By Corrado Cok
The escalation in Anglophone Cameroon began about two years ago and shows no signs of resolution. The international community should encourage the Cameroonian government and Anglophone separatists into meaningful dialogue. If not, a wide arc of instability could materialise across the region.
From two years, a wave of violence has been sweeping the North-West and South-West regions of Cameroon or Ambazonia. This is where the Anglophone minority resides. In October 2016 and later in 2017, teachers and professionals took the street to demandautonomy for the English-speaking regions of Cameroon. The government had even proceeded with internet blackouts and ‘harsh reprisals’ against the Anglophone regions. A series of targeted killings and arrests subsequently followed the demonstrations. These were typically against the leaders of the Anglophone opposition to President Biya, in power since 1982. As the political opposition went into exile, a plethora of separatist armed groups emerged.
The attacks carried out by separatist groups against police stations and public buildings, especially schools, were quickly met with a large-scale counter-guerrilla campaign. Although the Cameroonian national army has managed to inflict heavy losses to the separatists, it has not retaken territorial control. It is now evident that the crisis can only be solved through mediation, but government and separatists refuse to engage in meaningful dialogue. In the words of High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet, “there is a clear – if possibly short – window of opportunity to arrest the crises“.Therefore, as violence is spiralling out of control, only assertive international pressure can facilitate a negotiation and prevent the spread of instability throughout the region.
The Anglophone question
Anglophone grievances are rooted in colonial history. During WWI, Great Britain, France and Belgium seized Cameroon from Germany and carved a British- and a French-administered mandate out of it. This division gave rise to two different cultural dimensions with a 20% Anglophone population vis-à-vis a 80% French-speaking majority. In 1961, one year after independence, the UN organised a referendum on unity between the two entities. This resulted in the formation of a two-state federation. The equilibrium was broken when President Ahidjo amended the constitution to transform the federation into a unitary state in 1972.
The concentration of decision-making in the capital Yaoundé disfavoured the Anglophone minority. In terms of economic rights, since the 1972 constitutional reform, local authorities cannot autonomously allocate their fiscal resources – though severelyinsufficient – but must submit all budget-related decisions to government representatives. Concerning cultural rights, the use of the English language has been dismissed from education and public administration. Many inhabitants of the Anglophone regions speak French more comfortably than English. Consequently, marginalisation has boosted separatist sentiments. This is in line with other culturally-diverse regions facing problems as such, including the Azawad in Mali and South Sudan.
Changes in Cameroon’s borders throughout history
Grievances and violence
Violence has previously coupled grievances in the region. The army is indeed responsible for serious violations of human rights in the Anglophone regions. Such violations include extra-legal executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, and burning houses, widely reported byHuman Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Separatist groups have also perpetrated similar abuses against public officials. Due to increasing suspicions, these officers may have been colluding with Yaoundé. Attacks and military operations have already caused nearly 2,000 casualties and displaced more half a million people.
The combination of underlying grievances and military operations on civilians has created a rift between the state and the Anglophones. This is something that had never aspired to accede to a state of independence before. This raises the urgency of opening a mediation before the window for negotiation mentioned by Bachelet closes.
Both the Anglophone and the Francophone civil society has been relatively vocal and united in calling upon inclusive dialogue. In terms of solutions, the Anglophone civil society – in Cameroon and abroad – generally supports a federalist solution re-establishing the 1961 status quo, as protesters demanded in October 2016. At the same time, Prime Minister Joseph Ngute has recently announced that the government was ready to discuss every solution to the crisis, except independence.
International mediation and outlook
The escalation in Cameroon has attracted the attention of Tibor Nagy, US top diplomat for Africa, who said to be “extremely concerned” with the Anglophone crisis. The US administration, along with the UK, has indeed raised the issue at the Security Council on May 13. Their representatives pointed at the handling of the crisis by the Cameroonian government and the allegations of war crimes. What remains problematic, however, is that there is a general lack of direct action and involvement in mitigating the crisis.
As a result, Russia and China stood on their traditional positions of non-interference in domestic affairs. France similarly maintains its traditional support to Yaoundé due to historical ties with the Francophone regions. On the European Union’s side, the High Representative Federica Mogherini asked to “shed full light on human rights violations“. Despite increasing concerns from international actors, no body or institution has launched a formal mediation process yet. As a result, bodies like the EU have not appointed any envoys either. An exception is the regional African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. For instance, the group has released statements on the ongoing situation, condemning violence in Cameroon.
Fears of instability
An assertive action by the international community is crucial to prevent the spread of instability across the region. The North-West and South-West are not the first areas of the country to fall outside state control. The Extreme North region, a narrow swath of land between Nigeria and Chad is an area of operation for Boko Haram and other jihadist organisations. If Yaoundé loses control of Ambazonia, the result would be the formation or a wide arc of instability.
As such, this would stretch from the Gulf of Niger in the west, to the Lake Chad basin in the north, and to South Sudan in the east through the Central African Republic. In this area, where climate changes have already impacted the livelihood of millions of people, criminal and terrorist organisations could consolidate their grip and destabilise other weak states in Central Africa. This scenario would further deteriorate the security situation in the region and should hence encourage the international community to step up.
The escalation in Anglophone Cameroon is undermining the bases of coexistence. As it stands, key players are ignoring calls for more interference in containing the spread of conflict. If no international action manages to bring the parties to the negotiation table, the window for resolution could further narrow and the status quo could consolidate. This would have dire consequences for the entire region, as a wide area of instability would arise between the Sahel and Central Africa.