Cameroonian Social Structure

I n addition to economic and political institutions, other aspects of Cameroonian social structure have significant impacts on the operations of NGOs. These include, most prominently, divisions based on ethnicity, language, religion, and region, as well as family structure, and gender inequalities.

Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Region

Cameroon has well over 200 ethnic groups. Many of these can be loosely grouped into broader categories, such as the grassfielders in the western highlands, Fulbe Islamic groups in the North, the commercially oriented Bamileke, the Beti of the southern tropical forests near the capital, and the Doula, who were the earliest to have contact with Europeans. In general, groups that had more contact with the French in colonial times have attained greater prosperity, but internal migration has mixed ethnic and tribal groups in many areas. Almost all Cameroonians learn one of the more than 200 tribal or regional dialects as their first language, and “pidgin” English is widely spoken as a language of everyday commerce. French and English are taught in the schools, and both are official languages, but typically only the better educated speak them fluently. The significant numerical dominance of French speakers contributes to their cultural and political dominance. Cameroon is also divided along religious lines, with substantial representations of Catholics, Protestants, both traditional and evangelical, Muslims, and adherents of traditional religions. The almost one quarter of the population that is Muslim is heavily concentrated in the three northern regions, largely as a result of earlier invasion and settlement of the area by Muslims from further north. There they enjoy an economic and power advantage but are not a heavy numerical majority (Le Vine, 1964; Azevedo, 1995; Holtendahl, 1995; Mentan, 1995; Schilder, 1995; Mbaku, 1997, 2005; CIA, 2008).

Cameroon’s social structure is marked by strong loyalties to tribe, village, and family. These are most powerful in rural areas and among the less educated, though they exist among other groups and often persist long after people have migrated elsewhere (LeVine, 1964; Gwan, 1982; Kofele- Kale, 1986; Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, 1998; Nyamnjoh and Rowlands, 1998; Mbaku, 2005; Tchoumba, 2005). Immigrants to villages, and even to cities, are often viewed as “strangers” for many years after their arrival, and ethnic stereotypes remain potent. Immigrants and members of ethnic or religious minorities are thus often disadvantaged in economic and political life (Van den Berg, 1997; Nyamnjoh and Rowlands, 1998; Malleson, 1999, 2001). Regions that have received many immigrants from elsewhere, especially where the immigrants are from a different ethnic group and economically successful, have sometimes experienced ethnic conflict, including the use of harsh rhetoric or physical aggression against “strangers” and the formation of associations to promote the interests of “natives.” In some instances, pressure from “natives” has led to the implementation of government policies designed to protect their interests and political power (Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, 1998; Konigs and Nyamnjoh, 1999, 2004; Awasom, 2004). Several broad-based associations devoted to protecting the interests of specific tribes have also appeared. They typically enroll elites from the tribe’s home region, as well as from urban centers in Cameroon and from foreign countries to which their members have migrated (Nyamnjoh and Rowlands, 1998). In the North, there are also tensions between the dominant Muslims and the pagan and Christian minorities; these are often intertwined with conflicts between nomadic herders and settled farmers (Burnham, 1996; Ngoh, 2004). Historically, Muslim fundamentalism has found little support in Cameroon (Bayart, 1993; Burnham, 1996; Takougang and Krieger, 1998; Le Vine, 2004; Mbaku, 2005), but by 2014, conflicts in northern Nigeria were spilling over into northern Cameroon.

Despite efforts by the national government to promote nationalism and downplay differences in language, ethnicity, and religion, Cameroon’s internal divisions have acted as barriers to forging unity in government, voluntary associations, and political parties, and some political parties have strong ethnic overtones (Azevedo, 1995; Burnham, 1997; Yenshu, 1997). These circumstances pose many barriers to building NGOs with broad-based, national support.

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