Cameroon Part One: The Anglophone crisis

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In Cameroon, a civil war between an Anglophone region and the Francophone central government shows no sign of abating. In the first of a two-part blog we look at the origins of the conflict and the general situation in Cameroon.

Cameroon’s descent into civil war followed a pattern that is all too familiar.  At the heart of the dispute was language: The Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon are English speaking whereas the majority of the country speaks French. In October 2016 strikes and protests began over the appointment of French-speaking Judges, which were seen as threatening the common law system in the Northwest and Southwest regions. This dovetailed with a general feeling of marginalisation amongst Anglophones. The government responded harshly and in November 2017 teachers joined the strikes. Hundreds of protestors were arrested and the government cracked down further after the lawyers refused to talk until activists were released. The Ambazonia Governing Council was formed and in September 2017 formally declared war on the Cameroonian government. Since then a civil war has raged between armed groups and the Cameroonian armed forces. The political aims of the rebels have shifted from recognition and federalism towards outright independence. The civil war has centred on the self-declared ‘Ambazonia’ region and can roughly be described as a classic insurgency in which the government forces hold territory but are vulnerable to ambush. In 2019 the violence has drifted into Francophone areas.

The impact on the Northwest and Southwest regions, which border Nigeria, has been brutal with thousands killed and up to 100,000 people displaced. Thirty thousand of these fled to neighbouring Nigeria. Both sides have been called to account by human rights groups: the government for its heavy-handed and indiscriminate approach that has seen civilians killed and villages put to the torch; the rebels for their ‘Ghost Town’ strategy and the long-term closure of schools, which are sometimes burned down. Claims and counter-claims abound over the responsibility for kidnappings, village burnings and killings. The emergence of armed groups and the separatist stance of the self-declared Ambazonia Governing Council came about as a consequence of the government’s suppression of political dissent. The escalation in the violence since that time is the responsibility of both sides.

The Anglophone crisis is rooted in a dispute over language as the law and education systems are different to that in the majority French-speaking Cameroon and the minority population speak English. The campaign by lawyers and teachers was linked to that for greater civil and political rights. The government was accused of filling key posts with people trained in the French traditions, thus marginalising the English speaking minority. The Anglophone minority are proud of their traditions and had described the government’s approach as ‘forced assimilation’. For its part, the government is committed to centralised governance and allows governance at the local level provided that it doesn’t conflict with national law. The main political opposition to the dominant Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement is based in the Anglophone region and human rights groups state that political opposition has been suppressed. The reason for the very distinct differences between the Anglophone region and French-speaking Cameroon is European dominance of the region which began with the Portuguese in 1520. The area was first colonised by Germany in 1884 but taken over by the British and French in 1916 and then split between the two in 1919. This created the English speaking Northern and Southern Cameroons and French Cameroon. The latter became independent in 1960 and after a referendum the Northern Cameroons joined Nigeria and the Southern Cameroons joined the Republic of Cameroon. It has not been the happiest of unions but the deterioration into a civil war is a situation that is utterly out of proportion to the dispute that fuels it. This is a conflict that is driven by identity and competing approaches to civil society and politics and not by ethnic differences that abound in other conflicts.

Cameroon is also involved in a war with Boko Haram, a deadly spill over from the insurgency centred on Nigeria’s Borno state. According to the Defence Ministry it has resulted in the deaths of over 2,500 people in Cameroon between 2014 and 2017. It is arguably more of a threat than the Anglophone crisis and Boko Haram’s violence towards civilians has been particularly brutal. Cameroon has reportedly been successful in its multifaceted approach to Boko Haram, which combines counterinsurgency, military operations with Nigeria and the construction of a ‘rehabilitation centre’. The government is heavily dependent on support from the United States in its war on the insurgents and there has been a clear reduction in the terror groups’ activity within Cameroon. This has little impact on the Anglophone crisis, except for diversion of resources northwards.

The civil war is not the only threat to peace in Cameroon but it is the most damaging. There are two further concerns to note, both of which relate to who holds power in the country. The first is an ethnic divide that is reported to have become more prominent since the 2018 elections, which were won by the incumbent President, Paul Biya. He is currently the longest serving leader in Africa. A Bulu-Beti axis currently dominates politics, while the Bamilieke elite dominate the economy and manufacturing. President Biya (of the Bulu-Beti) incarcerated his closest challenger, Maurice Kamto (of the Bamilieke), after he was declared winner of the disputed 2018 election. The second concern is religious: the Muslim minority in the north have backed Biya but will not support a future President from the Bulu-Beti axis or the Bamilieke. They are reported to want one of their own to take the Presidency after Biya. The common thread that connects all the ethnic and religious divisions and ambitions over power with the political violence of the civil war is the question of what happens when the aging Biya eventually leaves power. The conflict in the Anglophone region has laid bare a constitutional crisis within Cameroonian politics that requires resolution less further crises await in the future.

From the above, it can be seen that the origins of the conflict in the Anglophone region are political as opposed to being related to ethnicity or religion. To be more precise, it is a manifestation of a constitutional crisis in which a centralised and inflexible government was unable to respond effectively to socio-political problems and resorted to political suppression. This provided the catalyst for the emergence of armed groups and a self-declared Ambazonia Governing Council that seeks separation from Cameroon. Since then there has been a serious escalation in violence by both sides with severe consequences for the population of the afflicted areas. The international response to the crisis has been sluggish and this is almost certainly due to Cameroon being of little strategic interest to outside powers and the maintenance of a facade of multiparty democracy. This has changed as a result of the Anglophone crisis, which has drawn interest from human rights groups over the impact of the violence on the population in the affected areas and raised questions over how the country is governed. In the next blog we look at what international actors can do to help resolve the crisis and what steps the warring parties can take to begin a dialogue.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://africanarguments.org/2019/08/13/cameroon-crisis-three-deepening-divides/

https://www.dw.com/en/a-new-surge-of-people-fleeing-cameroons-anglophone-regions/a-50186298

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/cameroon-language-french-english-military-africa-ambazonia-a8770396.html

https://jamestown.org/program/boko-harams-backyard-ongoing-battle-cameroon/

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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