A Question of Fulbe Power: Social Change, the State and Ethnic Relations in Northern Cameroon

Type Thesis or Dissertation - Bachelor of Arts
Title A Question of Fulbe Power: Social Change, the State and Ethnic Relations in Northern Cameroon
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2008
URL http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1075&context=etd_hon_theses
In July, 2007, one month before I arrived in Ngaoundéré, Cameroon to pursue
research for this thesis, the city held ethnically-charged elections for two mayoral
positions. One political party framed the elections as a way for several ethnic groups
to reclaim their rightful place as the original residents cum rulers of the region and to
challenge the power of the historically dominant, but minority, ethnic group—the
Fulbe. This tactic failed. Instead, the Fulbe community rallied around the Fulbe
candidates and these men won the mayorships. My host mother, a Fulbe woman,
explained that the other ethnic groups in the city were unable to defeat the Fulbe
because “the Fulbe are above-all loyal to their ethnic group and band together when it
appears that their collective power is challenged.”1
Other residents claimed that this
election was more driven by ethnicity than any previous election in the city.2
statements suggest that ethnicity is important in Cameroonian political struggles,
perhaps in a new or resurgent form. Ethnicity has been a salient feature of political
and social interactions in Ngaoundéré, in Cameroon in general, and across Africa,
even during the era of recent democratization. It is thus important to understand how
ethnicity operates, the subtleties of ethnic relations, and the ways in which ethnic
dynamics change over time. By examining the effect of regional and national politics
on ethnic relations in a specific town, my research brings nuance to the study of
ethnicity and politics in Cameroon. My thesis explores changing ethnic relations in Ngaoundéré between 1946
and 1994, stressing the ways in which the Fulbe have maintained their pre-colonial
hegemony in a multi-ethnic community. I rely on several levels of analysis: the effect
of national events and trends on local experiences; the continuity of social, political
and economic power between the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods;
and the ways in which individuals experience such changes and continuities through
the use of oral history. The Fulbe, who are the single largest ethnic group in Northern
Cameroon, are nonetheless a minority in the region. They have dominated the
Northern portion of the country since the 1830s, when they established several
kingdoms in Northern Cameroon. The position of this ethnic group in subsequent eras
was based in this historic power and in the connection of the Fulbe to the central
government. This connection was strongest during the colonial period when the Fulbe
kings, or lamibe, acted as the intermediaries and representatives of the French state,
and under the rule of the first president of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo, a Fulbe an
from Northern Cameroon. It was only under the rule of Cameroon’s second president,
Paul Biya, that the place of the Fulbe vis-à-vis other ethnic groups began to erode, as
a result of political, social and demographic changes.
Located in West-Central Africa, Cameroon is known for its relative political
stability and ethnic and linguistic diversity: over 200 languages are spoken in the
country. Northern Cameroon borders the Sahel, a region just south of the Sahara
Desert, and is generally understood as a Muslim region although in reality it is home
to a great range of religious, ethnic and linguistic groups. Northern Cameroon was
administered as one provincial unit, the North Province, between 1960 and 1982; both
before and after this period it ruled as three provinces: the Far North (or Extreme
North), North and Adamaoua provinces. Ngaoundéré is the capital of the Adamaoua
province and currently has a population of approximately 200,000 people. It is a
useful location to study the effect of national changes on Fulbe/non-Fulbe relations
because there is a relatively large Fulbe population (varying between 30% and 50%)
and because Ngaoundéré was a prominent and important location during several
historical moments. As a principal city of the Sokoto Caliphate in the nineteenth
century and a provincial capital in the colonial and post-colonial eras, the city was
closely linked to the central state in a way that more outlying regions were not. As
such, Ngaoundéré is a useful location to study inter-ethnic relations in relation to
broader social and political changes.

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