icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Cameroon’s Ethno-Political Tensions and Facebook Are a Deadly Mix
Cameroon’s Ethno-Political Tensions and Facebook Are a Deadly Mix
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.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

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

Op-Ed / Africa

Cameroon’s Ethno-Political Tensions and Facebook Are a Deadly Mix

Originally published in World Politics Review

A heavily contested presidential election in 2018 has unleashed a new layer of political tensions that have taken an ethnic turn and found a formidable amplifier on social media. 

When at least 53 people died in Cameroon in late January after a bus collided with a fuel-laden truck—one of the worst road accidents in the country’s history—few observers would have expected that reactions to the tragedy would include ethnic slurs, mainly on Facebook. They were directed toward members of the Bamileke community, from which most of the victims appeared to originate. Cameroon has long prided itself on the relative harmony between the country’s approximately 250 ethnic groups, none of which dominates nationally—a diversity that many Cameroonians consider to be a safeguard against communal violence.

But Cameroon now has to deal with a new reality. A heavily contested presidential election in 2018 has unleashed a new layer of political tensions that have taken an ethnic turn and found a formidable amplifier on social media. Among the supporters of longtime President Paul Biya and the main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto, many now frame the political dispute that arose from that election as a competition for power between, on the one hand, Biya’s Bulu group and the ethnic Beti with whom the Bulu identify, and, on the other, Kamto’s Bamileke community.

If allowed to further deepen its roots, this increasingly ethnic acrimony could lead to violence and threaten the stability of a country already facing a separatist insurgency in its Anglophone region. Cameroon’s social fabric could then be torn apart, especially as both sides position themselves for the eventual end of Biya’s presidency. He will turn 88 next week, after nearly four decades in power. A rash of communal violence in a southern town in October 2019 gave Cameroon a taste of what could come if the genie is not swiftly put back in the bottle.

To avoid reaching the point of no return, Biya’s government and the opposition should engage in meaningful dialogue about electoral reforms, while the government should also strengthen the country’s laws against ethnic discrimination.

To avoid reaching the point of no return, Biya’s government and the opposition should engage in meaningful dialogue about electoral reforms, while the government should also strengthen the country’s laws against ethnic discrimination. Facebook, the most popular social media platform in Cameroon, has a role to play, too—by increasing its capacity to identify and remove inflammatory content on its platform.

The ethnic cleavages originate in the rivalry between the ruling party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, known by its French acronym RDPC—which firmly intends to keep the upper hand whenever Biya’s presidency ends—and opposition leaders ambitious for power, Kamto most prominently. The 2018 election, considered by many observers as riddled with irregularities and whose results are still being contested by the opposition, stoked further political division.

Since then, Kamto’s Cameroon Renaissance Movement, or MRC, has boycotted parliamentary and regional elections in 2020 and condemned Biya’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Anglophone crisis. The opposition also wants to see the government undertake some electoral reforms before any future election. This wish notably emanates from a fear that Biya could die or resign before the end of his term, in 2025, leading to snap elections that the ruling party would be better able to control under the current, compromised electoral system.

Despite warnings from influential figures and institutions, like Cameroon’s Catholic bishops more than a year ago, the power struggle between the RDPC and the MRC is now increasingly aligned with ethnic affiliations—a situation only made worse by the use of social media by both politicians and the public.

While the rise of social media has been a welcome boost for free speech in a country where government-controlled outlets occupy most of the media space, it has also had some destabilizing effects. The platforms, and especially Facebook—the most popular social media platform in Cameroon, with close to 4 million users—are now used to spread ethnic stereotypes, exchange ethnic-based insults, propagate misinformation and even incite violence. That is all widening the divide between the two sides.

Facebook has a role to play, too—by increasing its capacity to identify and remove inflammatory content on its platform.

In the southern town of Sangmelima, such increased divisions seem to have played a role in riots that erupted in late 2019, when Indigenous Bulu targeted Bamileke and Bamoun groups originating from Cameroon’s West Region. Underlying tensions over land rights in the area, notably for space to open shops—which local Bulu feel locked out of by the other groups—spilled over into violence after a Bamoun man was blamed for the murder of a local motorbike taxi driver. Hundreds of locals then attacked Bamilekes, Bamouns and other Cameroonians from the country’s north with sticks and stones, while also looting and destroying their properties. Hundreds fled back to their region of origin in western and northern Cameroon.

The government quickly held intercommunal talks, which managed to calm the situation in Sangmelima. However, the episode is a possible sign of the dangerous path the country is currently embarking on. As political actors position themselves for the end of Biya’s presidency, there is a risk they will turn to their own ethnic groups when mobilizing support, meaning even more serious ethnic disputes could arise and shatter decades of relative harmony between ethnic communities.

Both the ruling party and the opposition have in their ranks people who understand the dangers of this trend toward tribalized politics, and who have voiced their concerns. But neither camp has done much to stem these tensions. The authorities have sounded alarm bells on rising hate speech, run seminars to warn of its potential harm and even passed a new law criminalizing “contempt of tribe,” in December 2018. But the political opposition has greeted these moves with suspicion, suggesting that they are a smokescreen for repressing journalists. Yet since its passage, the law against tribal hate speech, which provides for more stringent punishment for inflammatory language that appears on social media, has yet to be applied in even a single case. There are concerns over when the law will be used and on what basis, given widespread abuse by both sides.

Given the opposition’s boycott of the 2020 parliamentary elections, which lost it the opportunity of getting seats in the National Assembly, the ruling party and the opposition have no forum where they can engage on the difficult topic of electoral reforms. Both sides must nonetheless find a way of talking to each other in order to reach agreement on changes to make the process more transparent—perhaps, most importantly, by moving from a multiple ballot vote, which is more open to manipulation, to a single ballot.

Meanwhile, to deal with ethnic tensions, the government should strengthen the legal framework that prohibits ethnic discrimination, notably for access to public service employment. One way to do that might be to better empower a body it created in 2017 to fight this discrimination, but which lacks funding and only has an advisory role.

Social media companies have a responsibility, too. Curbing hate speech and disinformation online will not in itself solve the ethnic tensions born out of Cameroon’s political crisis. But it remains key to reduce their reach, and therefore to mitigate the risks of violence. Facebook, in particular, should improve its own capacity to identify and remove fake content and content that incites violence, including by hiring moderators familiar with the particularities of Cameroonian hate speech and linguistic nuances. The social media giant should also boost its outreach to politicians in Cameroon to help them engage with their supporters and tone down the rhetoric online.

Biya and his backers may be reluctant to take measures they will perceive as weakening their grip on power. Still, there is reason to hope that the president, at 87, will consider his legacy. With separatist sentiment mounting in the Anglophone areas, the man who has been leading Cameroon since 1982 should be particularly sensitive to preserving the country’s historically amicable interethnic relations.