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Cameroon: Electoral Uncertainty amid Multiple Security Threats
Cameroon: Electoral Uncertainty amid Multiple Security Threats
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

Commentary / Africa

Cameroon: Electoral Uncertainty amid Multiple Security Threats

Cameroon is facing violence in three regions, local communities are struggling to resist Boko Haram recruitment and the humanitarian crisis is worsening. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support regional governments to provide humanitarian assistance and encourage the state to develop projects to boost local economies.

This commentary on Cameroon's electoral uncertainty and multiple security threats is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

Cameroon’s governance and security problems for many years have attracted little outside attention. But the country now faces violence in three regions: the Far North, where Boko Haram continues to mount small-scale attacks, as well as the Northwest and Southwest, where an incipient Anglophone insurgency emerged in 2017. Added to this ambient insecurity is a refugee crisis in the East and Adamaoua, to which 236,000 people from the Central African Republic have fled militia battles. Elections scheduled for October 2018 will be a major test, as will the eventual transfer of power away from President Paul Biya, now 85. 2018 is a crucial moment for the international community, and in particular the EU and its member states, to engage in early action and prevent further escalation.

Boko Haram: still a threat to a neglected region

Boko Haram, active in Cameroon’s Far North since 2014, has killed about 1,800 civilians and 175 soldiers, kidnapped around 1,000 people and burned and looted many villages, while the conflict has displaced some 242,000 and badly disrupted the local economy. Some 91,000 Nigerians have fled Boko Haram-related violence in Nigeria to Cameroon. Though battered by security forces and riven by internal divisions, Boko Haram remains a threat in the Far North: in 2017 the group has killed at least 27 soldiers and gendarmes, as well as 210 civilians. It could regain strength if Cameroonian authorities neglect the crisis.

The war against Boko Haram has strained local communities, given rise to humanitarian crises and highlighted the need for longer-term development.

Boko Haram fighters and associates have surrendered in increasing numbers. Dozens of former militants have been sent home, after swearing on the Quran they would not rejoin the group. About 80 others are being held at a military camp in Mayo Sava. To encourage more such surrenders, authorities should avoid blanket stigmatisation and differentiate between hard-core fighters and others. The government also needs to develop a clear plan to counter the appeal of the jihadist ideas that some of the Boko Haram fighters that have given themselves up or been captured continue to espouse. Effective justice and reintegration mechanisms are lacking. Hundreds of supposed Boko Haram members are currently in pre-trial detention, a situation that risks fuelling their further radicalisation; their status should be resolved as swiftly as possible. Authorities also should seek to implement flexible, locally-informed mechanisms to facilitate the social reintegration of former Boko Haram fighters and encourage new surrenders. Leaving this to the whims of ad-hoc local efforts is inadvisable: given the destruction wreaked by the insurgency, communities are highly resentful, and poorly conceived reintegration schemes could sow the seeds of future problems. This is in contrast to neighbouring Chad, where local communities seem to be integrating former militants somewhat successfully on an informal basis. The EU should encourage national authorities, both in Yaounde and in regional capitals, to elaborate and implement their own plans to manage the demobilisation of former Boko Haram members.

The war against Boko Haram has strained local communities, given rise to humanitarian crises and highlighted the need for longer-term development. In 2018, Cameroon’s international partners, including the EU, should provide further humanitarian assistance in the Far North, focused on strengthening support to displaced persons and host families as well as supporting the voluntary return of Nigerian refugees. Where required, emergency operations should continue, but humanitarian efforts should also evolve into a more sustainable development approach.

The challenge is to stimulate the local economy without filling the coffers of Boko Haram, which taxes local trade and whose recruitment efforts in the past have been facilitated in part by offering small business loans and other financial incentives. Achieving the right balance will be difficult. But European support for small businesses within the formal and informal economies could help undercut local backing for Boko Haram. Separately, while Yaounde has long controlled the Far North by co-opting local notables, Boko Haram’s spread into Cameroon was partly facilitated by tapping into anger at local elites, thereby demonstrating the limits of that approach. Instead, Cameroon’s partners should encourage the state to reassert its presence in the north in a participatory and inclusive manner rather than through proxies, including via development projects that boost local earning potential.

The Anglophone crisis: an insurgency in the making

The crisis in the Anglophone regions (the Northwest and Southwest), which started as a sectoral protest, is rapidly developing into an armed insurgency, following the Cameroonian security forces’ violent repression on 22 September and 1 October. While there are hardliners among the militants, the government bears a large share of the responsibility for the conflict. It failed to recognise the legitimacy of Anglophone grievances; its security forces committed widespread abuses; and it imprisoned many peaceful activists in early 2017.

Several small “self-defence” groups (the Tigers, Ambaland forces and Vipers, to name a few) now operate alongside two armed militias: the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) and the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces. Since November 2017, these groups have launched low-intensity attacks that have killed at least 22 and injured 25 among soldiers and gendarmes. An unknown number of separatist fighters have died in these clashes. The military crackdown also exacted a large humanitarian toll and involved significant human rights violations. The violence has left at least 90 civilians since October 2016. Around a thousand have been arrested, with 400 still in jail. More than 30,000 Anglophones are refugees in Nigeria and tens of thousands have been internally displaced.

Given that the crisis is rooted in historically grounded identity-based grievances, notably the strong sentiment among Anglophones that they have been politically and economically marginalised, there will be no easy resolution. The government will need to change course and negotiate in good faith. The government’s refusal to launch a dialogue with peaceful Anglophone leaders has corroded the community’s trust in state institutions and provoked escalating violence. The crisis also illustrates the limits of the country’s centralised governance model, which show signs of atrophy. Discontent is still mounting in Anglophone areas. Reports suggest that some members of the security forces are joining the insurgency.

A direct dialogue between the government and Anglophone community leaders is critical to de-escalate the crisis, particularly ahead of the October elections. A wider conversation, which should include discussion of different models of decentralisation and federalism, is also important, given the failings of the current model. The EU and its member states should take advantage of the government’s concern about its international image and desire to preserve cooperation with them to nudge it toward direct talks and a national dialogue.

Uncertainties ahead

Most of the country’s security threats stem, at least in part, from bad governance and an over-centralised political system. While the 2018 elections are likely to see the ruling party retain power, a vote perceived as manipulated or unfair could further diminish its legitimacy, making it even more remote from citizens and feeding greater levels of violence. Election season will be an especially risky time if, as appears likely, Anglophone militants attempt to disrupt the balloting in the Northwest and Southwest regions, and possibly elsewhere.

More broadly, while many local activists and international actors see an eventual transition from President Biya, whose party dominates the government, as a prerequisite for improvements in governance, they also fear that his departure could trigger instability. European and other foreign powers should start laying the groundwork for a peaceful transfer of power; the longer the situation deteriorates, the harder it will be to pick up the pieces. They have two opportunities to do so in 2018: first, by supporting dialogue between the Biya government and Anglophone leaders, as described above; and, second, by working with Cameroon’s electoral body (ELECAM) and pressing the government to permit, and then deploy, election observers to protect the integrity of the vote, as best possible, and thus build confidence in the electoral system. Even small gains in these areas would help mend the frayed contract between the Cameroonian state and its citizens.