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Cameroon’s Anglophone Dialogue: A Work in Progress
Cameroon’s Anglophone Dialogue: A Work in Progress
Report 160 / Africa

Cameroon: Fragile State?

Cameroon’s apparent stability is deceptive: even if it overcomes its near-term challenges, longer-term deterioration could lead to conflict.

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Executive Summary

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

Supporters of the ruling CPDM, Cameroon Pepole's Democratic Movement of incumbent Cameroonian President Paul Biya walk under the watch of a gendarme in the Omar Bongo Square in the majority English-speaking South West province in Buea, on October 3, 2018. AFP/Marco Longari
Statement / Africa

Cameroon’s Anglophone Dialogue: A Work in Progress

President Paul Biya has proposed a national dialogue aimed at resolving the Cameroonian government’s conflict with Anglophone separatists. But the mooted dialogue will include neither separatists nor, it appears, other important English-speaking constituencies. Biya should allow greater Anglophone participation and neutral facilitation for the dialogue.

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On 10 September, President Paul Biya proposed a national dialogue aimed at addressing the two-year conflict between his government and Anglophone separatists that has laid waste to Cameroon’s North West and South West regions. His proposal appears to be in part a response to domestic anger at his security forces’ failure to defeat the separatists and in part a response to mounting international concern over the crisis. The dialogue could be an opportunity for his government and Anglophone leaders to table potential solutions. As proposed, however, it will neither include separatist leaders nor leave much room for Anglophones who support federalism within Cameroon’s borders. It thus risks further frustrating Anglophones, widening the gulf between the two sides and empowering hardliners. To improve the dialogue’s prospects, the government should make greater space for Anglophones, particularly federalists who are willing to attend. It should also seek a neutral facilitator and accept the African Union (AU)’s and the UN’s offers to help. A successful dialogue should set the stage for further talks that will still be required between the government and Anglophones of all persuasions, including separatists.

President Biya’s announcement comes amid ongoing violence in Anglophone areas. The crisis started in late 2016 as a protest against the state’s discrimination against Anglophones in education and law. It quickly descended into armed conflict, as security forces repressed protesters and some Anglophone separatists took up arms against the state.

Since 2017, the rebels have battled security forces, with both sides reportedly committing abuses against the population, including burning villages, closing down schools and killing civilians. Violence has claimed around 3,000 lives, displaced half a million people within Cameroon, compelled another 40,000 to flee to Nigeria, deprived 700,000 children of schooling in their home areas and left one in three people in the Anglophone regions in need of humanitarian aid. On 20 August, the government sentenced ten prominent separatist leaders to life in prison; separatists responded by upping their attacks. In early September, they imposed a “lockdown” (general strike), which has again blocked the start of the new school year – nearly all schools in the area have been shuttered for most of the last three years as separatists have enforced, sometimes violently, a school boycott.

For Cameroon, resolving the crisis is critical [as] the country’s economy is nose-diving.

For Cameroon, resolving the crisis is critical. The country’s economy is nose-diving. The Cameroon Development Corporation and PAMOL, two of the country’s biggest agricultural companies, both owned by the state, have lost up to 80 per cent of their capacity. In September 2018, companies working in the Anglophone regions reported losses estimated at a half-billion dollars since the crisis began. The security forces are overstretched, fighting not only Anglophone separatists in the west but the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the north. Furthermore, a protracted political crisis stemming from the imprisonment of opposition leader Maurice Kamto, who continues to claim victory in the 2018 presidential election, has increased communal antagonisms countrywide.

President Biya’s proposed dialogue is scheduled for 30 September to 4 October at the Palais des Congrès in the capital Yaoundé. He has entrusted its organisation to Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute, an Anglophone. Ngute has started consultations with a wide range of Cameroonians. Most, however, are not Anglophone and play little role in the country’s English-speaking regions.

Anglophone separatists, who hold sway in large areas of those regions, will not attend. Neither they nor the government has shown much appetite for reconciliation. Embryonic informal contacts between the two sides took place this year, but an internationally-led mediation attempt recently slowed down in the face of intransigence by both sides. On 22 September, the main separatist leaders abroad restated their willingness to talk with the government, but rejected the planned dialogue as “purely internal”. They gave no sign of easing their conditions for talks: international mediation, a location outside the country and an agenda focused on the terms of separation. The government has offered no concession that could persuade them to reconsider. It has not called for a ceasefire; issued invitations and safe passage to separatists for dialogue; or made any move to release Anglophone prisoners (though Biya has not dismissed the possibility of pardons for separatist leaders at a later stage).

Even more conciliatory Anglophones fear being left out. These include federalists, whose calls for a return to the constitutional arrangements of 1961 to 1972, which united one Francophone state and one Anglophone state in a federal system, are popular among Anglophones. Some federalist leaders are deeply sceptical of President Biya’s intentions but others welcome the dialogue in principle. These include the influential Catholic leader Cardinal Christian Tumi, head of the Anglophone General Conference (AGC), which was created in July 2018 and involves Catholic, Protestant and Muslim Anglophone leaders. The AGC has participated in Prime Minister Ngute’s consultations and will attend the dialogue.

By initiating the dialogue, President Biya has publicly recognised for the first time that security measures alone cannot resolve the crisis.

But the prime minister’s preliminary agenda leaves little room for the AGC leaders to present their views. Moreover, earlier this year, the government prevented the AGC from holding its own meeting aimed at unifying an Anglophone negotiating position. Given that the prime minister’s consultations have involved a huge array of national voices, many of whom have little connection to the Anglophone crisis, the forthcoming dialogue risks drowning out potential proposals from Anglophones with a plethora of other national concerns. If that happens, the dialogue is unlikely to address wider Anglophone grievances or consider solutions such as federalism, which many Anglophones back. Allowing federalists insufficient time in the agenda could prove an own goal for the government. Disempowered, they will be unable to make the case to separatists to moderate their position. Their exclusion could also hamper discussions that could help federalists find common ground with advocates of a milder – and among Anglophones much less popular – form of decentralisation, entailing granting greater autonomy to yet-to-be-elected regional councils over their staff, budgets and the local education sector in particular.

The president’s intent is unclear. He is likely feeling pressure both from citizens frustrated at his failure to resolve the crisis and from international actors (especially the U.S and the EU), particularly in the run-up to the UN General Assembly, which his foreign minister is attending. He may also be treading a fine line between two camps within the government and ruling party. Some senior officials have publicly described the dialogue as part of a longer process – a helpful recognition that the government will have to take further steps to resolve the crisis. More hawkish officials reportedly want to use the dialogue to stymie any move toward genuine peace talks and amplify calls for the government’s armed response to continue. By initiating the dialogue, President Biya has publicly recognised for the first time that security measures alone cannot resolve the crisis. But his 10 September speech cited the “supposed marginalisation” of Anglophones, with his refusal to explicitly recognise their grievances souring his offer of an olive branch. A worst-case scenario would see hardliners using the dialogue to push through conclusions at odds with Anglophone opinion, and then using these conclusions to further avoid peace talks.

Among Francophone opposition leaders some welcome the dialogue – despite its flaws – as a chance to end a crisis that risks sucking the country into wider civil war. They argue that the tide of violence means it is vital to seize any chance, however slim, to move toward a negotiated settlement. “The president may have opened a window not a door”, one told Crisis Group in Yaoundé, “but we should still climb through”.

Even a dialogue with more balanced participation will not obviate the need for more painstaking, mediated talks between the government and Anglophone leaders.

As for Cameroon’s foreign partners, the French government, the EU, the AU and the UN have also welcomed the dialogue, but called for it to be more inclusive. In private, many diplomats in Yaoundé express concern over the short time for preparing and holding it, given the complexities of the issues involved; the absence of experienced and neutral facilitation; and concerns about the agenda and the proliferation of participants not central to the Anglophone crisis.

In the short time before the dialogue, the government could improve its chances of helping resolve the crisis by:

  • Offering adequate time in the agenda for Anglophones, including federalists, to put forward their proposals. This would entail curbing time given to the multitude of Francophones whom the prime minister has consulted in the preparatory phase.
  • Seeking a facilitator who enjoys greater confidence from all parties than Prime Minister Ngute, whose government is a party to the conflict.
  • Accepting offers from the AU and UN to provide good offices and help bridge divides between Anglophone federalists and government, before or during the dialogue.

Even a dialogue with more balanced participation will not obviate the need for more painstaking, mediated talks between the government and Anglophone leaders. Establishing lines of communication with separatists is a priority, likely initially requiring shuttle diplomacy and confidence-building measures on both sides, with the government releasing some detainees and rebels signalling, which they would likely initially do discreetly, that they may be willing to accept a ceasefire and soften their line on independence. The government also should consider opening direct negotiations with federalists who can perhaps help draw separatists away from their armed struggle. This would require, as a first step, that it allow the Anglophone General Conference’s mooted meeting, which would bring together a wide range of Anglophones, to take place. International actors whose close relations with Cameroon give them some influence with its government should keep the country on their radar and press President Biya toward such talks. In the interim, the planned September forum at least offers the possibility of keeping dialogue on the table and thereby checking a spiralling civil war.