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Crossing African Borders

Cristina Udelsmann Rodrigues
Jordi Tomàs

Taxation and the dynamics of cross-border migration between Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria in the colonial and postcolonial period

Patrice Pahimi


Taxation is an important factor of social and political upheavals and revolts in the history of humanity. Populations in northern Cameroon, even those accustomed to taxes, have hardly integrated modern taxes into their universe, as they are considered to be opposed to traditional taxes. Colonial tax is therefore regarded as a factor of enslavement or impoverishment. For the colonial administration, however, acceptance of tax was the barometer of the local people's submission to authority. Any refusal was treated as a challenge, insubordination or open rebellion. It was partly to avoid the effect of this shock and especially humiliation due to taxes that many people opted for temporary or permanent migration. The colonial administration described this as tax evasion or a form of delinquency. For the people, the idea was to seek a tax haven, a place where tax rates were lower. The Cameroon-Nigeria borders are therefore comparable to sieves because of their porosity. The result was the depopulation of certain areas to the benefit of others and, by extension, the economic fragility of the departure zones.

Texte intégral


1The issue of human mobility is a major puzzle for governments. It is structured in terms of a challenge to national integration and a global world vision. While in the past major historical migrations and human mobility were more related to random factors such as food crises due to drought or weather conditions, captures, wandering, periods of insecurity, slave trade or religious wars (Brunet, 2000; Dumont, 2006), today they seem to be determined more by armed conflicts (civil wars, border disputes and ethnic crises, etc), education, political or other ecological factors. Thus, it would not be consistent to talk about migration in the current context only in terms of hunger, although it is alarming, because it comes from many factors. In Africa’s history for example, labour migration has long been a phenomenon in fashion under colonization and beyond. It favoured waves of voluntary and involuntary worker displacement. It is therefore appropriate to distinguish displaced people from real migrants due to various factors. It was in this perspective that the people of the Mandara Mountains in the far north of Cameroon were forced to leave their refuge sites for the plains. For the colonial and postcolonial administration, it was about decongesting the overpopulated Mandara Mountains in favour of the agricultural development of the plains. Populations from the mountains and plains were also displaced by President Ahmadou Ahidjo's government for agricultural projects planned in the Benue valley.

2In general, examination of colonial and postcolonial archives revealed numerous references to labour migration, tax evasion, i.e. related to a harsh taxation policy or high tax rates. However, the abundant administrative reports in the archives unfortunately seemed to be downplayed, probably for fear of social tensions and escalation of tax revolts. Yet, while appreciating their destabilizing effects in African societies in general and Cameroon in particular, it clearly appeared that migration was the basis for massive population movements driven by the idea of finding a tax haven. This was the case in the border regions of Cameroon and Nigeria on the one hand and Cameroon and Chad on the other. Aware of the resulting population drain and its impact on colonial farming policy, the French government took tax migration very seriously. Measures were often taken to limit or contain the phenomenon.

3But how effective can these measures be when we know we have in Cameroon “peuple trait-d’union” (people who share brotherhood through language and culture despite state boundaries such as Mundang, Toupouri, Massa and Moussey in the far north of Cameroon) and whose proximity is an important factor of cross-border mobility? And what about pastoral people (such as Fulani, Bororo or Arab choa) whose vocation is to be in constant movement in search of pasture for their livestock? How is it possible in this context to regulate migration or human mobility? Which measures in African borders as drawn by European powers after the Berlin Conference and colonial settlement potentially carried the seeds of an incentive to defy the ban, especially in a context marked by past free human mobility? Why not cross these boundaries especially if they are customarily considered invalid? Our aim in this study is not to conduct a critical review of migration theories, but to show how the porous nature of the Chad-Cameroon and Nigeria-Cameroon borders, plus the transnational community phenomenon, represent challenges in terms of control of human flows. We finally focus on measures and tax policies as undeniable bases of constant seasonal or definitive migrations of the “peuples trait d’union”.

Figure 1: Location of the study area

Figure 1: Location of the study area

Source: Atlas de la province Extrême-Nord Cameroun, 2000 (base-map); adapted by Félix Watang Zieba.

Theories of migration, borders and ideological justifications

4Migrations are universal phenomena. They are the basis of dissolution and social restructuring in many countries. Their relationship to space and territory are developed enough so that it is impossible to talk about human migration or mobility without reference to departure and arrival areas.

5In the context of this study, migration is defined with regard to the boundary and movement related to them. Several factors explain different human mobility, especially in a socio-political and economic context determined by instability, insecurity and various crises. Migration theorists like Everett S. Lee (1966) have carried out studies devoted to issues such as education and migration, gender and migration, distance and migration and labour and migration as fundamental in the understanding of human mobility. Other studies, however, focused on migrants' areas of origin and destination, potential barriers that served as an excuse or reason for travel and, to a lesser extent, personal factors.

6Whatever the case, the migration issue goes beyond personal or natural factors. It involves cultural factors, as if to say that there are people who are defined by their constant migration propensity. This would be true for nomadic pastoralists (Fulani and Arab Choa in northern Cameroon) whose instability is related to the search for pasture for their livestock. To that extent, they are a serious trans-state challenge to security and control of demography. This has also led to the formation of migration networks, essentially defined by genuine cultural connectivity and solidarity. In fact, according to D. Mokam, it is clear that "intra-ethnic relationship and socio-political organization do not respect borders" (2000:15).

7Because of its magnitude, the issue of migration has led to mobilization of expertise so as to better understand the issue and especially to limit its more or less perverse effects. Many theories have been developed for this purpose. Some attempt to explain the phenomenon of migration through its factors. One can also invoke income differences between the country of origin and host countries, the labour market, cultural and linguistic proximity (Lerch and Piguet, 2005: 5-6). Some also mention economic crisis as an amplifier of population movements; prosperity is then seen as a human stabilizing factor (Nganawara, 2009).

  • 1 These theories were developed by Lewis (1954) and by Harris and Todaro (1970).
  • 2 Cited by Ambrosetti and Tattolo (2008).

8Furthermore, another consideration of migration is based on neoclassical economic theory. According to this theory, just like internal migration, international migration is caused by geographical differences between labour supply and demand.1 However, this theory is accused of ignoring the international political and economic environment, economic effects at national level and policy decisions that influence individual decisions to migrate or not. For others, however, the issue of migration is more related to structural causes acting globally and particularly in countries of origin: poverty, lack of work or low-paid jobs, overpopulation in the third world, wars, famines, environmental disasters, dictatorships and persecution of minorities, prompting more people to emigrate to the West. This argument is developed by Ambrosini2. It is established that only socio-historical large scales are likely to cause significant migration flows, and not micro-or individual decisions (Castells, 1989; Wallerstein, 1974).

9Overall, these theories assume the decisive role of obstacles or random factors in the increase in migration. However, it is not our perspective of untimely wanderings or migrations as is often the case in the speeches of politicians, for whom the issue of migration has become a real syndrome. All this is to justify that forced migration is generally explained by reasons of work and effects such as urban sprawl and rural areas. Anyway, the issue of immigration is becoming a nightmare for states, insofar as it seems to jeopardize the national balance, especially in terms of income distribution, social, educative and health infrastructures, etc.

10Despite the fear that immigration is on the rise, nowadays we see a form of discrimination, because European countries generally accept so-called “useful migrants”, while huge crowds of generally unskilled illegal migrants are undesirable. This probably justifies the concept of selective immigration and admission quotas advocated by former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. To this extent, the brain drain, a kind of migration of skills, seemed to be formally more and more encouraged, mainly in the current context of globalization. However, considering the diversity of migration flows and the profile of migrants, we cannot uphold the widespread idea that tends to present migrants as poor residues of nomadic societies.

11As mentioned above, several factors explain international migration dynamics. We should recognize that fear, poverty, social or economic insecurity and instability in any society largely determine human mobility. People leave their homelands for vital reasons (such as the pursuit of well-being, prosperity, social harmony, better working conditions or career prospects). According to experts, future migrations will not be related to labour, hunger or disease, but mainly to climate disruption (Victor, 2009). After an overview of these considerations, we can now look at the very concept of migration. At this level, several complementary approaches are to be taken into account.

12For Everett Lee, "Migration is defined broadly as a permanent or semi- permanent change of residence. No restriction is placed upon the distance of the move or upon the voluntary or involuntary nature of the act, and no distinction is made between external and internal migration" (Lee, 1966: 49). R. Lucas however defines it as follows in relation to its size: "Migration is comparable to a flow of water or electricity an adjustment flow responding to pressure differentials at opposite ends of a pipeline. This view suggests that it is neither the absolute level of normal push nor pull factors which matters, but existing difference in relative attraction elements" (Lucas, 1981: 85).

13In this case study, migration is perceived as a kind of human mobility on a large or small scale, generally depending on random factors. Due to the complexity of the migration phenomenon, the idea of a deliberate attempt to migrate should not be ignored. Indeed, whatever the reasons, there is a decision to leave, stay or give in by facing challenges. Some migrations are forced. This was the case, for instance, of labour migration in the colonial period. In fact, for the French administrators of northern Cameroon, the purpose was to encourage people to come down from the mountains to the plains for an agricultural project. This policy continued even after independence, when the government encouraged the Kirdi (a name given to non-Muslims and used in a different context to the inhabitants of mountainous areas in northern Cameroon) and populations of mountainous zones and plains in the far north of Cameroon to move to the Benue Valley again for agricultural purposes (Akam, 1998: 48-49). It was largely forced migration, a form of requisition for labour and farms. However, it was not closely related to taxes, although better agricultural production directly impacts farmers' tax capacities.

14Today in Cameroon seasonal migration is the most prevalent. It is very different from the rural exodus. This is the case of Mafa and Mofu (people from the mountainous area of northern Cameroon) who, owing to harsh, saturated environments, are forced to descend seasonally to the cities on the plain in search of paid work (Iyébi-Mandjek, 1993: 421). The factors and actors of migration are quite complex. Similarly, it is part of the overall process of globalization by linking human societies (Baby-Collin, et al., 2009: 16). Furthermore, on the basis of all these complexities, Nganawara estimates that one can regard migration as a “generative mechanism of development and reduction of tensions in times of economic growth”, or a “carrier of social tensions and dysfunctions in times of economic crisis” (Nganawara, 2009: 2). This consideration is justified in many respects, especially against a background of economic distress.

15In this study, we achieved a better understanding of the migration phenomenon in terms of borders. We have divergent views on the subject. Should we consider boundaries as impervious barriers, demarcation lines or links? Or should we consider them as sources of conflict and geostrategic issues? The very perception of borders has changed over time. For some, the word boundary in both French and English, expresses the idea front, if not of confrontation. But cities and frontier regions are primarily places of confrontation. Therefore, it must be understood in terms of a border zone but not a dividing line. English terminology distinguishes frontier and boundary (Kotek, 2009: 17; 22-23).

16In Africa, however, the perception of borders seems to have been trampled on for the sake of hegemonic considerations. As Coquery-Vidrovitch said, “In the nineteenth century especially, the border came to mean an expansion zone or cultural regression. This is an age when population movements, wherever you are, take a scale probably never seen before” (1999: 43).

17The idea of an impervious boundary separating people, although not acquired in pre-colonial Africa, finally prevailed in favour of colonization and the misfortune of the populations then integrated. It follows then that:

International borders of Central Africa are (now) reflecting a spatial grid inherited from colonial competitions. They cover state entities that have been invented or created by European powers a century ago, when the continent was divided by treaty promptly signed on the basis of uncertain maps. The introduction of colonial borders in the late nineteenth century in Africa has been accompanied by the brutal and arbitrary introduction of a European model of state and importation "of a territorial order and spatial planning straight out of a Westphalian model abusively universalized" (Bennafla, 1999: 27).

18Even if this view seems quite sharp, it probably reflects the resentment of people were not consulted in advance. The colonial diktat got the better of them, especially since it was a question of territorial marking, a kind of area of influence as a token of sovereignty and expression of genuine political and economic hegemony. Clearly, it is true that the balkanization of Africa is recent and due to the borders inherited from colonization. However, it remains plausible that pre-colonial Africa was not immune to prevarications. Indeed, commercial rivalry and problems related to territorial conquests or other struggles perfectly illustrate the difficult issue of disputes over space or areas of influence.

19How can we understand the essentially conflicting reports of populations on space or land? Our study does not however attempt to survey these winding labyrinths of land seizures that are often causes of political conflicts. Thus, as stated by Achille Mbembe, “far from being the simple product of colonization, the current boundaries (African) reflect business realities, religious and military rivalries, power relationships and alliances that existed between the various imperial powers, and between them and Africans throughout the centuries preceding colonization” (Mbembe, 2005: 47). Because of the colonization of Africa, we entered a critical phase that would not only participate in the restructuring but also the disintegration of African socio-economic and political entities.

20However, just after African independence and especially with the foundation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the principle of the inviolability of African borders was firmly established. This clearly requires that there should be no change, for fear of creating new divisions. But what does an arbitrary line customarily invalid for trans-border or transnational populations in whose minds borders are neither boundaries nor barriers really represent? This reality simply seems to involve politics that are then forced to bow to political hegemonies. The porous nature of the Cameroon-Nigeria and Cameroon-Chad borders further reinforces this perception of the border as a line of continuity. These boundaries remain in effect like sieves for both nomadic peoples and trans- borders bandits (Issa, 2010).

  • 3 This sentence refers to the people who live across borderlands. It is the case of the Mundang of Ch (...)
  • 4 The Mundang are an ethnic group living in the far north region of Cameroon and in the south of Chad (...)
  • 5 The Mandara are an ethnic group living on the Mora plain (Mora, Mémé, Makalingaï, etc.). They creat (...)

21In fact, if for some we can talk of border violations due to inadvertent, uncontrolled movements, for the “peuples trait-d’union”3 however, mobility here means grouping. As indicated by D. Mokam, “Despite the colonial division, the Mundang and Gbaya4 people would continue to move from one point to another of their territory and continue certain practices that were current in their societies (...)” (Mokam, 2000: 15). This complex framework created by colonisation is however unable to reduce the essential mobility of trans-border communities for which family and community connections overrule border considerations. These connections are also amplified and relayed by broad economic and social exchanges… (Bangoura, 2001: 7). This applies both to the Mundang, Toupouri and Massa people of the plains and also to the Mandara.5 Indeed, the mountain range separating Cameroon and Nigeria acts in all respects as a springboard for cross-border human mobility. It is therefore not an impenetrable natural barrier, especially when we know that there are no checkpoints on the mountain sides. Clearly, natural boundaries (mountains or political barriers) have been unable to contain the mobility of people and goods in this area, even in the context of modern African state borders, albeit intangible.

22While analyzing the complexity of the border between Cameroon and Nigeria, S. Ndembou wrote:

Cameroon ridge from the Mount Cameroon in the South to the Mandara Mountains in the north is not an impassable barrier to access of Nigerians to Cameroon. The front door of this screen is marked by the Benue which valley opens on Yola, a Nigerian territory, on a distance of several kilometers. The valleys of this river and its tributaries, as well as the Diamaré plain provide access to the vast plains of the Logone and Chad to the east and northward. All are corridors and boulevards to the movement of people and goods [...] (Ndembou, 2001: 8).

23Geography is an important asset for perpetual migration or cross-border mobility. Unfortunately, it also maintains commercial smuggling networks which makes highly unsafe. Smuggling along Cameroon and Nigeria border probably reflects refusal rejection of the idea of borders, of which perception as exclusion or separation zones is more negative. Our analysis of the extent of tax evasion and its relationship to the problem of controlling the human demographics and mobility is based more on a close examination of colonial and postcolonial archives.

Tax evasion and trans-bordermobility

24Tax evasion is a well organized system that consists of strategies to escape to taxes. Taxpayers seek to indefinitely avoid the levy that the tax administration wishes to impose on their income, or at least reduce it (Gaudemet and Molinier, 1997: 226). The phenomenon of tax evasion resulted in many respects from the idea of disobedience, and especially a desire to preserve what they perceived as meagre income.

25According to tax specialists, evasion is often the result of tax fraud. Indeed, through non-declaration or misrepresentation, significant income escapes taxation and therefore constitutes a loss to the tax administration (Brémond and Gedelan., 1981: 190). However, the phenomenon of tax evasion or fraud is not exclusive to modern societies, though it has increased considerably. Indeed back in feudal Europe, the British kingdoms were perceived by the Spanish as a tax haven, since the per capita tax there was three times lower than in their homeland (Léon, 1978: 154).

  • 6 The Choa Arabs are a nomadic group. They live in the Logone valley (Chad basin).

26In the far north of Cameroon, the Choa Arab sultanates developed the art of evasion as victims of multiple abuses by the Kotoko. They regarded mobility as their only weapon but they eventually suffered the thrust of other nomads like the Tubu (Hagenbucher, 1973: 6).6 The Tubu are a large group of Sahelian ethnic groups. They are found mostly in Chad, but also in Niger (northwest of Lake Chad) and Libya (Baroin, 1989: 9-10).

  • 7 We are not suggesting that human mobility was impossible during the pre-colonial period. Markets we (...)

27Many investigations that we conducted in the Diamare plain and Mandara Mountains from 2003 to 2010, however, indicate that tax evasion was quite negligible before the colonial period.7 This is justified by the fact that prevailing insecurity discouraged anyone from leaving the village. The context was the inter-tribal wars and slave raids. As indicated by Coquery-Vidrovitch, “the border in pre-colonial Africa was essentially an area of contacts, exchanges and rivalries” (1999: 41). This is probably why borders have resulted in important positive and sometimes strained interactions between populations in Africa.

28Despite peacekeeping operations in the so-called refractory zones by armed militia in the French period, security remained precarious. The colonial context seems to have created favourable conditions for evasion. How can we justify such a change when we know that taxation is not new among these peoples of the mountains and plains of north Cameroon?

29Everything starts from socio-political perception of tax. Tax in these societies is a form of recognition and also allegiance to a legitimate authority. However, the introduction of the colonial tax system meant Africans had to renounce their traditional tax. For Africans refusing to pay tax as a symbol of colonial power reflected their attachment to the traditional order received from ancestors represented by the chief (Fotsing, 1995: 135). The situation was even more radical in northern Cameroon, especially in a context of strained relations between the Kirdi people (pejorative name given to the people called pagan in the northern regions of Cameroon and today reinstated by some of them as part of their “socio-cultural identity”) and the Mandara and Fulani potentates. These conflictive relationships were built around the thorny question of authority and sovereignty. This also continues to stoke tensions between ethnic groups (Pahimi, 2010: 71). The Mandara and Fulbe exercised strong authority over the Kirdi and committed numerous abuses. The Kirdi responded to this abuse with robberies (Issa and Adama, 2002).

30These tensions justified the idea that taxation raises the issue of the legitimacy of the state and its political leaders (Mbata Mangu, 2007: 3). Thus, refusal to pay tax can be likened to a kind of social censure against state policy, or all authority in a legitimacy crisis. With colonization, the symbolism of tax was enriched by new considerations. The following comment by the Maroua district head perfectly shows France's native policy:

  • 8 ANY APA 12033, Lettre du chef de Circonscription de Maroua à Mr le Commissaire de la République (17 (...)

Willingness to pay tax is the clearest sign of rallying and the only pledge of loyalty that we can receive from natives too frustrated to learn all aspects of our indulgence. Consequently, any refusal to pay a tax, any manifestation of hostility, while a political preparation has been carefully made, are the characteristics of a mindset that we must avoid allowing to crystallize.8

31This option was materialized through peacekeeping and taming operations that for the people were more like terror and expropriation of their meagre income. Determined not to suffer from double taxation because of the juxtaposition of traditional and modern taxation, some of the people eventually chose to flee. This is a perfect illustration of the illegitimacy of so-called modern colonial taxation in a customary context. These taxable populations chose to escape injustice, malpractices perpetrated by the colonial agents and their own leaders now converted into instruments of the colonizer. Escaping taxation is considered the basis of temporary or permanent migration of populations, especially those in border areas. Indeed, living in a border area offered real benefits to those who in the name of poverty or rebellion wanted to escape taxation. Many are attracted to neighbouring countries that levy relatively low tax rates, hence the idea of seeking tax havens.

  • 9 ANY, APA 12033, Rapport de tournée dans le Sultanat du Logone (18 December 1920 to 06 January 1921)
  • 10 ANY, APA 11854/A, Compte-rendu de tournée Circonscription de Maroua, p.14.

32Sultan Diagara of Goulfeï (border area of Nigeria and Chad) complained because many Arabs under his command fled with their possessions to Nigeria and Chad. They protested against tax rates9. In the same vein, the Lamidate of Doumrou (Cameroonian village border of Chad) experienced real difficulties in tax collection. Its proximity to Binder (Chad) was exploited by taxable populations. Thanks to their family connections for example, Moundang, Tupuri, Massa and Mussey people take refuge there when they are asked to pay high taxes.10

  • 11 ANY, Vt 38/17, Rapport du chef de Bataillon (Langlois) commandant le Région Nord à M. le Commissair (...)
  • 12 ANY, Vt 38/17, Rapport du chef de Bataillon (Langlois) commandant le Région Nord à M. le Commissair (...)

33The head of Garoua division complained that many natives migrated to Nigeria, some to avoid paying their taxes, others because they had committed crimes and were wanted by the colonial authorities.11 These indications reflect the fear of colonial administrators of seeing any decrease in population in their territories. In these waves of “tax migration”, the Kirdi element is the most important.12 The exodus in the form of temporary or permanent migration occurs especially during tax collection, after which the migrants return. How could they minimize this phenomenon whose magnitude was recognized by the colonial administrators in their administrative or economic tours to view the general agricultural situation, especially grain production and cash crops such as groundnuts and cotton and generally inquire into the local socio-political atmosphere? This attention from the administrative authority was justified because the populations in this region of the country were constantly dealing with food crises, closely linked to climate crises. After finding disparities in tax rates between Chad and Cameroon, both administered by France, the governor of Chad made the following comments:

  • 13 AEF: Equatorial French Africa. This is an extension of the French colonial empire in Africa. Camero (...)
  • 14 ANY, APA 10779, Note sur les migrations de population au Cameroun Français, p.4.

The natives of Cameroon live in areas identical to corresponding regions in Chad. They are from the same race, their resources are identical and trade from one bank to another of rivers Logone and Chari are very active. Therefore why those differences? Probably because the powerful colony of Cameroon is rich and Chad is subject to a multitude of easements in favour of the nearby settlements or the General Government of AEF13 (French Equatorial Africa) and must follow a policy of high tax yield.14

  • 15 ANY, APA 10779, Note sur les migrations de population au Cameroun Français, p.4.

34Thus, the flow of border populations from Cameroon to Chad for tax reasons was a constant concern for the administration. It was clear to the French administrators of Cameroon that cross-border migrations were a threat to economic stability and population of the territory. It was particularly important to monitor this phenomenon. This fear is reflected also in a note from the General Labour Inspectorate dated 1946: “Prolonged emigration could seriously affect the total manpower of the Territory”.15 The administrators’ fear was justified because people moved without seeking their advice. One can only understand this attitude through the perception of the border, which was a political and not an ethnic issue for local people.

  • 16 For more details on this issue, please see Issa (2001:182-185).
  • 17 The Bororo or Fulani nomads have no fixed territory. They can be found both in Central and Western (...)

35If tax migration (evasion and seeking an illusory tax haven) were feared by colonial administrators, cases of nomadism were too. Indeed, because of their constant mobility nomadic peoples’ (Bororo in this case study) livestock escape tax census and therefore taxation. This was the case of Choa Arabs of the banks of the Logone. Faced with the appetites of the Kotoko Sultans seeking to benefit from heavy grazing taxes and many other charges and taxes, the exasperated Choa Arabs were forced to flee. They then crossed the Chadian border on an annual basis, fleeing tax and temporarily migrating with their cattle, the Kotoko sultans’ targets.16 For others, however, rhis attitude shows their pettiness. This was the case of the Fulani settled in the Mundang, Guiziga and Toupouri areas,17 who not only benefits escaped requisitions, but only paid a small tax of one franc.

  • 18 APM, C. 1938- III, 1.1, Lettre du Chef de Circonscription de Maroua à M. le Commissaire de la Répub (...)

36As stated by the head of the Maroua District in 1938, they (Fulani or Bororo) were about fifty in each canton. They argued that they were crossing the territory with their cattle.18 Moreover, in a strictly traditional or religious framework, C. Durand noted that cattle breeders were less willing to pay their zakkat than farmers and fairly systematically sought to avoid it. This unfortunate trend continues with the creation by the French colonial rule of a tax on livestock (Durand, 1995: 12). In the 1930s, with the economic crisis, the trend for farmers to flee capitation or cattle grazing tax grew.

37In his analysis of the worrying exodus phenomenon, Commander Lee of the northern region of Cameroon said in a report:

  • 19 ANY, APA, Compte-rendu de tournée du chef de Circonscription de Maroua (June 1934), p.11.

I noted movement of some importance to Nigeria only in cases of maladministration of natives, when the Sultan and the district chiefs commited abuses. Generally, the natives returned as soon as the guilty chief was replaced. [...] Although the part of Cameroon attached to Nigeria is free from the rest of Nigeria, our capitation taxes on livestock are not likely to cause the departure of our natives. On the contrary, the Kirdi people and livestock are taxed less.19

  • 20 ANY, Vt 38/17, Rapport du chef de Bataillon (Langlois) commandant le Région Nord à M. le Commissair (...)

38Although this statement is true, it unfortunately seems to minimize what relief of tax rates represents for taxpayers. Apart from abuses by local chiefs and their agents, there remains the question of the tax burden itself. Otherwise, the attraction of border regions would not usually be associated with periods of tax collection. After multiple reports of mass exoduses of populations, the French Minister of Colonies thought that departures of populations might have causes other than defective methods: local command mistakes, excessive demands in the recruitment of forced manpower, this disproportionate to the taxable power of the population.20 Aware that the tax issue was a potential bomb or engine of socio-political revolts, the metropolitan authority had to recommend an equitable tax and a policy for attracting populations.

39It was the colonial authority's duty to create farmland in plains, a less hostile environment in order to facilitate the descent of the mountain peoples (Pahimi 2010: 37).

Tax measures and control of cross-border migration

  • 21 ANY, APA 10895/A, Lettre du Ministre des Colonies à M. les Gouverneurs généraux de l’AOF et de l’AE (...)

40In its wish to perform well and thus curb the phenomenon of tax migration on the Cameroon-Nigeria and Chad-Cameroon borders, the French administration in Cameroon began a series of consultations. These focused on heads of division, districts and regions. Campaigns and propaganda to this effect were designed to present France as the only guarantor of the colonized peoples’ interests. It was important to take urgent measures, particularly since the political balance of the border regions was due to prudent administration, attentive to the emotional reactions of people often incompletely attached to the land, who would not hesitate to move from one territory to another if they thought it was in their interest21.

41The main concern here seems to embellish the quality of the French command. But on closer attention, this reflects the French administration's fear of seeing its authority diminish because of a decrease in population. One measure that was proposed by the witnesses of these tax migrations was the levelling of tax rates to make them uniform on both sides of the border. The French administration had to be prudent to this matter. The fear was that a thoughtless measure taken to solve the exodus problem might reinforce a propensity to challenge administrative control of human mobility. The same concern emerges from the following letter:

  • 22 ANY, APA 10904/B, Lettre du Gouverneur du Tchad au Commissaire de la République française au Camero (...)

It was not my intention to use such methods as fixing rates below those of neighbouring countries to attract people. You should increasingly recognize that this did not influence the movement of natives from Chad to Cameroun.22

  • 23 ANY, APA 10904/B, Lettre du Gouverneur du Tchad au Commissaire de la République française au Camero (...)

42The French strategy was to follow an attraction policy that also ignored the interests of neighbouring countries.23 It was probably in that perspective that the French Minister of Colonies had to challenge the protagonists in these terms:

  • 24 ANY, APA 10904/B, Lettre du Gouverneur du Tchad au Commissaire de la République française au Camero (...)

Regarding the policy of attraction to the territories I have recommended, you point out that neighbouring countries have for several years granted tax exemptions to the natives who settle there from a foreign colony,. You think that similar action in Cameroon could produce results in several regions, particularly in the Logone, where some heads of families or Bororo Fulani, fleeing the atrocities of the sultans of Bornu, tried to settle in the Diamaré. It is impossible in a mandated country to enact an article that foreign natives would, for several years, be exempted from taxation-, leaving to the original inhabitants of the territory, the burden of public expenditures that benefit all. But in practice nothing would prevent, the local government from waiting before putting a foreigner on the tax roles, when he has resided in Cameroon for a minimum time.24

43Tax migration was a puzzle to the French colonial authorities and those of independent Cameroon. In addition to economic insecurity and high tax rates, these migrations were driven by a kind of civil disobedience that caused small producers unable to pay their poll tax to temporarily leave their village to settle via their multiple networks. They generally returned to Nigeria when the pressure to pay tax fell (Akam, 1998: 44). Some opted for a permanent migration, however.

  • 25 ANY, APA 10985/A, Lettre du Ministre des colonies à M le Commissaire de la République française au (...)

44However, failing to contain effective, permanent human mobility across borders, the French administration favoured settlement in plains in the name of its policy of decongesting the overcrowded Mandara Mountains. This policy was pursued by independent Cameroon’s administration (Akam, 1998: 46-47). In addition to these operations, north Cameroon experienced significant internal population mobility, mainly from the mountainous areas of Mokolo or Meri-Koza (Douvangar, Ouazzan, Douroum). Exoduses from mountains to plains were already intense in the French colonial era, but the administration did not see the need to hinder them.25

45In short, strict application of the colonial pact was partly the cause of population migrations. Therefore, migration was a refusal to submit to a system entirely beneficial to the city. Added to this were many cases of abuse that exasperated taxpayers and resulted in antisocial behaviour or tax delinquency.


46Human mobility is now a serious issue in international relations. They have imposed a reinterpretation of issues such as trans-nationality and border considerations. Migration generally reflects social, economic or cultural unrest. In this study, we highlighted the porous nature of the Cameroon-Nigeria and Chad-Cameroon borders, and the role of transnational communities in the increase in temporary or permanent migration of populations. Ethnic, linguistic or cultural communities globally continue to serve as a springboard for generally uncontrolled human mobility. In this study, we noticed that tax migration is closely related to the search for social and economic security. It also appeared to be a reaction to unpopular tax policy. That is why borderlands were used as springboards by transnational communities to escape to tax censuses and taxation.


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1 These theories were developed by Lewis (1954) and by Harris and Todaro (1970).

2 Cited by Ambrosetti and Tattolo (2008).

3 This sentence refers to the people who live across borderlands. It is the case of the Mundang of Chad and Cameroon. For more details, read the article by Mokam (2000).

4 The Mundang are an ethnic group living in the far north region of Cameroon and in the south of Chad. The Gbaya are based in the Adamaoua region, east region and the Central African Republic. Both are trans-border communities.

5 The Mandara are an ethnic group living on the Mora plain (Mora, Mémé, Makalingaï, etc.). They created one of the powerful kingdoms of the Chad basin and conquered some mountainous populations such as Molko, Mbokou, etc.

6 The Choa Arabs are a nomadic group. They live in the Logone valley (Chad basin).

7 We are not suggesting that human mobility was impossible during the pre-colonial period. Markets were already active and provided opportunities for encounters and intermingling. There were some security measures. For more details see Barth (1965).

8 ANY APA 12033, Lettre du chef de Circonscription de Maroua à Mr le Commissaire de la République (17 January 1926).

9 ANY, APA 12033, Rapport de tournée dans le Sultanat du Logone (18 December 1920 to 06 January 1921)

10 ANY, APA 11854/A, Compte-rendu de tournée Circonscription de Maroua, p.14.

11 ANY, Vt 38/17, Rapport du chef de Bataillon (Langlois) commandant le Région Nord à M. le Commissaire de la République, p.1.

12 ANY, Vt 38/17, Rapport du chef de Bataillon (Langlois) commandant le Région Nord à M. le Commissaire de la République, p.1.

13 AEF: Equatorial French Africa. This is an extension of the French colonial empire in Africa. Cameroon and Togo were associated territories.

14 ANY, APA 10779, Note sur les migrations de population au Cameroun Français, p.4.

15 ANY, APA 10779, Note sur les migrations de population au Cameroun Français, p.4.

16 For more details on this issue, please see Issa (2001:182-185).

17 The Bororo or Fulani nomads have no fixed territory. They can be found both in Central and Western Africa. In Cameroon, some Bororo groups have settled. They are those of northwest and northern Cameroon. Mundang and Toupouri on the other hand are those people called “peuples trait d’union” because they are located in northern and southern Cameroon, and southern Chad. The Guiziga, are found in the Diamaré plain in far northern Cameroon.

18 APM, C. 1938- III, 1.1, Lettre du Chef de Circonscription de Maroua à M. le Commissaire de la République (25 February 1932), p.4.

19 ANY, APA, Compte-rendu de tournée du chef de Circonscription de Maroua (June 1934), p.11.

20 ANY, Vt 38/17, Rapport du chef de Bataillon (Langlois) commandant le Région Nord à M. le Commissaire de la République, p.1.

21 ANY, APA 10895/A, Lettre du Ministre des Colonies à M. les Gouverneurs généraux de l’AOF et de l’AEF et à M. les Commissaires de la République au Cameroun et au Togo (25 June 1935), p.1.

22 ANY, APA 10904/B, Lettre du Gouverneur du Tchad au Commissaire de la République française au Cameroun (17 March 1931).

23 ANY, APA 10904/B, Lettre du Gouverneur du Tchad au Commissaire de la République française au Cameroun (17 March 1931).

24 ANY, APA 10904/B, Lettre du Gouverneur du Tchad au Commissaire de la République française au Cameroun (17 March 1931).

25 ANY, APA 10985/A, Lettre du Ministre des colonies à M le Commissaire de la République française au Cameroun (21 March 1935).

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Location of the study area
Crédits Source: Atlas de la province Extrême-Nord Cameroun, 2000 (base-map); adapted by Félix Watang Zieba.
Fichier image/png, 56k


Teachers’ Training College/University of Maroua – Cameroon


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