On the Eve of Destruction: Cameroon’s Colonial Legacy Sets Alight

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.

A protest in Bamenda, northwest Cameroon. The government has tried to censor information about the violence in its English-speaking regions

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.

The veteran Biya is a virtual dictator accused of human rights abuses

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.

Bananas being loaded for export to Germany in 1911

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.

The changing face of Cameroon

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.

Paul Biya with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy – the Cameroonian leader has retained a strong relationship with France

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.

The ironic flag of the self-declared state of Ambazonia

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.

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Sweden Democrats Raise Unsettling Questions About the Past: Are the Progressives Regressing?

The Sweden Democrats (SD) have become the latest far right party to make significant gains in a European election, scoring 18% in the recent vote that has seen the country’s two main coalitions fall short of a majority.

SD leader Jimmie Akesson on election night

‘Either we stay with a decent democracy or we choose another path’ said Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lovren, as the anti-immigrant SD preyed on the electorate’s fears of a rapidly changing society.

From one of the most homogeneous nations, Sweden’s generous immigration policies, high acceptance of asylum seekers, and low indigenous birth rate have changed the ethnic and religious make-up of the country.

The SD has tapped into frustrations over immigration

Since the late 1970s, in particular, refugee immigration from war zones and impoverished states abroad has rocketed. This once fit in nicely with Sweden’s political image, often held-up as the epitome of Social Democracy operating at its finest.

Yet the reality now is that about 15% of Sweden’s population was born overseas and another 10% have foreign born parents. Understandably, this radical demographic change has unsettled some of the natives.

The Swedish population has become increasingly diverse in recent decades

But whilst the SD has to an extent capitalised on these fears, its prospects for altering the political landscape appear slim. For a start, neither coalition – one centre-right and the other centre-left – is willing to include the SD in government. Then there is the small matter of Sweden’s history.

Whilst the SD has its roots in fascism and white supremacism, it is not a neo-Nazi movement and Sweden has typically been free of extremist political groups. At least, none have caused much of a political tremor.

More disturbing, and perhaps something that remains ingrained in the minds of some Swedes, is the government’s tacit support of the Nazis during World War Two (WWII).

Technically neutral during the conflict, it is not an overstatement to say that the Swedes were a substantial contributor to the German war effort. Hitler’s regime was reliant on Sweden for a huge proportion of its iron ore, which arrived at German ports in Swedish ships. Swedish miners were even exempted from the draft so that production for the Nazis would face minimal disruption (Judt, 2005, p.84). Simultaneously, Wehrmacht troops were given free transit through Sweden during their forays into Norway.

Nazi riflemen transiting through Sweden in 1940

The Swiss have received considerable scorn for their role in playing financiers to the Nazis, their unscrupulous banking system siphoning the ill-gotten gains from persecuted Jews and re-directing them to Hitler’s ministries. For the Swedes, criticism has been rather muted.

Of course, the alternative for the Stockholm government was hardly appealing. Risk war with the Nazis? Cosy up to the Soviets after their invasion of Finland? Acquiescence is understandable, although a certain complicity is undeniable.

Perhaps a collective guilt has prevented its people from dabbling in right-wing politics in the past? Is this now changing through a younger generation with no memories of the war in their immediate families?

Tough questions and even tougher decisions undoubtedly lie ahead for the Swedes, as they do for the rest of Europe. With continental economies still not fully recovered from the Great Recession, and rapid demographic change proving an insurmountable challenge for some governments, citizens are necessarily concerned.

It often needs a rising tide of populism to prompt decisive action. How will Sweden’s politicians – oft lauded for their progressive and fair social and economic agendas – decide to respond?

Lovren’s Social Democrats are no longer the undisputed power in the land

Embrace the legitimate concerns of the SD voters? Or band together and carry on as before in the hope that the far right quickly fades away?

Needless to say, the ‘good old days’ will take some recapturing.

Historical Source

Judt, T. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005)