Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Mbororo community are an indigenous community situated in the borderlands of Cameroon and in neighbouring areas of Central African Republic, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though the more than 1 million Mbororo in Cameroon are spread all over the country, they are mainly concentrated in six regions (Far North, North, Adamoua, East, North West and West), with the majority based as pastoralists in the savannah of the North West.
Depending on their origins, clan, age and gender, there are also significant divisions amongst these ‘grassfield’ Mbororo. Though dependent on land to graze their livestock, resource conflicts and inter-communal tensions with large landowners have left them at risk of eviction and other human rights abuses – a situation exacerbated by the uncertainties some community members experience around statelessness.
Estimated population: Above 1 million
Mbororo arrived in Cameroon at the beginning of the 20th century, in dispersed and fragmented groups, made up predominantly of Muslim pastoralists. The presence of other settled communities in these areas led to tensions, particularly around cultural divisions and the control of land, though they were formally recognized as citizens by colonial authorities. Yet they subsequently found themselves regarded as strangers by their neighbours and successive state regimes.
The problems around citizenship for the Mbororo were especially evident in the North West. Under British colonial rule, Mbororo citizenship and access to land was uncertain because of the Native Land and Rights Ordinance that declared all land ‘native’ territory, defining a native as someone whose parents belonged to a tribe indigenous to the Cameroons – a classification that effectively left the status of many Mbororo uncertain due to their relatively recent arrival and nomadic lifestyle. Their situation did not improve in the wake of independence, though Mbororo were in principle recognized as citizens, as what was then West Cameroon’s land ordinance was only a slightly amended version of the colonial Land and Native Rights Ordinance. Consequently the definition of a “Cameroonian” under the land law closely resembled that of a ‘native’ during the British administration, meaning that once again the citizenship of Mbororo was not fully recognized. Though cattle grazers were awarded a 25-year grazing permit as a means for the state to secure revenue from them, this did not include land ownership rights of any sort.
The distinct social code, nomadic traditions and to some extent their predominantly Muslim faith, as well as the pre-existence of other settler communities in the areas where they migrated, has meant that Mbororo remain to this day on the ‘margins of citizenship’ in Cameroon. Research among the community has repeatedly highlighted how they continue to be widely regarded as ‘settlers’ and that their nomadic practices mean that many believe they may in future leave the territory again. This is rooted in the fact that contemporary views of citizenship in much of sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly defined by debates over ‘belonging’ that have raised the risk of statelessness among Mbororo.
A number of factors have reinforced the community’s exclusion. Besides what has been described as a culture of ‘self-isolation’ that has discouraged some Mbororo from engaging with state structures and very low levels of schooling, resulting in part from their geographic isolation and pastoral lifestyle, Mbororo find themselves marginalized from mainstream Cameroonian society. This isolation has meant that they have very limited contact with authorities at a local or national level.
These factors have all contributed to their citizenship issues, which in turn have undermined their ability to access public services or even secure employment. A large number of Mbororo also lack important documentation such as birth certificates and national identification documents, leaving them vulnerable to statelessness. As one Mbororo activist interviewed for this research stated, ‘Not having birth certificates and ID cards make it difficult to assert their nationality and they can be easily considered as foreigners. This limits their access to social facilities like schools, job opportunities or even engagement in the political processes in the country’ – a situation he attributes in part to lack of awareness of the importance of these documents among many Mbororo. This is also linked to birth registration, a key component in preventing statelessness as it proves the birthplace and ancestry of a child: Mbororo children in the most remote areas are often not registered at birth due to the limited functioning of civil registrations centres, leaving them unable to access identification documents and the accompany benefits of public services such as education.
These challenges have both reinforced and been exacerbated by a broader context of protracted human rights violations against Mbororo, in particular a decades-long conflict with a powerful landowner in the North West that has seen hundreds displaced from their land through a campaign of harassment and evictions. While the cost to the community has been high, it has also strengthened their political activism in the face of continued abuses.
In response to the difficulties they have experienced, their secondary position within Cameroonian society and their exclusion from social activities, public facilities and political processes, community members established the Mbororo Cultural and Development Association (MBOSCUDA) with the aim of addressing the power imbalances that have contributed to their marginalization, including through the development of a strong sense of ‘ethnic citizenship’ and challenges to their political invisibility at the national level. It has provided support for its women’s groups, especially on functional and political literacy, capacity building, microfinance and enterprise development. It has recently engaged in the political realm of human rights work through a paralegal extension program designed to challenge the exploitative relationships between locals and Mbororo graziers, and citizenship rights and status are promoted through advocacy, civic education and voter registration.
This work has resulted in some successes and significant improvements in the economic, educational and social status of many Mbororo, including the appointment of a number of Mbororo into high-ranking government positions as part of a drive to introduce more indigenous representatives into government.
However, these milestones are not linked to a more fundamental acceptance of Mbororo as full members of Cameroonian society as they have been brought into state and civil society structures through patron-client mechanisms that depend more on their relationship with well-placed individuals rather than their recognition as citizens with full rights. This has left them, in the words of Sam Hickey, ‘at the intersection of citizenship, clientelism and marginality in contemporary Cameroon’. Much therefore remains to be done, from improved access to education and civil registration to an underlying transformation in societal attitudes to the position of Mbororo led by the state, to ensure their full rights as Cameroon citizens and so reduce the risk of statelessness.
Updated January 2018
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