Paul Biya Is Offering Cameroon’s Anglophones Too Little, Too Late
The Cameroonian government is seeking to implement a 1996 law it refused to enact for over two decades. The policy represents a fig leaf, not genuine decentralization, and will not resolve a crisis of Biya’s own making.
On Sept. 7, Cameroonian President Paul Biya signed a decree authorizing the country’s first election for members of the Regional Councils in each of the country’s 10 regions.
In describing the preparations for the vote, Essousse Erik, the director-general of Elecam, the government-controlled electoral commission, said: “The elections would be a historic moment and a turning point in our democracy.” In fact, the announcement that the government plans to hold elections for the Regional Councils comes over two decades after it first declared its intent to do so in 1996 as part of a broader decentralization plan that would allow for significant autonomy in how Cameroon’s diverse population would be governed. Unfortunately, it is too little, too late.
The announcement of the elections and the implementation measures comes as Cameroon is embroiled by a conflict in which separatist fighters in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions seek to create an independent state called Ambazonia. This conflict stems from the systematic marginalization of Anglophones, who comprise nearly 20 percent of the country’s population, but was sparked by the repression of demonstrations of teachers and lawyers in the fall of 2016 who demanded linguistic autonomy within their respective institutions.
Now, four years after these demonstrations and in the midst of a war of secession that has killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands, Biya’s government—which has consistently been ranked as one of the most corrupt and authoritarian in Africa—is seeking to enact decentralization measures. While enacting such reforms at the outset of the crisis may have addressed some of the demands of the demonstrators, doing so now is simply another effort of the Cameroonian government to present the image that it is responding to the crisis and grievances of the Anglophone population without engaging in any meaningful dialogue or negotiations with civil society or separatist leaders.
The regional elections, which are slated to occur on Dec. 6, will elect a total of 90 councilors to each of the regional bodies—70 divisional delegates and 20 traditional rulers. The traditional leaders will be selected by regional chieftaincy bodies, the majority of which are dominated by supporters of Biya’s Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) and have backed the party in previous elections.
The Regional Councils have their origins in a 1996 law that amended Cameroon’s 1972 constitution. This constitution was Cameroon’s second following the abolition of a federal form of government by the country’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo. Federalism had existed since the former British colony of Southern Cameroons merged with the former French colony of Cameroon in 1961. The constitutional reform of 1996 was announced with the intent of quelling dissent from ethnic and linguistic groups that had been excluded during the first decade of Biya’s government as well as that of his predecessor. The groups that suffered from such marginalization included those from the West and Far North regions, although the predominant group was the Anglophone minority of the Northwest and Southwest regions.
The discontent that the Anglophone minority felt was compounded by the first multiparty elections held in 1992, during which John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) came in second with 36 percent of the vote while Biya won 40 percent. Allegations of electoral irregularities led to a prolonged period of unrest and a deep sense of marginalization within the Anglophone population.
In response, leaders from Anglophone Cameroon convened the All Anglophone Conference in 1993 that resulted in the Buea Declaration, which called for a return to the federated government that existed prior to 1971. In 1994, the second All Anglophone Conference convened and issued the Bamenda Declaration, stating that if Cameroon did not return to a federal form of government, the Anglophone regions of Cameroon would demand independence.
It was largely in response to these growing demands from Cameroon’s Anglophone community that the National Assembly of Cameroon adopted constitutional reform measures to create a more decentralized state. At the time, the National Assembly was dominated by the ruling CPDM party, and the reform measures were backed by Biya and the government. The amendment stated that regions would be given jurisdiction over land management, budgeting, education, and other areas of governance. It also promised that the main organ responsible for overseeing the decentralized form of governance would be the Regional Councils that were established in the amendment. In addition to regional decentralization, the amendment also made the Cameroonian legislature bicameral by creating the Senate, which comprises 100 members; 30 of the senators are appointed directly by the president with the other 70 being selected by municipal councils across Cameroon.
Despite the fact that the constitutional reforms were approved by the National Assembly, the power to convene elections for both the Senate and Regional Councils that the amendment created was given solely to the president. And although nationwide elections occurred for both the presidency and Parliament the year after the amendment was enacted, Biya did not call elections for the Regional Councils or the Senate, meaning that the new bodies were never created.
In essence, the Cameroonian government agreed to constitutional reforms that had the potential to lead to a devolution of governance to the regional level but refused to implement them. In ignoring the demands issued at the two All Anglophone Conferences and not moving ahead with the implementation of his own government’s decentralization policies, Biya signaled that he did not take the demands of the Anglophone minority seriously.
The unwillingness of the government to acknowledge the demands of the Anglophone population led to the emergence of several groups demanding the creation of an independent state, such as the Southern Cameroons National Council and the Southern Cameroons Youth League. The government pushed many of those demanding separation into exile, where they continued their advocacy while gaining minimal traction in Cameroon. The events of the 1990s further instilled a deep-seated sense of resentment among Anglophone Cameroonians and other minorities across the country that the government ignored.
Even as other constitutional reform measures were fully implemented—including the abolition of presidential term limits, allowing Biya, who assumed office in 1982, to remain in power—enacting meaningful decentralization was constantly avoided. It was not until 2013 that Biya called for elections to the Senate be held, although the selection process for members by presidential appointments and selections by municipal councils that are generally dominated by the ruling party have led to the upper house of the legislature being yet another institution dominated by allies of Biya without any real power.
Until now, Biya’s government has consistently avoided calling Regional Council elections, likely because of the fear that the results could threaten the monopoly of control the central government maintains over affairs at the municipal level. Similarly, the government regularly appointed ministers and officials from marginalized groups and stated that in doing so all demands for power-sharing had been met. A prime example of this is the post of prime minister, which has been held by an Anglophone since 1991. In reality, such members of the cabinet are devout supporters of Biya and the ruling party and do little to address the marginalization of the groups they supposedly represent. In short, the status quo continued, and marginalization across the country continued to grow.
The lack of genuine decentralization and continued poor governance across Cameroon eventually morphed from an issue that was solely political to one that presented grave security challenges to civilians and the legitimacy of the Republic of Cameroon itself.
This first became evident in 2014 with the commencement of attacks by Boko Haram, which had established a safe haven in the Far North region of Cameroon—long one of the most impoverished areas in the country. Moreover, the Far North was marginalized from almost all matters of governance, allowing for Boko Haram and affiliated groups to recruit from and embed themselves into local communities due to decades of socioeconomic neglect by the Cameroonian state. Boko Haram continues to pose a threat, as was exemplified by the government having to close over 60 schools due to security threats despite claims that the group had been defeated.
Similarly, the lack of decentralization and the infringement on local education and judicial institutions sparked massive protests in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions, leading to a war of separation following government crackdowns. When demonstrations broke out in the fall of 2016, the government violently suppressed them and ridiculed protesters’ demands. Despite the fact that the leaders of the demonstrations, Felix Agbor Balla and Fontem Neba, sought negotiations with the government, they were arrested and imprisoned for months.
To many Anglophones, this proved the Cameroonian state was not concerned about their grievances and that the creation of an independent state would be the only way to address them. Instead of addressing the grievances when the demand of the Anglophone minority was genuine decentralization, the Cameroonian government responded with violence, causing the situation to escalate.
By deliberately ignoring the need for decentralization for over two decades, Biya’s government allowed for legitimate social grievances to boil over, leading to widespread political violence that has caused death, destruction, and grave humanitarian challenges across Cameroon. As the country faces several political crises, the government is seeking to implement decentralization measures that do not substantially address the grievances of marginalized populations and stem from a law that was written before they even existed.
Instead of a genuine attempt to implement a negotiated solution to the Anglophone crisis and address the drivers of marginalization in regions including the Far North, this is yet another attempt to present a facade of reform. Similar to the national dialogue that was held in the fall of 2019, and the so-called “special status” for the Anglophone regions that the elections will solidify, it will accomplish nothing.
The vast majority of political actors in Cameroon now argue that a return to a federal form of state is needed to address the challenges facing the country. This includes Maurice Kamto, who is himself a Francophone and head of the main Cameroon Renaissance Movement (CRM) opposition party, along with Fru Ndi of the SDF, who has at times gone as far to say that the actions of the Biya government during the ongoing Anglophone crisis have made him sympathetic to calls for separation.
Both the CRM and the SDF have stated that they will boycott any vote to elect members to the Regional Councils, meaning that if established the councils will have minimal legitimacy in the eyes of many Cameroonians. Even if the opposition parties were not boycotting the election, victory for Biya’s CPDM party would be all but guaranteed as it controls the overwhelming majority of the councils that will serve as the indirect electors.
Ironically, the announcement of the Regional Council elections comes not even a year after the Cameroonian government announced a special status for the two Anglophone regions, which would see regional legislatures with some of the same responsibilities as the councils. When the special status was announced, the government claimed that it would allow the Northwest and Southwest regions to have more autonomy than the other eight regions of the country and in doing so address the demands of the Anglophone minority. However, the creation of the Regional Councils in all of Cameroon’s 10 regions will see the same reforms implemented across the country. This is yet another attempt by Biya and the hard-liners in his government to present an illegitimate effort to resolve the crisis and mitigate the increase in international criticism.
While many of the challenges facing Cameroon today could have been prevented by genuine decentralization and better governance in previous decades, resolving them now will require a fundamental change in how the country is governed. To some, including Kamto, these demands broadly center on a political transition and a loosely defined federal state. Many Anglophones look to the two-state federation that existed in Cameroon for the first decade of its independence and allowed Anglophones to have a larger measure of autonomy than the rest of the country. However, a return to federation that would see governors elected by universal suffrage and not appointed by the president, as is the case today, could gain support.
A resolution can only be achieved through consultations with marginalized groups across the country and negotiated settlements with separatist leaders in the Northwest and Southwest regions. The overdue proposal to establish Regional Councils is simply another fig leaf from Biya’s government that ignores the root causes of the grave challenges facing the country. Without genuine reforms derived from consultations and negotiations, Cameroon will continue to experience political and economic turmoil, leading to more violence and regional instability.