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.


Historic Scenes on the Streets of Addis Ababa: Hopes Renewed for Eritrean Freedom

July’s historic meeting between Eritrean President¬†Isaias Afwerki and his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa has raised hopes of a normalisation in relations between these two troubled states.

Afwerki (l) strolls with Abiy (r)

Since securing independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has found itself in an almost constant state of near-war with its larger and more powerful neighbour. This latest breakthrough – accompanied by a resumption of cross-border flights and diplomatic exchanges – offers the tantalising prospect of lasting peace after centuries of subjugation.

Strategically located on the Red Sea coast – with only a very short crossing to war-torn Yemen – Eritrea has long been coveted by the great powers. Having been a significant port in the Aksumite Empire, the region came under Ottoman control in the 16th century. Two centuries of vassalage – albeit periodically challenged by the Ethiopians – has left Eritrea with a religious makeup part Christian and part Muslim.

It became an Italian colony in 1890 and served as a base for Rome’s invasions of Ethiopia in 1896 and, under international scrutiny at the height of fascism, in 1935-36.

Eritrean troops support the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in 1935

When British forces wrested control of Eritrea from the Italians in 1941, none of the Allies seemed to know what to do with this long-depressed province. The decision was left until after World War Two had finished and even then it remained somewhat of a conundrum. As John Franklin Campbell notes:

Three years of discussion at the United Nations produced more than one hundred draft resolutions and another commission of inquiry before a compromise solution was reached. The four main proposals, none of which commanded majority support in the General Assembly, were the following: (1) Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea; (2) Eritrean independence; (3) partition of the territory, giving Ethiopia the eastern (largely Christian) portion including the two main seaports, and ceding the western (largely Moslem and nomadic) half to the Sudan, then a British territory; (4) award of a U.N. trusteeship to Italy or another European power (Foreign Affairs, April 1970).

As it transpired, none of these proposals played out. In 1952 Eritrea was federated to Ethiopia with UN support and by 1962, when the international community had seemingly grown tired of the long-term future of Asmara and its people, it became a province of its neighbour.

Naturally this state of affairs angered many Eritreans – particularly Muslims who disavowed allegiance to the Coptic Christians in Addis Ababa – and a bloody insurgency broke out. Over the next 30 years the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the splinter Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) embarked on a guerrilla war that highlighted the shortcomings of the Ethiopian government to protect its people. It also served as one of the many proxy battlegrounds of the Cold War.

EPLF fighters

An amalgam of Marxist-Leninist and social conservative groups – buoyed by a fierce religious nationalism – the ELF and EPLF eventually secured Eritrea’s independence, if not its freedom. A border war essentially persisted from the mid-1990s until 2000, its intensity raised during periods of famine and economic strife. People were displaced, brutalised and murdered.

The treaty that ended the conflict was on a ‘no war, no peace’ basis, and both sides threatened to resume military action if provoked. Asmara and Addis Ababa have also tended to take very different views on regional events, the Eritreans often accused of siding with Islamist parties over the allies of the West (with whom Ethiopia often sides).

UN peacekeepers at the Eritrean-Ethiopian border

The international community may well breath a sigh of relief that the end of conflict now appears in sight. For it was the great powers, and their colonial precursors, that sold Eritrea short, turning their back on a post-WWII settlement that may have averted the bloodshed of the late 20th century.

Why does it matter though? Well, firstly it is nothing less than the people deserve, and this applies also to people in Ethiopia who have long been separated from their loved ones across the border.

More cynically it corrects one of the geopolitical annoyances in the Horn of Africa, a region of destitution and insecurity. Sudan and Somalia remain unstable, whilst Yemen slips further into devastation across the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Djibouti has become the site of China’s first overseas military base despite it being home to Camp Lemonnier, an American joint task force station, adding a local element of great power competition.

Ethiopia and Eritrea getting on is one less problem to be solved, not to mention a potential source of cooperation and support in a hostile region.

After several hundred years suffering under the boot of the conqueror, now is Eritrea’s chance to forge a century of its own making.

Ethiopian and Eritrean flags fly side-by-side in Addis Ababa


Campbell, J. F. ‘Rumblings Along the Red Sea: The Eritrean Question (Foreign Affairs,¬†April 1970)