Inside Southern Cameroon’s Fight for Freedom
A resurgence of violence in Cameroon between the French-speaking government forces and English-speaking protestors and separatists has thrown the Northwest and Southwest provinces of the nation into political, economic, and humanitarian disarray. The violence calls into question Cameroon’s ability to continue playing a stabilizing role in the highly volatile Lake Chad Basin region.
The Lake Chad Basin region, comprised of the shared borders of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria (the Lake Chad Basin states), is home to one of the most dire humanitarian crises; it was ranked by CARE International’s report Suffering in Silence as the 8th least reported humanitarian crisis in 2017. An estimated 2.4 million people have been displaced as a result of violent extremism and over 11 million require humanitarian assistance including access to food and refugee/IDP settlements. Cameroon plays a central role in mitigating the negative by-products of the Lake Chad Basin crisis, namely displacement and insurgency. Cameroon hosts a combined population of approximately 660,000 refugees from neighbouring Nigeria and the Central African Republic, as well as 241,000 IDPs from the Far North province affected by increased attacks by Boko Haram. However, the continuing in-fighting between Cameroonians is exacerbating violence and displacement and could not only severely curb Cameroon’s ability to play an important strategic role in the region, but further contribute to the humanitarian crisis.
The violent clashes are the most recent in a struggle between Francophone and Anglophone Cameroonians that dates back to 1918, when Great Britain and France divided what was formerly a German colony into two. Cameroon’s population is still split 80/20 between French and English-speaking-populations, as well as French and British systems of law and education. And though independence in 1960 resulted in a federated power-sharing agreement, the Francophone government has strategically excluded the Anglophone population from political representation and participation ever since.
Animosity over under-representation of Anglo-leadership and a centralized government co-opting revenue from the oil and timber industries in Anglo provinces have been grievances for years. The most recent violence began in November of 2016 when teachers, lawyers, and students in the English-speaking regions led protests against assimilation policies, including Operation Ghost Town, in which English speaking schools were shut down in protest. In October 2017, separatist leader Julius Ayuk Tabe declared the independence of Ambazonia, whose borders mimic that of the original British colony. The protests led to approximately 100 arrests, 9 deaths, and a government shutdown of the internet before the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium and the government of President Paul Biya underwent negotiations in 2017, which proved to be largely ineffective.
In the last 9 months, radical separatist rebels calling for complete independence and government militias have engaged in armed combat characterized by arson, unlawful detention, torture, rape, and death perpetuated by both sides. The crisis has caused the deaths of hundreds of Cameroonians and driven over 20,000 Anglophone Cameroonians escaping the violence in Nigeria accounts for an additional 160,000 internally displaced persons.
Cameroon plays a critical economic and security role in the Lake Chad Basin region, which makes coming to a peaceful solution to end the violence and unify nationally all the more critical. With the only deep-water ports in the region, Cameroon is the heart of importing and exporting goods between West and Central Africa, as well as a strategic trade route. Approximately 90% of all Central-Africa bound goods passing through the port at Douala and Chadian oil is exported through ports in Douala and Kribi. Cameroon is also the world’s 4th largest producer of cocoa. Because Cameroon is one the “least aid dependent” nations in the sub-Saharan region, it has been able to create and maintain strong partnerships with global.
The country is also an integral member to regional initiatives, primarily concerning the driving factors of displacement and forced migration. As the geographic scope of attacks by Boko Haram have widened, Cameroon has taken a larger role in countering violent extremism (CVE), especially in their relationship with the United States. In 2017, the US Embassy in Cameroon launched a two-year program on CVE in the Lake Chad Basin region, a program made even more important after a temporary travel ban on Chad strained relations with United States’ other regional partner. Cameroon is also working actively with the UN The Counter Terrorism-Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) on to promote information sharing and border security in the fight against extremism.
Additionally, the Abuja Action Statement, signed in 2016 by the Lake Chad Basin states, seeks to enhance protection and mitigate further exacerbation of the humanitarian crises facing those displaced in the Lake Chad Basin. The statement also seeks to prevent gender-based violence and child recruitment and mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
France and the United States have condemned the attacks and killing, both calling for a cessation of violence and urging dialogue, while International Crisis Group has identified the Vatican as a viable third party to oversee negotiations. However, intervention and condemnation of violence in Cameroon needs to come first and foremost from the African Union. The AU has been largely silent on the issue, even missing the opportunity for discussion at their most recent summit, which ended July 2nd. The AU’s 30th Summit dubbed 2018 the Year of Combating Corruption, and in African nations like Cameroon, lifetime presidents continue to impose dictatorial policies and subvert democratic processes. Biya has been president of Cameroon since 1986, and while his presidency has been characterized frequent and lengthy trips to Switzerland, no doubt the fall of Jacob Zuma and Robert Mugabe motivate his need to stamp out opposition.
In order to have remotely legitimate and viable elections in October, Biya will have to begin dialogue with the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium and other opposition leaders and relinquish his hard line against the possibility of federated states. Political unity is critical to the future of Cameroon and even more so to the regional security of the Lake Chad Basin.