idea of integration also transcends to the ideological, religious and cultural level as Islamic fundamentalism often arises from the rejection of Western culture and values that often feel imposed and foreign in the Muslim communities.

The key to the inter-religious conversation, especially when we are talking about Islam and Christianity, two religions that clash ideologically due to mutual assertiveness of sole truth, is the willingness to compromise and adapt to the current social order. If the roots of the problem are not cut off, the friction will continue on to transcend the ideological sphere and manifest itself in the military conflicts, terrorism, even big-scale wars. In an increasingly smaller world, in which the inter-religious interactions cannot be avoided, the decisions must be made. After all, how long we can live in the clash of civilizations?



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