Boko Haram has been terrorising villagers in northeast Nigeria for many years. Until 2012, the group focused its attacks on cities, where it robbed banks, and villages, where it kidnapped people to work for it or used them as soldiers.
But since 2013 Boko Haram has started targeting pastoralists living in the bush, taking herds of cattle and slaughtering herders. It is likely that cattle are a major source of income for the group and not ivory, as has been suggested.
Last year thousands of pastoralists fled northeast Nigeria to save their lives and livestock. Many found refuge in the Logone Floodplain of Cameroon. In February and March 2016 our research team – consisting of faculty and students in visual anthropology from the University of Maroua in Cameroon – went into the field and interviewed pastoralists about the hardships of their flight from Nigeria and their situation as refugees in Cameroon.
Last year’s flight was part of a pattern that has begun to emerge over the past three years as thousands of pastoralists have fled Boko Haram’s terror in northeastern Nigeria.
What makes this forced migration different is its scale. In normal years, some pastoralists deliberately change their seasonal movements to stay in Cameroon during the rainy season in search of better pastures. In the past few years, thousands of pastoralists either deliberately stayed in Cameroon after the dry season ended to avoid Boko Haram or ran from Boko Haram’s terror in northeast Nigeria. The sudden and forced migration has left them vulnerable to exploitation by local populations and authorities in Cameroon, their new host country.
Pastoralists in the Chad Basin
For pastoralists, livestock do not only provide a living, they are also way of life. In the dry lands of the Chad Basin, which encompasses parts of Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon, Fulani and Arab pastoralists make seasonal movements in search of water and food for their livestock. Their movements take them across national borders. Many spend the rainy season (June to September) in Nigeria and the dry season (October to May) in Cameroon.
This movement across borders has been a way of life for centuries. Anthropologist Derrick Stenning described in detail the movement patterns of pastoralists in northeastern Nigeria in the 1950s, explaining how they used their previous experiences, social networks and scouting trips to find the best pastures for their animals. They did not migrate into areas they did not know.
One would therefore expect pastoralist refugees to adapt quickly in their new host country because they are used to moving with their herds and households. Many of them already regularly spent the dry season in the Logone Floodplain of Cameroon.
The difference, of course, is that previous migrations were planned and followed the ebb and flow of the seasons. The pastoralists now flooding into Cameroon have been forced to do so because they fear for their lives and livelihoods. As refugees they have moved into unknown areas where they have no existing networks. This has dramatically affected their ability to cope.
The sudden and unplanned migration into an unknown area has led many pastoralists to suffer considerable economic losses due to their livestock suffering from exhaustion and diseases. Their livestock are not habituated to the new pastures and have been losing more weight – and value – than usual.
In addition, pastoralists are finding it difficult to sell their livestock, which is their main source of income and means of buying provisions for their families. This is because prices have plummeted as local markets have been flooded with livestock. This has happened due to a combination of factors, including a massive influx of livestock from Nigeria and the closing of markets and borders by Chadian and Cameroonian governments to control Boko Haram attacks.
On top of this, local authorities in the Logone Floodplain have begun to view pastoralist refugees and their livestock as a welcome source of income. They increased taxes for refugee pastoralists last year from 10,000 CFA francs to 70,000 CFA francs (about US$17 to $120) per herd. In addition, local populations have been stealing livestock from the refugees, who are too traumatised to fight back. One told us:
We have become just food for them.
No official support
Pastoralists receive no support through the official channels – either from the United Nations Refugee Agency or from the Cameroonian government. They are “invisible” because they move with their livestock to pastures in the bush, bypassing the refugee camps and entry points that are managed by the refugee agency and the government. While regular attacks on villages by Boko Haram are reported by the media and authorities, few of the attacks on pastoralists in the bush that we documented in our interviews can be found in news reports.
The only thing that pastoralist refugees want is to be left in peace in the bush. They seek no help from governments: safety and open access to pastures is enough.
They have had enough of the problems in Cameroon and hope to return to their rainy season range-lands in Nigeria when Boko Haram is defeated and it is safe for them to do so. They wax nostalgically about northeastern Nigeria, before Boko Haram, as a pastoral paradise, without farms, field chiefs, taxes or theft – just the bush and the freedom to move in peace.