Crisis in Cameroon
Cameroonian President Paul Biya has an election to win and a problem to solve. He might win the election, but is on his way to losing a fifth of his country.
Cameroon was formed after a referendum by the fusing of one British- and one French-controlled territory, which had both been sliced from a German colony following the First World War. As a result, Cameroon’s 23 million-strong population is 20% Anglophone, with English-speakers concentrated in the south-west. The rest of the country is Francophone. There has been a long-standing but historically fringe Anglophone nationalist movement, advocating secession from Cameroon and the foundation of the state of ‘Ambazonia’. Many Anglophone Cameroonians feel their French-speaking countrymen have an unfair advantage in public life: for example civil service documents are available in French only. Recently, tit-for-tat violence between English-speakers, the ‘Ambazonian Defence Force’ and Cameroon’s security forces risk transforming the south-west of the country into Paul Biya’s Ambazonian ulcer.
The catalyst was the appointment of French-speaking judges and teachers in Anglophone Cameroon. In November 2016, this provoked a strike by local lawyers and teachers and widespread protests, in which six people died. Since then, Cameroon has suffered low-level insurgency in its Southwest Region and Northwest Region (which is in the south-west of Cameroon but north of the Southwest Region), where the majority of the Anglophone population lives.
President Biya responded to the crisis in the worst possible way, neither conciliating nor acting decisively. He did not reassure the Anglophone population but instead sent the Cameroonian army to occupy the Northwest and Southwest Regions, not quickly enough to prevent his opposition mobilising. He imposed a curfew, cut off the Internet and also exploited laws intended to combat Boko Haram, using them against leaders of the November 2016 strike. If Biya wanted to pacify the Northwest and Southwest regions his actions achieved the opposite.
Since the army arrived the pattern of escalation has been predictable and irresistible. All opponents of central government are described as terrorists. A few opponents attack security forces, killing policemen and soldiers. The policemen and soldiers ‘crack down’ on the terrorists, killing people and driving others from their villages, with little regard for civilians. Both sides feel justified in using violence because the other side uses violence.
The ‘terrorists’ are the Ambazonian Defence Forces (ADF), an organised insurgency using hunting rifles and shotguns, and apparently possessing a uniform: the Cameroonian army claimed to repel an ADF attack, and that the ADF, in their retreat, left behind ADF-branded t-shirts. Paul Biya has declared war on the ADF, who have killed over a dozen policemen and soldiers in the last month.
Dictator for life
This insurgency has rumbled on for a year. Paul Biya is up for re-election in October 2018. He is not popular in Anglophone Cameroon, for obvious reasons. It is not inconceivable that he will exploit the crisis to steal the election. With the removal of Mugabe, Biya is now the longest serving African head of state, and shows no sign of wanting to give up power. He has little incentive to soften his approach to the crisis in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, as that would make him appear weak. In the Francophone 80% of the country, he may have success in turning the crisis into an ‘us-versus-them’ situation to draw support from French speakers.
The crisis is horrendous for civilians caught between the ADF and the Cameroonian authorities, and it could deteriorate quickly. The UN has prepared refugee camps with capacity for 40,000 in Nigeria, just across the border from Anglophone Cameroon in anticipation of greater violence. Hundreds of refugees have already arrived.
This could lead to two more problems: Cameroon and Nigeria have a close relationship, in large part to combat Boko Haram in Cameroon’s north. If Nigeria has to cope with an Anglophone refugee influx because of the crisis, this could strain cooperation. Cameroon has already been criticised for its violent repatriation of Nigerian refugees fleeing Boko Haram. The Islamist movement has been in retreat recently and would benefit from reduced cooperation between the two countries.
In the longer term, the presence of refugee camps on the Nigeria-Cameroon border could allow the ADF to cross the border back and forth with impunity. The ADF kill soldiers and policemen and are not exempt from blame for the crisis. The Cameroonian government is already saying militants are operating from Nigeria. If this is proved true, this would further poison the relationship between Nigeria and Cameroon and make life harder for those in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions; if the Cameroonian authorities think refugee flows contain militants, then it is the refugees who will suffer. It could be compared to the situation between Rwanda and the DRC following the Rwandan Genocide in the 1990s, when Hutu refugee camps in the DRC also sheltered genocidaires who continued to attack into Rwanda before re-crossing the border, making the violence harder to stop.
Worst Case Scenario
A worst case scenario would be Anglophone Cameroon in uproar, with the ADF resisting in country and from Nigeria. At the same time, a less constrained Boko Haram could further stretch the Cameroonian military, ensuring the Anglophone crisis is neither stamped out with military force, nor demilitarised, prolonging the pain. Cameroon will also have to cope with Nigerian and Central African Republic refugees, further stretching resources.
Paul Biya will probably win his election in October, but he might find the country ungovernable.