This analysis was partly compiled using information from Africa Agenda’s presentation “Understanding the Crisis in Cameroon” which was held at the Posner Center for International Development on September 26, 2018.
During the presentation, Cameroonian journalist Franklin Sone Bayen, through a conference call from the regional capital of Buea, shared his pre-election experiences with journalists and international development people in Denver.
In the discussion which lasted for almost an hour, Bayen commented on the relative press freedom journalists in Cameroon still enjoy, the spreading of “fake news” from insurgents and government sources, and the burgeoning violence within the Anglophone regions of the country.
The backdrop of this is the “near-civil war” situation that Cameroon faces which prompted the Africa Agenda organization to contact him. After our call, I took some time to dig into the situation more and the news it was creating.
In 1961, after the independence of Nigeria and French Cameroun, the UN Mandate of British Cameroons was offered one of two choices: to join Nigeria or French Cameroun.
From that simplistic colonial decision to ignore the widespread desire for full independence and distinct cultural identity amongst Anglophone Cameroonians, the roots of the current political crisis took hold.
While the northern part of British Cameroon opted to join Nigeria, the southern area voted to join the newly christened Federal Republic of Cameroon.
Fast forward to 2017, and the latent independence movement exploded to life again after teachers, lawyers, and government workers in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest provinces began protesting what they saw as political marginalization from the Francophone majority, and especially President Biya.
During those protests, various separatist militias formed and began a guerilla conflict that continues to spread. Unexpectedly, Western media coverage of this crisis is sparse. In March, the UNHCR reported that over 20,000 Cameroonians fled to Nigeria. More up-to-date numbers are difficult to find, with Al Jazeera offering the most regular stories.
On September 18, Cable News Network (CNN), using Amnesty International’s information, reported that around 400 Cameroonians have died, as well as expanding kidnapping and assault incidents from both security forces and separatists.
Voice of America (VOA) reported widespread school attacks the same day, with the separatist groups warning parents to keep their children from school “stating they could not assure safety” for the students.
Despite the swiftly deteriorating situation, the response from global powers has been almost nonexistent aside from carefully worded statements.
The European Union (EU) demurred to send observers to a strongly contested presidential election, and during the Forum of China-African Cooperation, Beijing (The Chinese administration) avoided any comment regarding the actions of President Biya.
In June, the Subcommittee on Africa at the United States Senate received testimonies regarding the violent hostilities, but the official comment is still limited to the U.S. Embassy in Yaoundé which has advised Americans to avoid travel to the Northwest and Southwest provinces of Cameroon. All of this despite Cameroon diverting American trained and equipped counter-terrorism troops to anti-insurgency actions.
That said, the Cameroon administration must ultimately choose how it will move forward: Full-scale civil war, or dialogue. Ignoring the slim chance of regime change in Cameroon, in the current authoritarian system of government headed by President Paul Biya, the ball lies in his court to acknowledge the actual political repression he has made part of his governance, and accept the equal standing of Anglophone Cameroon.
Biya’s alternative may be to indefinitely continue violent military action against a guerilla movement that is increasingly gaining popular support. Yet, even so, the Anglophone militias may be exacerbating the violence with reprisals against accused “collaborators” and unarmed civilians.
The Cameroon political crisis is decades in the making, and should not be viewed simplistically. Even so, the African continent should look to the example of Ethiopia and Eritrea, two previously embittered enemies who have found a way to avoid conflict through painful, yet necessary dialogue.