Cameroon: Fragile State?
Africa Report N°160
25 May 2010
Cameroon’s apparent stability in a turbulent region cannot be taken for granted. The co-option of elites through the distribution of state largesse, and the emigration of many educated young people provide a certain safety valve for tensions, but the failure of reform and continued poor governance mean people no longer believe in the rule of law or peaceful political change. Multiple risks of conflict exist in the build-up to presidential elections in 2011 and beyond. This background report, Crisis Group’s first on Cameroon, analyses the historical roots of the current impasse.
Cameroon’s history shows a pattern of apparent stability followed by violent crisis. For long periods (early 1950s, 1970s), problems have been masked but not dealt with. In the late 1950s, widespread unrest occurred as the main party opposed to French rule was banned, leading to a bloody and protracted guerrilla war. Independence came in 1960, but in the context of extensive violence. In 1961, though the southern region of British-controlled Anglophone Cameroon voted to re-join Francophone Cameroon, the north voted to remain with Nigeria.
The late 1960s and the 1970s was a period of relative peace. The regime was obsessed with unity and stability following the traumas of the 1950s, but, having fought against the only genuine liberation movement, lacked historical legitimacy. It was autocratic, and pluralism and diversity were considered unacceptable threats to the nation-building project. Nevertheless, the economy grew, and some genuine development took place.
The resignation of President Ahidjo in November 1982 and the hand-over of power to his prime minister, Paul Biya, initially passed off smoothly. But tensions soon emerged, culminating in a coup attempt in April 1984, blamed on Ahidjo loyalists. It was violently put down, no process of reconciliation followed, and the trauma of this period is still a source of bitterness for many from the north, Ahidjo’s home area. Equally, some from the south, including in the security forces, fear communal reprisals stemming from the unfinished business of 1984.
In the early 1990s, opposition parties emerged, and multi-party elections were held. For two and a half years, the regime was seriously threatened at the ballot box and in the street, and frustrations led to widespread violence in 1991. But having pulled through, President Biya and his ruling party started to push back on reforms and restore authoritarian rule behind a façade of democratic practice.
Today, the nation-building project has become frayed, as the economy has stagnated, and unemployment and inequality have risen. The economy is weighed down by corruption and inertia, and the population sees very little from what economic growth there has been, mainly through exploitation of natural resources. While potential organising forces are weak and dissipated, popular anger is high.
The regime retains its old conservative reflexes, but the experiences and expectations of a youthful population have moved on. The political opposition is weakened by internal fractures and an erosion of democratic space, leaving few channels to express legitimate discontent. The explosion of anger in February 2008, stimulated by Biya’s decision to alter the constitution to seek a further term in office, showed the dangers of this situation.
Cameroon has many features of other countries which have fallen into conflict, including highly centralised and personalised leadership, political manipulation of ethnic tensions and very widespread corruption. Even if it overcomes its near-term challenges, the possibility of longer-term deterioration leading to more open conflict cannot be excluded. In Côte d’Ivoire a protracted struggle for succession of a long-serving president laid the ground for a civil war. With President Biya now 77, and in the absence of any clear signals over his intentions, the question of presidential succession also looms large.
Events in Guinea in December 2008, when weak rule of law and manipulation of the constitution were seized on by junior officers with disastrous consequences, should be sobering for anyone concerned about Cameroon. Respect for the constitution and for rule of law more generally is low. The end of Paul Biya’s presidency, only the second the country has known, is likely to be fraught with risk. But it could also be an opportunity to initiate the reforms needed to ensure the country’s longer-term stability.
The international community has frequently provided the Cameroonian regime with decisive help. Though this help has come with pressure for reform, very little has been forthcoming. The danger is that the regime now sees any opening as a fundamental threat to its survival and is likely to harden its stance as the presidential election approaches.
Most donors and other international partners are very reluctant to criticise the regime and seemingly willing to go along with its cat and mouse game of fake political and economic reform. But an unstable Cameroon, or just more years of bad governance, would threaten a fragile region. The problems are of legitimate wider concern and present a classic case of possible early conflict prevention. But strong international and domestic vested interests have to be challenged to enact the changes needed to avoid instability. Donors should use their leverage, both financial and diplomatic, to send far stronger messages to the Cameroon government.
Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels, 25 May 2010