The fight against Boko-Haram, is transforming the identity of Cameroon’s army as well as the way it is perceived by its citizens. Cameroonians are mobilizing like never before around their army. The transformation is giving rise to an emerging ‘social contract’, with likely profound impact for security and the exercise of legitimate civilian control by the executive over the military.
Civil-military relations seem to be transforming like never before in Cameroon, with unintended implications for peace and stability. Systematic attacks by Boko Haram 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 killed by the Nigerian-imported fundamentalist group, in the Far North region of Cameroon, since the beginning of the year.
The performance of the army has so far mobilized a significant portion of the nation around their ‘new role’— provider of ‘people-centered’ security services. This transformation is giving rise to an emerging ‘social contract’ between the population and their army, with likely profound impact on politics as well as security and the exercise of legitimate civilian control by the executive over the military.
The development of a new social contract
With the threat of Boko Haram, the army is projecting force externally in an unconventional war for the first time. Besides the border conflict with Nigeria and the fight against piracy, the defense posture has always been inward-looking. Now the army is not just defending the country’s territorial integrity but also providing direct security services to the population— protecting them from growing risks of suicide attacks.
The army appears to re-conceptualize its role to include that of trusted provider of people-centered security services. Consequently, trust between the army and citizens is growing. More importantly, the army increasingly view security of the population as an emerging and new ‘social contract’—closing a longstanding ‘perception-divide’ between the population and army in other areas like politics and democracy.
Cameroonians are perceiving their army unlike before— as guarantor of their security, livelihoods and lifestyles. Citizens have mobilized across ethnic, demographic, gender and religious affiliations to support the army. Mobilization extends even beyond all political divides, including the opposition and the ruling party. In fact, the army has become the new found symbol of the expression of nationhood. Mobilization has taken different forms. Nation-wide marches in support of the Armed Forces have more recently been accompanied by voluntary financial contributions from citizens. While exact figure of what has been collected so far remains unclear, in May, 2015, the National Television announced that over 4 million dollars have been collected.
While these changes in how Cameroonians perceive the military are very much organic and bottom-up, this situation has also been facilitated by the government. For example, the President Paul Biya has put into place an inter-ministerial committee for mobilizing these financial contributions. It is not clear however why the regime has surprisingly tolerated and even facilitated this development. But it appears to benefit from its short-term legitimacy— a re-empowered government able to rally the fragmented Cameroonian society around a common enemy. A large consensus has emerged for unwavering support for the Head of State as 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 perceived uncertainties around political transition in Cameroon.
Riding the tiger: The army’s growing influence
It remains unclear and unpredictable how the army will use this new found 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— like the Senate and National Assembly. More importantly, this legitimacy might lead to the development, within the military, of a more autonomous and independent identity. A newly forged identity may even project the army as a fourth and decisive arm of power, alongside the executive. The army’s view of society may likely evolve into an independent one, less influenced and even misaligned with that of the executive.
The military may increasingly not make distinction between political parties in terms of their commitments to support the army as an institution in the war against Boko Haram. This shift could profoundly influence and impact the loyalty of the military to the executive as well as the way the army might position itself in the democratic space. For example, the 2008 nation-wide hunger strike that shocked the foundation of the regime was quelled by the Brigade d’Intervention Rapide (BIR), the largest elite military force. But unlike 2008, the army may likely be reluctant to use overwhelming force to shut down people-led demonstrations when ordered by the executive. The military might not want to use its new found moral and social capital in such a way. 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.
The army also seems to emerge as key player in any possible evolution of the state, but how it may position itself will depend on overcoming its own internal dynamics. The question of who are the main contributors in this context appears to generate significant tensions within the army. While the fight remains a collective efforts by all armed forces, the BIR regiment has positioned itself as the standard bearer of the struggle to defeat Boko Haram, overshadowing the numerically superior conventional army. This elite force is well trained and equipped as well as empowered with a crosscutting mission and mandate of internal and external security. Recently, the President singled them out for exceptional recognition for their role in the war. But due to the frustration engendered, the President had to backtrack and, a few days later, also recognize 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.
Towards security sector reform
The changing military-society relationship also lays the foundations for undertaking a people-centered reform of the security sector. Many attempts at reforms have targeted the organization rather than the core role and function of the army in an evolving society. A series of Presidential decrees were signed in 2001, regarding the organization of the army, but key texts for their implementation are still awaited. While Cameroon’s policy for employing force has been guided by the concept of popular defense, it however employs citizens as mere instruments rather than as substantive elements of security provision. The government could seize the opportunity presented by this emerging social contract to formally align mandates of security institutions with the delivery of rights-based services to people, in an equitable manner.
Managing this process remains critical for peace and stability as well as laying down lasting foundations for an orderly and inclusive transition in Cameroon. This would need to be managed carefully in order to avoid becoming a double-edged sword.
Charles Akong is founder of the Mettaboy Report, a policy analysis blog. Previously, he was a security sector governance expert at the African Union Commission. He has worked on security sector reform, extractive sector governance, climate change and global health issues. Charles has worked with key international organizations at the global, regional and country levels. He holds graduate degrees from Columbia University, London School of Economics and Hertie School of Governance (Berlin).