New open-air butcheries and stalls now flank the unsealed road running through Lolo village in the east of Cameroon. The settlement of some 10,000 Central African Republic (CAR) refugees in the 2,000-strong hamlet is firing up the local economy, but has also triggered disputes between the peasant farming community and its cattle-keeping new residents.
The upsurge in violence in neighbouring CAR has forced more than 80,000 people to flee into eastern Cameroon since the start of the year. Recent arrivals have suffered torturous journeys to refuge. Most have trekked for months, some waylaid and killed or wounded by armed gangs, while disease and malnutrition have taken a heavy toll on mothers and children.
In the last week of March, there were 10,000 refugees crossing each week into Cameroon. The figure had dropped significantly to around 2,000 per week in late May. Aid workers believe that gunmen were blocking escape routes. The persistent attacks on the fleeing population led to the emergence of multiple crossing points, which initially complicated relief assistance. But those who made it across the border are now being transferred from temporary sites just inside Cameroon into village settlements further inland.
Cameroon’s East Region is vast, fertile and sparsely populated. The influx of refugees has meant drastic changes in the make-up of local villages. The predominantly small Christian communities like Lolo or neighbouring Mbilé have almost overnight become majority Muslim (the refugees’ religion). The few health centres, schools, water points and other resources currently available are being overstretched by the sudden population explosion.
The border town of Kentzou was amongst the areas most heavily affected as refugee arrivals peaked between February and March. According to Emmanuel Halpha, the prefect of the Batouri area in the east of Cameroon, Kentzou’s population “tripled in record time”.
Halpha pointed to the inevitable adjustments that have to be made, the costs incurred and the tensions that can arise in the wake of such a big influx.
“The cost of living has been impacted. The cost of staple foods has risen and some items have become scarce. Agro-pastoral conflicts have also erupted. The local population is faced with the arrival of the refugees and their cattle, and this is causing disputes over farm lands.”
“We established these refugee sites in areas with basic services such as health centres and schools, but a village with 1,500 or 2,000 people, which suddenly has to host thousands of people means that these structures are overwhelmed.”
Cattle, conflicts and costs
The refugees are mainly the migratory Mbororo herders. The arrival of the Mbororo has led to conflicts with the local population over crop destruction, but the newcomers have also found a lack of pastureland in the forested eastern Cameroon. Having trekked a long distance, the herders’ emaciated cattle are mostly dying, causing losses for the Mbororo, but also giving rise to roadside grills and butcheries.
“The meat sold in the butcheries is there because our cattle are dying,” said Hodi Aliou, the head of the refugee community in Lolo. “Prices have fallen from 200,000 francs for a cow (US$500) to 20,000 francs because the cattle have become thin and we are forced to sell at low prices. Some herders have gone towards [the northern regions of Cameroon] in search of pasture.”
Aliou said that the most common disputes with the local population were over farm encroachment, but stressed that the two sides often strive to find an amicable solution to avert chances of aggravated conflict. Altercations can also erupt over washing spots at the local rivers, but these have not degenerated into serious confrontation, he said.
Despite the strains on local resources, Lolo village chief, Mbogani Nicolas Defer, said he wanted as many as 20,000 refugees to settle in the area. “There’s a lot of space,” he said.
According to Batouri prefect Halpha, settling the refugees within communities would ensure long-term gains for all, with both the local population and refugees reaping the benefits of humanitarian intervention in areas like education and health. “The sites are located in villages because if they are set up in remote areas, the investment by aid groups would be in vain when the refugees finally return to their country,” he told IRIN.
Opportunities and strains
For Lolo meat roaster Babani Aoudou, the benefits of the refugee population are already being felt. He explained that before their arrival, it would take him two days to sell the meat from one goat. Now he needs two goats to meet a day’s demand.
“The refugee population can have a positive economic impact on the villages,” noted East Region Governor Ivaha Diboua Samuel Dieudonné.
For its part, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is improving services and boosting personnel at health centres in the villages where the refugees are being settled, as well as drilling boreholes.
However, Dieudonné pointed out that the increased security surveillance in the wake of the refugee influx was costly and that the government’s annual budget had no additional allocation to respond to the sudden influx. “The government is forced to spend more in terms of security,” he told IRIN without giving figures.
Suspected CAR gunmen have in the past attacked the transit camps near the border region. In August 2013, Cameroonian authorities were forced to temporarily shut the border with CAR after a shoot-out with gunmen from Seleka, the Central African rebel coalition that overthrew President François Bozizé. A Cameroonian policeman was killed in the gun battle.
Recently, the government also deployed troops to its border with Nigeria, where a series of bloody attacks by Boko Haram militants have also driven thousands of people into Cameroon for safety.
The violence in neighbouring CAR and north-eastern Nigeria has given Cameroon increasing importance as a safe zone, hosting nearly 200,000 refugees from the two countries. But Cameroon’s proximity to areas of conflict across its border has brought its own security concerns, exposing the country to new, complicated risks.