Cameroon – moving fast when there are short windows of opportunity

There are two separate and not directly related crisis areas in Cameroon. One is a spillover of instability and conflict in Nigeria and the Central African Republic. The second crisis area concerns the Anglophone area of Cameroon to the south and west on the frontier with Nigeria. This armed conflict depends on the ability of Cameroonese to find compromise forms of government, perhaps in a con-federal structure.

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By Rene Wadlow

On 8 May 2019, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, after a 3-day mission to the Cameroon, welcomed the Cameroon government’s willingness to cooperate over finding workable solutions to what she called “major human rights and humanitarian crises” caused by months of serious unrest and violence across the southwest and north of the country.  She said “I believe that there is a clear – if possibly short – window of opportunity to arrest the crises that have led to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people as well as the killings and brutal human rights violations and abuses… It will take significant actions on the part of the Government and substantial and sustained support from the international community.”

There are two separate and not directly related crisis areas in Cameroon. One is a spillover of instability and conflict in Nigeria and the Central African Republic. Solutions will depend largely on what can be done in Nigeria concerning the Boko Haram issue and in the Central African Republic in creating a stable and inclusive government.  The second crisis area concerns the Anglophone area of Cameroon to the south and west on the frontier with Nigeria. This armed conflict depends on the ability of Cameroonese to find compromise forms of government, perhaps in a con-federal structure.

The Anglophone crisis has its making in the 1919 League of Nations Mandate period.  The German colony of Cameroon was divided under a League of Nations Mandate.  The largest and most populated part of the country was under a French mandate – France having the neighboring  colonies of Gabon, Congo and Oubangui-Chari, today the Central African Republic.   England ruled Nigeria and added a part of Cameroon as a mandate area until 1960 when the Cameroon became independent.  The British mandated area voted in a referendum to join with the rest of Cameroon but with a promise of administrative and cultural autonomy.  For roughly the first 20 years this administrative structure worked more or less well.  Overall development of the country was slow and often stagnant, but the Anglophone area did not feel more marginalized than any other part of the country.

In 1982, the current President Paul Biya was elected for the first time and has been constantly re-elected since, the last time in October 2018.  Biya, an ethnic Fang from the area on the frontier with Gabon has carried out a centralizing administrative policy under the slogan of “national unity”.  Taking over a key element of the French constitution, he has stressed that Cameroon is “one and indivisible”.  In practice, this has meant the increased power of the French-speakers within the administration and a growing sense of marginalization among the English-speaking.  Views in the Anglophone area were divided among those who promoted union with Nigeria, those who promoted the creation of a separate, independent State, and those who wanted to stay within the Cameroon but with greater autonomy, respect for cultural differences under some form of federal or con-federal structure.

The conflict came to a head in October 2016 when the Anglophone community felt that they were being flooded in their schools and law court jobs by French-speaking professionals.  Led by  the teachers and lawyers unions, there were strikes, boycotts of schools and courts, “dead village days” when all activity stopped.  As of October 2016, there started to be organized local armed militias and smaller armed groups.  There started to be attacks on persons holding opposed views as to the future of the area.

One year later, in October 2017, wide-spread violence broke out and has continued to grow.  Military and police have been attacked who in return burned villages and killed people.  Many people left their homes for safer areas, some to Nigeria, others to elsewhere in Cameroon.

Those wishing the creation of a separate State have declared “independence” with the State taking the name of Ambazonia whose President is Julius Ayak Tabe.  The number of militias has grown.  There are at least 10 separatist groups.  It is impossible from outside to evaluate their membership, relative strength and policy demands.

There have been calls for moderation and offers of mediation by the Roman Catholic Bishops of Cameroon and by the African Union as well as by the United Kingdom and the USA.  President Biya has stated since 2016 that he is willing to engage in “constructive dialogue” but that he  was unwilling to talk to anyone who questions the “one and indivisible” nature of the State.  Thus there is no dialogue, constructive or otherwise, at the moment.

The “clear – if possibly short – window of opportunity ” seen by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights rests with those called “federalists” who propose a federal structure for the country somewhat along the Nigerian model.  The “federalists” are not armed, and it is impossible to know their strength.  Many people are afraid to speak out for fear of bing attacked.  As it is, there are many attacks to hold people for ransom.  Young women are taken as “sex slaves”.  Arms and money are coming in from Cameroonese living in Nigeria, although the Nigerian Government is not encouraging the separatist movement, at least not publicly. It seems that drugs are widely used among those fighting.

All this makes discussion on the administrative structure of the State difficult.  In practice, there is the long-lasting issue of how to move fast when there is a window of opportunity.  The Foreign Ministries of Governments are equipped to move fast and usually have lines of communication to the intelligence services and the military.  The Foreign Ministry usually also has contacts to “think tanks” and university research departments in its country. The problem is that for an issue such as the internal administrative structure of the Cameroon, most Foreign Ministries will turn a blind eye, having other problems on their mind.

The United Nations system has the intellectual resources for such an issue but dispersed.  There are people at UNESCO who follow educational policy and who may have followed the teachers’ strikes in 2016 which were an early sign of trouble.  The same holds true  for the ILO who may have been informed of the teachers’ trade union strike. There are people at FAO who follow agricultural development and who may have studied the relative agricultural development among French and English-speaking zones of the country.  There is, however, a difficulty for the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to draw on this knowledge in the U.N. system dispersed among Geneva, Paris, and Rome.

The Vatican may be kept well informed as the Roman Catholic Bishops have called for mediation.  However a good deal of the leadership in the Cameroon are Protestants and may not look kindly on Catholic leadership on the issue.

Thus, we need to look at non-governmental organization leadership for action on constitutional change in the country. There are a number of problems however.  One is a question of “legitimacy” – an international NGO with expertise may have no local member, and local NGOs may have external links, but these are not specialists on constitutional questions. Thus, while the Protestant churches in the Cameroon are members of the World Council of Churches, the World Council is not focused on governmental constitutional issues.

Expertise on the Cameroon is usually found in university departments but which have no direct links to NGOs.  Moreover, the university-based expertise on the Cameroon is mostly found in France but that is largely focused on the French-speaking part of the country.  The specialized knowledge on the English-speaking part of the Cameroon is mostly in the Nigerian universities and is relatively rare. How to pull together non-governmental capacity is even more difficult than from within the U.N. system.

However, as the High Commissioner stated, the time that the window is open may be short and needs to be acted upon quickly. The same issue holds true for other areas as well.

Rene Wadlow is president of the Association of World Citizens.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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