Emerging military-society interaction and political change in Cameroon

Cameroonian riot police
Cameroon's over-50-year-old army has always been anchored firmly in doctrine that ensures the security of the regime. Gallo Images/Reuters/Talla Ruben

A reflection on the divide in democratic and political perceptions between the Cameroonian Army and the civilians they protect.

The relationship between citizens and their army is changing fast, like never before in Cameroon, with unintended implications for peace and stability. Created on the back of fighting a bloody domestic insurgency against colonialisation, the over-50-year-old army is anchored firmly in doctrine that ensures the security of the regime. The military establishment also perceives the protection of the ruling government as the core component of its mandate. Arguably, this is based on the assumption that regime instability would not be conducive to the military’s privileged position and would leave the country vulnerable to chaos, instability and the ultimate failure of society. Thus, for the army, providing security services against threats to society is only part of its raison d’être.

Considering the military’s interest in regime stability as well as in providing security against threats to society, a perennial and wide gulf has therefore existed between the army and the majority of the population in the areas of politics and democracy. Reflecting on this ‘perception-divide’, the population perceives the regime as willing to direct the coercive power of the army against civilians as a serious, stopgap measure against any popular movements for change. In parallel, the government has tended to leverage the gap between the military and the civilian populace for political gains. The two successive regimes after independence have built on the perception-divide to strengthen their positions. For example, military privileges have not only remained unchanged but have increased, even when crippling salary cuts were imposed on all civil servants, following the economic crisis of the 1990s.

But the dynamics seem to shift, albeit silently. Widespread and systematic attacks by Boko Haram,1 the violent terrorist group, have rallied Cameroonians behind their army. While exact figures remain unknown, Amnesty International recently estimated that over 380 civilians and dozens of security personnel have been killed2 by the Nigerian-imported fundamentalist group in the far north region of Cameroon since the beginning of the year. The performance of the army so far has mobilised the entire nation around their new role as a provider of ‘people-centred’ security services – against indiscriminate suicide bombs, kidnapping, hostage-taking, torture, abduction and child soldiers. The army has therefore become the ‘army of the people’, emerging as an organic platform for displaying patriotism, and almost replacing football as an unparalleled rallying point for Cameroonians. Socialisation is giving rise to an emerging social contract between the population and their army, with a likely profound impact on politics as well as security – the exercise of legitimate civilian control by the executive over the army.

People holding Chadian and Cameroonian flags
People wave Chadian and Cameroonian flags during a march in support of the Cameroonian army’s war against the insurgent group Boko Haram in Yaoundé (28 February 2015). Gallo Images/Reuters/Bate Felix

Emerging Identity

Cameroon’s defence policy seeks balance between internal stability and specific relations with its neighbours. But the orientation of the army – the core of the armed forces – is shifting from internal to external defence. Besides the border conflict with Nigeria3 and the fight against piracy, the defence posture has always been inward-looking. Previously, the army’s role was limited to fighting urban crime, deterring coups d’état and civil strife, and dealing with other threats to the regime’s survival. For example, the Rapid Response Brigade (BIR) – the leading and special elite force – was created in 1999 to cope with a paramilitary, highway criminal threat, known as ‘coupeur de route‘.

A Cameroon special forces soldier
A Cameroonian special forces soldier of the Rapid Response Brigade (BIR) stands guard in Fotokol, following an attack by Boko Haram on the town (February 2015). Gallo Images/Reuters/Bate Felix

The fight against Boko Haram is now transforming Cameroon’s defence posture. The spill-over of the violent terrorist group from Nigeria into Cameroon in 2014, and its regional reach, remain the greatest external challenges to national security and territorial integrity since independence. No week passes without reports of attacks, as well as the frightening and deadly nature of the group’s tactics.

With the arrival of Boko Haram, for the first time the army now uses force externally in an unconventional war. And in doing so, the role of the army as security provider is more apparent and visible to citizens. It is not just defending the country’s territorial integrity but also providing direct security services to the population, protecting them from the growing risk of Boko Haram suicide attacks. The army appears to be reconceptualising its role to include that of trusted provider of people-centred security services. As a consequence, this is enhancing socialisation as well as trust between the army and the people. But, more importantly, the army is increasingly viewing the security of the population as an emerging ‘social contract’– earning their mandate by delivering security services against an external threat.

Cameroonian soldiers singing
The Cameroonian army is now becoming the ‘army of the people’ and the new symbol of expression of nationhood. Gallo Images/Reuters/Bate Felix

As the army uses force externally, it also acquires some civilian attributes, including the right to protest. Due to the changing configuration of threats, Cameroon has opened up to greater participation in international peacekeeping missions. Unlike the past, the army is actively involved in peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions on the continent and the Central African region, with likely socialisation implications. Participation involves greater awareness of human rights. For example, for the first time in the history of Cameroon, a faction of the army that participated in the African Union-led peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic was able to successfully organise a protest for their unpaid wages.4

Changing Perceptions and Socialisation

Cameroonians perceive their army in a new way, like never before – as guarantor of their security, livelihoods and lifestyles. This socialisation remains unprecedented in the history of the country. Citizens have mobilised across ethnic, demographic, gender and religious affiliations to support the army. Mobilisation even extends beyond all political divides, including the opposition and the ruling party. In fact, the army has become the newfound symbol of expression of nationhood. Mobilisation has taken different forms. Nationwide marches in support of the armed forces have more recently been accompanied by voluntary financial contributions from citizens.

While the socialisation is very much organic and bottom-up, it has been facilitated by the government. It is not clear why the regime has surprisingly tolerated and even facilitated its evolution. The head of state has put into place an interministerial committee for mobilising funds from the masses. An unofficial ‘contest’ seems to be occurring across the country, involving all constituencies, including the opposition parties – demonstrating who can give the most money to the army. In addition, the significantly increased 2015 military budget was adopted without any disagreements from opposition parties. In public spaces and media, Cameroonians talk about the army with a newfound respect, caution and reverence. The press increasingly takes a cautious approach in analysing the conduct of the war by the army.

A man wears a sign on his back with his request to be trained and sent to the front line to fight against Boko Haram
A man wears a sign on his back with his request to be trained and sent to the frontline, to fight against Boko Haram, with the Cameroonian army (February 2015). Gallo Images/Reuters/Bate Felix

Attempts to manage the process from the top has brewed frustrations within the army and the population. Concerns have been raised about the transparency and accountability of the solidarity funds collected so far. Allegations of corruption and diversion of funds by government officials are rife. One of the leaders of the opposition has denounced the political hijacking of the solidarity movement and demanded that the interministerial committee render accounts to the population on how the money is spent on a monthly basis.

The socialisation process appears to run in both directions, in a likely virtuous cycle. As the knowledge gap between the army and people closes, both see their interests and roles in a more complementary rather than contrarian manner. The population interacts positively with the army through various informal platforms. In turn, the socialisation strengthens in a significant manner the legitimacy of the army in the eyes of the people. With the country perceived to be in a ‘state of war’, Cameroonians feel obligated to provide unreserved support to the army. With each suicide attack, the social gap between the people and the army appears smaller, reinforcing and reshaping the corporate and social responsibilities of the army in a way never imagined previously. This is a marked contrast to the post-independence era, where the army was largely perceived by the population as a repressive tool used successively by two regimes to secure their own survival.

Growing Influence

It remains unclear and unpredictable how the army will use its newfound legitimacy beyond the fight against Boko Haram. The army has generally displayed loyalty to the government and people. Based on the conduct of war so far, the army appears to command more pride and respect than core institutions of government, such as the Senate and National Assembly. More importantly, this legitimacy spurs the army to evolve an autonomous identity. A newly forged identity may even project the army as a fourth and decisive arm of power, besides the executive.

The army may likely evolve an independent view of society that is less influenced and misaligned with that of the executive. The military may increasingly not distinguish between political parties in terms of their commitments to support the army as an institution in the war against Boko Haram. The shift could profoundly influence and impact the loyalty of the army to the executive, as well as the way the army might position itself in the democratic space. For example, the 2008 nationwide hunger strike that shocked the foundation of the regime was quelled by the BIR, the largest elite force. But, unlike 2008, the army may likely be reluctant to use overwhelming force to quell people-led demonstrations when ordered by the executive. The military may not want to squander the moral capital that it has now acquired. But mostly, it could solidify its identity as an instrument with the mission to fight external aggression, rather than quell popular protest movements. Killing unarmed civilians may appear in contradiction to its new perceived role and identity.

It is unclear why the regime facilitates the military-society interaction and socialisation process. But it appears it is also benefiting from some sort of short-term legitimacy as a government, able to rally together the increasingly fragmented Cameroonian society around a common enemy. A large consensus has emerged for unwavering support of the head of state and the commander in chief of the armed forces for the swift defeat of Boko Haram. Thus, the fight against the nebulous group has become more important than the perceived uncertainties around political transition in Cameroon.

Military personnel evacuate a Cameroonian soldier
Military personnel evacuate a Cameroonian soldier, wounded in battle against Boko Haram insurgents, from Maroua in northern Cameroon (18 February 2015). Gallo Images/Reuters/Bate Felix

The army is emerging as a key player in any possible evolution of the state, too. But how it positions itself depends on it overcoming its own internal dynamics. The sharing of credit from the war against Boko Haram appears to generate tensions within the army. While the fight remains a collective effort by all armed forces, the BIR regiment of the army has been positioned as the face of the war, overshadowing the numerically superior, conventional army. The BIR is well trained and equipped, as well as empowered with a cross-cutting mission of internal and external security. Recently, the president singled it out for exceptional recognition of its role in the war. But due to the frustration engendered, days later the president also had to recognise the role played by the rest of the army. The strength of command and control authority within the army and how it will play against centrifugal forces of tribalism and partisanship remains unclear, too.

With the new socialisation, the army’s identity is clearly inseparable from politics. It is likely that key officials in the military may want to build on the growing moral capital to carve a role for themselves in any possible changing political reality. How constructive their role will be remains an open question. The army may either assume a restrained role, like in Burkina Faso; a ‘wait-and-see’ role, like in Burundi; or a more destructive role, like in Mali.

The army-society relationship in Cameroon is evolving in a complex and hard-to-predict manner. How it all plays out will likely depend on how strategic civil society forces are going to exploit their growing closeness with the military establishment. It is not unlikely that some political actors will want to seize their proximity to forge alliances with key elements in the army, with consequential impact on the transition. While the Senate, as per the Constitution, is empowered to manage the process of vacancy at the helm of state, it remains weak as a new institution. And like most institutions of government, it suffers from a visible credibility deficit as well as recurrent tensions with its sister institution, the older National Assembly. It is not clear how the Senate president will manage the process in practice. In the event of an impasse, the army will likely tap into its acquired credibility. Even if it wants to stick to the Constitution and stay indifferent to politics, it is likely that the army may be actively invited by civil society forces to mediate or manage the transition.

Towards Security Sector Reform

The changing military-society relationship in Cameroon marks not only changing politics but also lays the foundation for undertaking a people-centred reform of the security sector. Many attempts at reforms have stalled. Reforms have targeted the organisation, rather than the role and functions of the army in an evolving society. A series of presidential decrees were signed in 2001 regarding the organisation of the army, but key texts for their implementation are still awaited.5 However, while Cameroon’s policy for employing military force has been guided by a concept of popular defence, it regards citizens as mere instruments, rather than the substance of security provision. The government could seize the opportunity presented by the emerging social contract to formally align mandates of security institutions with the delivery of rights-based services to people, in an equitable manner. Managing the military-society socialisation process remains critical for peace and stability, as well as building a lasting foundation for an orderly and inclusive transition in Cameroon.


  1. Boko Haram is an Islamic terrorist group, based in Nigeria, which has successively expanded its operations in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Founded in 2002, the group become radicalised in 2009, with a fighting force currently estimated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to be over 9 000-strong, including child soldiers. Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam that makes it ‘haram’, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society.
  2. Amnesty International (2015) Human Rights under Fire: Attacks and Violations in Cameroon’s Struggle with Boko Haram. London: Amnesty International, p. 5.
  3. Cameroon and Nigeria have had territorial disputes, the most famous being that over the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsular, located in the south-west of Cameroon. After initial hostilities, Cameroon resorted to settle the dispute amicably. On 10 October 2002, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) conferred ownership of the disputed peninsular to Cameroon.
  4. Desmond, Kokim (2015) ‘Cameroon: Soldiers Not Paid for Service with the UN’, The Africa Report, Available at: <http://www.theafricareport.com/Central-Africa/cameroon-soldiers-not-paid-for-service-with-the-un.html> [Accessed 11 November 2015].
  5. Niagale, Bagayoko-Penone (2008) Cameroon’s Security Apparatus: Actors and Structures. Report, Africa Security Sector Network.
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