With ethnic and political violence flaring around the world, and humanitarian disasters unfolding in front of our eyes, the last thing we need is a new crisis. Yet that is exactly what appears to be happening in Cameroon, traditionally seen as one of Africa’s most stable countries.
Thousands of people are fleeing bloodshed in the country’s English-speaking western provinces, where separatists are fighting for a new state (Ambazonia). It comes shortly before a national election, in which President Paul Biya expects to win a seventh term.
As an 85-year old who has shed all semblance of responsibility for the Anglophone part of the country, established a virtual one-party state, and is in no mood to relinquish power, Biya is reminiscent of Robert Mugabe. Still, the historic split between French and English-speaking provinces in Cameroon adds an unwanted powder keg that could ultimately explode to embroil neighbouring states in what is a particularly restive region.
As with many of Africa’s present troubles, Cameroon’s has its roots in the colonial and post-colonial era. Having initially fall under control of the German Empire in 1884 during the ‘Scramble for Africa’, Kamerun – as it was known – was ‘liberated’ by British and French forces during World War One.
In 1919, the League of Nations – that nascent international organisation whose failings are well known – designated Kamerun an international mandate. The larger, eastern part of the country was to be administered by France as Cameroun, with the west falling under control of the British as the Cameroons.
For the next four decades these separate yet inextricably linked territories were subjected to the same cultural indoctrination as France and Britain imposed on their other African colonies. This did not necessitate a disappearance of indigenous culture, only that succeeding generations grew accustomed to a certain societal existence that spilled into the independence era.
‘Freedom’ came in the early 1960s when both European powers were retreating from empire, having come to the belated realisation that the 19th century had long since past. French Cameroon secured its independence in 1960, having fought its colonisers and their local allies throughout the 1950s.
In 1961, a plebiscite was held in the British Cameroons to decide on where the peoples’ future lay. The Muslim-dominant northern part of the territory joined with Nigeria, with the Christian south electing to fuse with their French-speaking neighbours in a Federal Republic of Cameroon. This became a non-federalised republic in 1972 and Paul Biya assumed power in 1982.
It is since Biya’s ascension that the seeds of Cameroon’s current woes began to be sown in earnest. An avowed Francophone with a penchant for unduly rewarding his allies, he has neglected his English-speaking people. The government in Yaounde is exclusively French-speaking and judicial officials sent to the western provinces are too.
What had been a decades-long peaceful agitation for a separate state has turned into brutal violence, with civilians as usual bearing the brunt of the fighting. A relatively strong economy – in terms of Africa – has perhaps discouraged a bigger uprising until now. Commodity markets, including coffee, bananas and rubber, have provided opportunities for French and English speakers alike.
But stagnation and discrimination have fanned the flames. A national army accustomed to waging war on an arbitrary scale against terrorist groups like Boko Haram are committing atrocities reciprocated by the separatists.
It seems a simple suggestion, but why not allow a separate English-speaking state? An official return to the colonial divide could bring stability without overlordship.
Sadly, no government will willingly suffer a degradation of their nation’s sovereignty. In Paul Biya, moreover, Cameroon has a leader with nothing to lose. He has less than a decade to live, has a secure rule backed by France, and a government staffed by loyal apparatchiks. The majority of his Francophone brethren seem to offer him at least tacit support and now, in the face of an Ambazonian insurgency, he can call on them to defend the motherland.
With the societal upheaval that endemic violence brings already evident in west Cameroon, the territory has the potential to become a haven for Boko Haram and other terrorist groups, who have been forced out of previous strongholds by regional governments, aided by their international partners.
France has the ability to put pressure on Biya but is unlikely to do so, Paris still reveling in its supposedly paternalistic relationship with its former colonies. Britain has little to zero influence in West and Central Africa these days and other global powers will be loath to embroil themselves in another far-flung catastrophe.
Watch this space…with election day looming, Cameroon is on the eve of destruction.