Cameroon Must Make Concessions to End the Anglophone Crisis

President Paul Biya won’t get anywhere without engaging directly with separatist grievances.

Cameroonians wait in line for food in a camp for internally displaced people in Kolofata, Cameroon, on Feb. 22, 2017.
Cameroonians wait in line for food in a camp for internally displaced people in Kolofata, Cameroon, on Feb. 22, 2017. Reinnier Kaze/AFP/Getty Images

Cameroon has been embroiled in a deepening secession crisis for more than three years as fighters in its English-speaking regions attempt to break away from the country’s French-speaking majority and establish their own state: Ambazonia.

On Sept. 10, Paul Biya, the country’s reclusive president, announced his intention to start a national dialogue with the aim of resolving the crisis. It was the first time Biya publicly acknowledged the disturbances in the country’s Anglophone regions, whose inhabitants make up about one-fifth of the population.

Many Anglophones see Biya’s government and its heavy-handed military and police as responsible for shaping the crisis into its current form: Over a third of people living in the country’s Northwest and Southwest regions, where most Anglophones live, now require humanitarian assistance. The conflict has killed 2,000 people and left more than 500,000 internally displaced. In the areas most affected, it has radically disrupted everyday life, with 40 percent of health care centers and 80 percent of schools still shuttered. On occasion, classrooms have been repurposed as bases for armed separatists, and children fear gunfire on their way to school.

Cameroon’s ability to piece itself back together depends on the government’s willingness to sit down with the right negotiators on both sides at the table, take into account the deep historical roots of Anglophone grievances, and engage seriously with Anglophone proposals on ending the crisis. So far, the Cameroonian state has been focused on reestablishing the preconflict status quo, with minimal concessions on issues central to the unrest: language policy, education and legal reform, and representation of Anglophones in government. Yet what most Anglophone Cameroonians want is substantial regional autonomy and a credible commitment to address both historical injustices and perceived structural discrimination in everyday life. Without these elements, the potential upside of a national dialogue—securing a cease-fire, ending widespread human rights abuses, and preventing a descent into civil war—will remain unrealized.

Public opinion among Anglophone Cameroonians will shape how the armed separatist movement evolves. One of us, Claire Hazbun, conducted research on the ground in November and December of 2018 exploring the preferences and experiences of a group of more than 80 Anglophone Cameroonians living in the capital, Yaoundé—many of them new arrivals there displaced by the conflict. This survey is not statistically representative of the views of Anglophones, but it provides important insights into how they tend to see the crisis and what solutions they might accept. Overall, the evidence points to an increasing loss of faith in both the Cameroonian state and moderate Anglophone leaders, who have been willing to work with Biya. If he genuinely wants to end hostilities through nonviolent means, as he claims, he is facing an uphill battle.

Separatism has found supporters in some Anglophone circles for decades, albeit on the fringes. But now, at least in this key demographic, it has become an increasingly popular idea. Four in 10 interview subjects said that their preferred outcome would be outright secession.

Unfortunately, Biya’s latest speech betrayed a continuing inability—or unwillingness—to acknowledge the enormity of the problem. In his view, the crisis is about disgruntled teachers and lawyers who object to Francophone language policies. However, the problem runs far deeper.

More than two-thirds of survey respondents in Yaoundé believed that grievances driven by historical marginalization were the primary cause motivating Cameroon’s secessionist movement. While a number of Anglophones pointed to proximate injustices such as their inability to return home, or the killing of a family member, many readily pointed to deeper historical problems. They blamed the government for biased allocation of development resources in favor of Francophones and the erosion of Anglophone regional autonomy since independence. A common thread is the sense of structural discrimination at the hands of the Francophone majority in nearly all sectors of life.

Before independence, English-speaking and French-speaking Cameroon were administered as separate entities under the British and the French. After World War I, the former German Kamerun Protectorate was split into separate mandates administered by the two powers. The Francophone region gained independence in 1960, and the Anglophone region in 1961. The two parts were then reunited in 1961 as the Federal Republic of Cameroon, after what had been British-administered Cameroon elected to join French Cameroon, rather than neighboring Nigeria.

The federal system allowed for some local autonomy—with a president, prime minister, and control over certain regional aspects, such as customary courts and primary education. Importantly, many of these powers were conferred by convention and not enshrined in the constitution. This reality made it possible for the postcolonial government of President Ahmadou Ahidjo to systematically dismantle the federal character of Cameroon, culminating in the declaration of a unitary state in 1972.

In 1996, Cameroon adopted a new constitution, which provided for a decentralized system of government. However, the Biya administration has only selectively implemented this feature of the constitution, opting to centralize power instead. Biya’s concentration of presidential authority amid rising economic hardship, combined with experiences of structural discrimination and both perceived and real disparities between Francophone and Anglophone regions, have all exacerbated the grievances expressed by Anglophone Cameroonians.

Government crackdowns and well-documented human rights abuses against armed groups and civilians in the Anglophone regions have only made matters worse. Some eight in 10 respondents said that a family member, a friend, or they themselves had endured violence from government forces. This is in contrast to only four in 10 who said that either they or a friend or family member had been a victim of violence as a result of interactions with secessionist fighters. One interviewee said that security forces “brutally killed” members of his family: His cousin was shot in front of his father, and his daughter’s leg was almost cut off. Another man said that many of his friends had been victims of government violence, adding, “We don’t know if they are alive or dead. None of their family knows their whereabouts.”

In an effort to reach out to Anglophones, Biya recently appointed an English-speaking prime minister, Joseph Dion Ngute. This might be too little too late, however. Many interview participants expressed distrust of Anglophone elites and were concerned that they had been co-opted by Biya. This does not bode well for Dion Ngute, whom Biya has tasked with leading the national dialogue.

In March, Biya moved to increase the symbolic representation of Anglophones in the government with the appointment of two new cabinet ministers. One of them, Paul Atanga Nji, Cameroon’s minister of territorial administration, told Voice of America earlier this year that there were no problems in the country that were specific to its Anglophone regions, and that “Whenever [Biya] has to take any important decision, Anglophones have always been in the center of those decisions.” It’s not hard to see why Anglophones living in Yaoundé doubt the ability of Anglophone elites to represent their views on the important issues of national cohesion and equality.

This could be particularly damaging to the prospects of reconciliation between the central government and Anglophones. The visible inclusion of some Anglophones in government as a conciliatory gesture appears to have lost its power among Anglophone Cameroonians. Many no longer feel adequately represented in their country’s halls of power, primarily due to distrust of those who are willing to work with Biya.

On the other hand, opposition figures of any kind who challenge Biya’s regime face government retaliation. In January 2018, Julius Ayuk Tabe, then the president of the Interim Government of Ambazonia, and nine of his followers were arrested and charged with terrorism and secession. Last month, on Aug. 20, they were given life sentences. Violence spiked in the week after the sentence, leaving 40 people dead. Furthermore, Maurice Kamto, Biya’s main challenger in the October 2018 elections, was arrested in January following protests over the vote. He is charged with rebellion, insurrection, and hostility to the homeland, and his trial is set for Oct. 8.

In contrast to their views toward the government, many Anglophones empathized with the armed separatist groups operating in the country. Even though four in 10 reported either personal experience or knowing a victim of separatist violence, more than two-thirds agreed that the separatists had done a good job of advocating for Anglophones. Survey respondents routinely described armed separatists as having been “pushed to the wall” by the government.

Despite well-documented cases of separatists harming or even killing civilians in their areas of operation, a common refrain was that separatists only target those who do not comply with their directives, such as the order to boycott government schools. Interestingly, just under four in 10 respondents said that they had been involved in advancing the Anglophone cause by participating in protests, sharing separatist information on social media, or encouraging others to take a stand.

Despite the deep rifts outlined above, it is important to emphasize that secession is not the only possible resolution to the crisis that Anglophones in Yaoundé supported. One-third of respondents saw a return to federalism as a viable way to defuse tensions, and just over one in 10 wanted to deepen decentralization as a way out of the crisis. These figures suggest that meaningful dialogue, coupled with a commitment to institutionalizing Anglophone autonomy, might help resolve the crisis.

While Biya’s speech was an important first step toward a national dialogue and potential resolution of the crisis, much remains to be done. If the dialogue process is to succeed, the government must earn the trust of Anglophones. That means making tangible concessions to them in the interim and including some form of regional political autonomy and investment in the reconstruction effort.

In addition, the government must be ready to include trusted Anglophone leaders, and not just individuals deemed to be cooperative with Biya’s government. These concessions would certainly not guarantee success. However, they would go a long way toward signaling Biya’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the crisis and repairing Cameroon’s frayed sociopolitical fabric. The country’s stability and continued geographic integrity depends on it.

Claire Hazbun is studying international politics and African studies at Georgetown University. Twitter: @clairehazbun

Ken Opalo is an assistant professor at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service. Twitter: @kopalo

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