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Biya Basks in Soccer Spotlight in Hopes of Propaganda Win

Cameroon’s regime wouldn’t be the first to use sports to whitewash a brutal conflict.

By , a writer and international development researcher.
Cameroonian President Paul Biya and first lady Chantal Biya wave to the crowd at the Africa Cup of Nations in Yaoundé, Cameroon, on Jan. 9.
Cameroonian President Paul Biya and first lady Chantal Biya wave to the crowd at the Africa Cup of Nations in Yaoundé, Cameroon, on Jan. 9.
Cameroonian President Paul Biya and first lady Chantal Biya wave to the crowd at the Africa Cup of Nations in Yaoundé, Cameroon, on Jan. 9. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

Five years ago, thousands of English-speaking Cameroonians took to the streets to protest an issue that has long fueled domestic tensions: the marginalization of the English-speaking minority. Although Cameroon is officially bilingual and has both English and French-speaking regions, the government has historically favored French. Knowing French is necessary to advance in school, work, and business, whereas Anglophone Cameroonians claim their regions receive less state funding and have poorer infrastructure.

Although the protests were set off by recent encroachments of the French language and French-speaking administrators in the Anglophone regions, the divide goes back much further—to the arbitrary borders drawn by European powers during the colonial era. The smaller Anglophone parts of Cameroon lived under the British while the larger Francophone majority was ruled by France. After French-speaking Cameroon gained independence in 1960, the British regions voted to join it in 1961. The result was a centralized state that joined not just two languages but also different systems of law and education inherited from their former colonial powers.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s response to the 2016 protests—a deadly crackdown that killed several civilians, injured dozens of people, and resulted in the arrests of hundreds of others—only deepened these rifts. His heavy-handed measures not only took on peaceful protesters but also inflamed tensions with a minority separatist movement fighting for an independent state; after the separatists launched guerrilla warfare campaigns against government forces, Biya declared war against them in 2017. The conflict has taken a deadly toll: More than 4,000 civilians have been killed, and around 800,000 Cameroonians have fled their homes.

Five years ago, thousands of English-speaking Cameroonians took to the streets to protest an issue that has long fueled domestic tensions: the marginalization of the English-speaking minority. Although Cameroon is officially bilingual and has both English and French-speaking regions, the government has historically favored French. Knowing French is necessary to advance in school, work, and business, whereas Anglophone Cameroonians claim their regions receive less state funding and have poorer infrastructure.

Although the protests were set off by recent encroachments of the French language and French-speaking administrators in the Anglophone regions, the divide goes back much further—to the arbitrary borders drawn by European powers during the colonial era. The smaller Anglophone parts of Cameroon lived under the British while the larger Francophone majority was ruled by France. After French-speaking Cameroon gained independence in 1960, the British regions voted to join it in 1961. The result was a centralized state that joined not just two languages but also different systems of law and education inherited from their former colonial powers.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s response to the 2016 protests—a deadly crackdown that killed several civilians, injured dozens of people, and resulted in the arrests of hundreds of others—only deepened these rifts. His heavy-handed measures not only took on peaceful protesters but also inflamed tensions with a minority separatist movement fighting for an independent state; after the separatists launched guerrilla warfare campaigns against government forces, Biya declared war against them in 2017. The conflict has taken a deadly toll: More than 4,000 civilians have been killed, and around 800,000 Cameroonians have fled their homes.

As Cameroon hosts the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s biennial soccer competition, Biya is basking in the international spotlight and attempting to use the tournament to create goodwill toward his regime—even as he continues his ongoing campaign of brutality. This month, the country welcomed 24 national teams for the tournament, a tremendous honor that Biya hopes to use to win a propaganda victory, legitimize his repression, and tighten his grip on power. Although some media outlets have covered the crackdown, they have paid scant attention to Anglophone Cameroonians’ legitimate grievances.

From the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the 2022 Beijing Games, autocratic governments have long used high-profile tournaments to generate positive media coverage and attempt to whitewash their regimes—and Cameroon is no exception. Until the world looks past this facade and pays more attention to what the Norwegian Refugee Council deemed the “most neglected” crisis of 2019, Cameroonian civilians will continue to suffer.

When the demonstrations first ignited in 2016, few expected them to lead to such violence. Early protests were peaceful, with teachers’ unions and law associations calling for greater respect for the autonomy of the Anglophone regions’ legal and education systems. Few of the protesters had secession on their agenda.

Biya’s harsh response, however, radicalized many protesters and added fuel to the separatist movement. After he suppressed the demonstrations, many Anglophone Cameroonians who previously only wanted reforms grew to support—or at least understand the grievances of—those calling for the secession of Cameroon’s Anglophone regions and the formation of an independent state: Ambazonia. This new country would be nestled between the Francophone regions of Cameroon and neighboring Nigeria and have a population of about 3 to 4 million people.

Over the course of the conflict, Biya has radicalized his tactics and response, deploying U.S.- and Israeli-trained Cameroonian special forces to quash dissent. Critics of the government—both armed and peaceful—now face increasingly brutal violence and human rights abuses by the state.

The separatists’ hands aren’t clean either. Mirroring the government’s tactics of intimidation and fear, they have attacked schools and markets in the very towns they claim to be fighting for. In recent months, they have also begun deploying deadlier weapons, such as improvised explosive devices, against Cameroonian military forces. This violence shows no signs of abating during the Africa Cup of Nations; during the first week of the competition, a sitting Cameroonian senator was assassinated.

As the country’s crisis deepens, it’s worth asking why the Confederation of African Football (CAF) chose to award hosting privileges to a country engulfed in such a conflict. Cameroon had originally been selected to host the 2019 cup, but that decision was later withdrawn due to infrastructure delays and security concerns. Last year, the CAF decided to give Biya another try.

The fact that the CAF picked Cameroon to host the Africa Cup of Nations twice during an ongoing conflict is a stain on the competition. By overlooking Biya’s abuses, the CAF has given him the opportunity to legitimize his rule and his government’s stranglehold on power. If the tournament concludes without significant disruptions, Biya will have scored important propaganda points. Emboldened by a successful competition, he may also lose interest in negotiating with the separatists.

Cameroon’s ongoing unrest also raises legitimate safety concerns for soccer players, visiting dignitaries, and spectators. The weeks preceding the tournament produced troubling images, showing that this would be anything but a normal Africa Cup of Nations: One image showed the Africa Cup’s mascot walking among soldiers and another showed armored vehicles patrolling city streets.

More than five years after the country’s protests began, it’s past time for all sides to come to the negotiating table in good faith. Although Cameroon was once seen as a bastion of stability in Central Africa, its escalating crisis threatens to further destabilize the entire region. This instability also weakens the country’s existing relationships with partners like the United States, which rely on Cameroon to help combat extremist groups in the Sahel. Multilateral institutions—such as the United Nations and African Union—as well as key partners—such as France, Britain, and the United States—must pressure the government to halt its heavy-handed tactics and recognize the grievances of Anglophone Cameroonians while also pushing separatists to stop their attacks.

For now, however, all eyes will be on the soccer tournament—just like Biya wanted. But whether it’s Senegal’s Sadio Mané, Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar, or another African soccer star who takes his national team to victory, it’s the people of Cameroon that have the most to lose if the country’s civil war isn’t treated with the gravity it deserves.

Christian Freymeyer is a writer, international development researcher, and former member of the U.S. Peace Corps in Kumbo, Cameroon. Twitter: @cfreymeyer

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