MAROUA, Far North – Growing concerns about alleged incidents of forced conversion to Islam in parts of the Far North is adding to the complexity of the war against Boko Haram.
Clerics and chiefs in a few border localities, including the small town of Zamai, have been refusing to allow non-Muslims teachers oversee their children’s education, accusing them of “contamination” their kids with Western values.
The accusations appear to line up with Boko Haram indoctrination, which claims Western education is evil. The group is in the second year of a bloody campaign to extend its territorial occupation across the border with Nigeria, with the goal of establishing a Sharia-ruled state.
“Some teachers have been forced to pretend to have converted so that they can work in peace,” said James Ako, who recently left his station in Zamai. “Others like me have simply left. Our lives are at stake.”
A spokesperson for the local administration said he was unaware of the allegations but added that they were “serious and disturbing”.
“We will certainly investigate and take appropriate actions,” he said. “Schools are secular institutions and Cameroonians have a right to practice their faith wherever they are found. We are committed to the safety of teachers.”
At least six teachers who spoke to us claimed authorities were aware of the situation but have been unwilling to deal with it. All but one of them declined to be identified, fearing they will be targeted either by authorities or by Muslim clerics.
The Far North is notorious for its powerful traditional and religious leaders who run what can be likened to semi-autonomies states with rules that are parallel to national laws. Some run private prisons and still own slaves, even though slavery has been outlawed.
“Everyone is afraid of these people, even government officials,” said Ako, referring to the chiefs and clerics trying to force teachers and other public officials to convert to Islam before interacting with members of their communities.
Hospital attendance has dropped because traditional and religious leaders are preventing doctors and other hospital workers from attending to their people, particularly women and children.
Northern Cameroon is predominantly Islamic. Since the forceful Islamisation of the region centuries ago, Muslims and Christians have mostly lived side by side in peace. But the region has been bedeviled by ethnic clashes.
The recent allegations constitute a twist in the crises here, which may worsen the humanitarian and development challenges imposed by the war on Boko Haram. The Far North is the least literate part of the country and has one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality.