Just before the Arab Spring took hold in the Middle East and North Africa, the Crisis Group made a dire warning about Cameroon.
In its report 160 of May 2010, the group stated, “Cameroon’s apparent stability is deceptive; even if it overcomes its near-term challenges, the longer-term deterioration could lead to conflict.”
Cameroon is often praised for being a stabilizing force in an unstable region that has seen its share of war and catastrophes. Often the government argues the calm the country enjoys is the result of its president. While Cameroon remains peaceful, several unsuccessful military coups have been made in an attempt to remove its top leadership.
With a “sit-tight” leadership, the opposition remains weak and divided. Many political opponents are in prison or have escaped the country. The youth population is large and many are unemployed.
The Crisis Group report was produced prior to the 2011 presidential elections, which long-time president, Paul Biya, won by an estimated 77.9 percent. Biya, 83, has been in power since Ahmadou Ahidjo, the country’s first president, resigned from office in 1982.
After the constitution was amended in 2008 to allow Biya to run for office in perpetuity, the change led to protests and the death of many civilians.
In another report about Cameroon, report 101 of September 2014, the Crisis Group, harped again on what it saw as “a deceptive peace and stability in the country.” The report said this is something that belied the country’s internal and external pressures. This could threaten its future, the report stated.
Since 2010, the country’s neighbor, the Central African Republic (CAR) has experienced civil war, partly caused by internal divisions. Hundreds of CAR citizens were killed or became refugees fleeing from the conflict. Many of these refugees took refuge in the eastern parts of Cameroon.
The Uneasy Peace That Reigns in Cameroon
Recently the Cameroonian government has been battling Boko Haram militants in the north of the country. As a result, the United States administration gave assistance to the government to help deal with the situation, out of fear the insurgency could destabilize the region.
These dire warnings about Cameroon, not given in hindsight, are important and need further examination.
The country’s unique geopolitical position in the region–which experts have compared to that of Turkey, Ukraine, and Mexico–is especially important and could impact the entire region if peace in the country is compromised.
“Since Biya assumed power in 1982, the prime minister has been an Anglophone, the president a southerner, and the president of the national assembly a northerner. The recent creation of the Senate in 2013 added another southerner to that triumvirate—disturbing the balance of power,” project director for Central Africa at the Crisis Group Thierry Vircoulon wrote in summer of 2015.
“If Cameroon were to enter a crisis, this would create an axis of instability stretching from northern Nigeria to South Sudan, passing through Chad and the CAR. The Central Africa region would then become a major focus of concern,” Vircoulon said.
With only Ahidjo, from the north, and Biya, from the south, having served as president in over 50 years of independence things need to be panned. Without proper succession planning, a bitter power struggle could ensue, post-Biya, the Group warns. In its reports, the Group proposed many reforms for the government to carry out if it wants to escape potentially difficult situations in the future.
A few of the reforms discussed in the 2010 report, such as the creation of a Senate to fill a constitutional void, have been accomplished. But it believes a combination of “other factors” remain which pose severe dangers to the future of the country.
While it did not mention the so-called “Anglophone Problem” directly in its many reports, the Group however pointed to a growing rift between the Biya regime and the rest of the society in Cameroon. Some of what it calls “internal divisions” may have morphed into these vulnerabilities and challenges for peace and stability that we are seeing in the country.
The history of Cameroon is marked by several key political events that underpin the current crisis. This history is not the main purpose of this post, but let’s take a cursory look at it, to add some perspective to the enormity of the situation.
In 1961, Southern Cameroons (British Cameroon or today’s Anglophone Cameroon) was a United Nations trust territory or colony under Great Britain. When it sought self-determination, it was given the option to decide if it wanted to join La Republique du Cameroun (French Cameroon and neighbor to the east) or to join Nigeria (neighbor to the west) both of which were already independent.
The decision to pick a side was placed before Southern Cameroons in a plebiscite organized by the United Nations on February 11, 1961.
Writing in Cameroon History in the 19th and 20th Centuries, historians, Tazifor Tajoche John and Tabi James Ndip, state that this was “a do or die game.”
Southern Cameroons chose to join La Republique du Cameroun and formed what became known as the Federal Republic of Cameroon in October 1961. That federation resulted in West Cameroon (today’s Anglophone Cameroon) with a British heritage and Anglo-Saxon way of life, and East Cameroon (today’s Francophone Cameroon) with its inherited French system or way of life.
There is a never-ending argument about if and why Southern Cameroons was never given the option to become an independent country on its own. What would have happened to Southern Cameroons if they had other options, the question often goes. Some may ask, ‘Who is to blame for what they now endure in this present relationship with La Republic du Cameroun?’
Cameroon Youth Day is celebrated each February 11, the day the Plebiscite was held.
The new country was formed under a federal constitution when the two states came together.
In May, 1972, via a referendum held in both East and West Cameroon; the country decided to go in a new direction. The federation was abolished by then-President Ahidjo. This action transformed the country into a unitary state called the United Republic of Cameroon. That changed in 1984 to what is now The Republic of Cameroon.
May 20, the day the Referendum took place, is celebrated as Cameroon National Day.
To consummate the union of East and West Cameroon, the government has promoted policies aimed at national unity and integration. National Integration is defined as efforts to provide education to Cameroonians in a bi-lingual fashion. The use of both languages, English and French, has been made a way of life for the country.
With Protests and Civilians Deaths, Cameroon Enters the Spotlight
For more than two decades, many Anglophones have resisted what is seen as the “adulteration” of the culture they inherited from their colonial master. They have pushed back against government efforts that they say undervalues English while making French the main language of the country. They say this has eroded many Anglo-Saxon traditions that are expressed in their educational system and culture.
The division is encapsulated in a complex dynamic surrounding the “The Anglophone Problem.” The problem goes beyond the country’s history to the legality of the union and co-existence of the French and English cultures and languages.
According to scholar, George Ngwane, the issue stems from what he says is the violation of Article 47 of the 1961 Federal Constitution of the country which dismantled the federal structure of West and East Cameroon. Ngwane says the issue has led to the current problems which Anglophones face in the country.
Writing in the December 2016 issue of World Politics Review freelance journalist, Robbie Corey-Boulet notes that “Residents of Anglophone Cameroon have long complained that resources from their territory, including oil, are used to finance development in Francophone areas of the country while they are left to suffer from a lack of investment and attention.”
In recent years the Youth Day and National Day, once celebrated with pride and dignity, have been marked by boycotts inspired by Anglophone pressure groups that have formed to resist what they see as the fraud relationship between the two systems in Cameroon.
For years — Anglophones in Cameroon and abroad have petitioned the United Nations, the African Commission on Human Rights, and even the British government which was directly involved in the decision about their statehood. But the case has not advanced very much. It remains in limbo. Frustrations are now running high.
But Francophones remain the majority in Cameroon. Eight of the country’s ten regions practice the French civil law while the two Anglophone regions, about nine million in population practice the English common law.
Beginning in October 2016, the country has been the source of much breaking international news focusing on a resistance movement–protests and civil disobedience–led by lawyers and teachers in the English-speaking regions. The protesters say they oppose the use of French in courtrooms in their region of the country.
Whether efforts at national integration have worked well in Cameroon or not is not the purpose of this post. And whether the government has sufficiently dealt with issues affecting Anglophones or not is up for debate.
What is happening today, the insecurity that has developed in the country is serious to the extent that experts think it threatens the future of the country. This is a great source of concern to many.
Boulet says that the situation could deepen. He thinks that efforts by the government to minimize and treat it like they have handled other problems could lead to an escalation of tensions.
As the situation has deepened, many more civilians have been killed, civil society groups have been outlawed, news organizations have been threatened with potential notices of closure, and access to social media has been cut off or downgraded.