Cameroonians, a year removed from receiving presidential permission to use witchcraft against Boko Haram, report mixed results on the use of chants and talismans to keep terrorist members of the Islamic State affiliate from attacking their communities.
In February 2016, Cameroonian journalist Bisong Etahoben reported that President Paul Biya had ceded to requests from regional practitioners of the occult, often referred to as “marabouts,” to be permitted to use their powers to keep locals in their communities safe from Boko Haram.
Chiefs of Cameroon's East Region ask President Biya to grant them permission to use witchcraft in finishing off Boko Haram.
— ChiefBisong Etahoben (@ChiefBisongEta1) February 1, 2016
“The head of state has demanded that an aspect of witchcraft be integrated into the fight against Boko Haram,” Etahoben tweeted at the time.
For decades, Cameroon had prosecuted practitioners of witchcraft with sentences of up to ten years in prison if caught engaging in practices that involved harming others. While many local practices involve benign incantations and wearing blessed items or clothing accessories, some arrested for conducting witchcraft ceremonies have killed and eaten individuals in order to develop their power.
Cameroon is not alone in employing sorcery against Boko Haram; in 2014, the Association of Nigerian Witches and Wizards (WIZTAN) called for an official spiritual war against the terrorist group, lending its services to the government at will.
PRI has published an update on the situation in Cameroon a year later, where some residents expressed strong belief in the power of their protective measures, while others expressed concern that Cameroon was not doing enough to stop Boko Haram jihadists from attacking communities in the Lake Chad area.
While Boko Haram makes its home in Borno, Nigeria, it has recruited terrorists from neighboring Cameroon and Chad and has prompted the nations — along with Benin and Niger — to create a military coalition dedicated to eradicating the group. In addition to the government’s military, neighborhoods have organized vigilante groups to keep Boko Haram attacks at a minimum.
“Some members of the vigilance committees now have the ability to mystically eat the hearts of enemies or make them slaves by pronouncing incantations,” Cameroonian marabout Baba Boukar told PRI’s the Global Post. At least one vigilante who spoke to the Post agreed, calling his cloth talisman “so powerful… I put it on at the moment I go into the field of fighting… If someone shoots at you, the bullets have no effect. They fall on the ground like small pebbles.”
There is some logic to the use of witchcraft to at least irritate Boko Haram. As members of the Islamic State, its leaders subscribe to the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect of Islam, for which suspicions of sorcery are punishable by death. In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has published numerous videos of violent executions, usually of women, for practicing sorcery or witchcraft.
“Boko Haram hates the marabouts: they accuse them of being bad Muslims… taking advantage of their position to exploit the population,” journalist Lemine Ould M. Salem explained in 2015, as Boko Haram grew in influence in the region. There have nonetheless been reports in Nigeria that Boko Haram terrorists are “employing the services of marabouts and other unethical means in order to frustrate our efforts and the operations in addition to campaign of calumny.”
Boko Haram continues to pose a serious threat to northeastern Nigeria and the countries bordering that region, despite the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari claimed Boko Haram had been “defeated” in December 2015.
On Friday, a Boko Haram-suspected suicide bombing killed two and injured 15 in Adamawa state, bordering Borno. It was the latest in a string of attacks since a man claiming to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau posted an online video claiming to confirm that he was alive and well, and warning that “the battle is just beginning.” As the video is undated, and Nigerian officials have killed and arrested several Shekau impersonators, the legitimacy of the video is unclear.