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Cameroon Needs an African Cup Ceasefire
Cameroon Needs an African Cup Ceasefire
Cameroonian policemen patrol the market in the majority English-speaking South West province in Buea, on October 3, 2018. MARCO LONGARI / AFP
Statement / Africa

Cameroon Needs an African Cup Ceasefire

Cameroon will shortly begin hosting the biggest Africa Cup of Nations in history. Eight games will be held in Anglophone regions riven since 2016 by conflict between the government and separatists. Internal and external actors should seize the opportunity to broker a football truce.

About a billion people around the world are expected to watch 24 football teams compete in the Africa Cup of Nations, kicking off on 9 January and running through 6 February in Cameroon. Matches will take place in stadiums around the country, including eight games in Limbe and Buea, cities in the English-speaking South West region, that will put a spotlight on the armed conflict between the government and Anglophone separatists. Anglophone militias have announced plans to disrupt the Cup, hoping to showcase their grievances. The government has responded with severe restrictions upon movement and association in the Anglophone North West and South West. But the two parties are pursuing a lose-lose strategy. Separatist attacks during the month-long tournament may diminish the sympathy that Anglophone Cameroonians enjoy in Africa and elsewhere, and the government’s heavy-handed measures could produce popular backlash and escalate the conflict. The parties should try a dramatically different approach: cease hostilities for the Cup’s duration. With outside diplomatic support, such a truce could be the first step in rebuilding trust and moving toward talks between the authorities and separatist leaders after years of bloodshed.

Even without the Anglophone militias’ threats, guaranteeing security for this high-profile international tournament would pose significant challenges for Cameroon. Nine of the country’s ten regions are mired in humanitarian crisis as a result of violent conflict. Jihadist insurgency and climate change-fuelled intercommunal strife between herders and fishermen have destabilised the north, while rebels from the Central African Republic have crossed into the east, unsettling the border zone. The country’s political situation is also tense. Early in December 2021, Maurice Kamto, a Francophone opposition leader and former presidential candidate, threatened to organise protests over civil rights restrictions that might throw the Africa Cup into disarray. A military court has since sentenced at least five senior officials from Kamto’s party to seven-year jail terms for holding demonstrations against the president, Paul Biya, in September 2020. Finally, the tournament’s organisers will have to watch the current resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic closely, lest they need to postpone or cancel matches to contain an outbreak.

But the conflict in the Anglophone regions poses the most serious security problem. The disturbances began in October 2016, when lawyers and teachers mounted demonstrations calling for a two-state federation to preserve the Anglophone legal and educational systems. These degenerated into a political crisis. One year later, the government’s violent repression led to armed conflict, as Anglophones set up separatist militias and pledged to render the regions ungovernable. The conflict saw schools shut, villages burn and the human rights situation deteriorate amid extrajudicial killings, kidnappings for ransom and sexual violence. The fighting has killed more than 6,000 people and displaced about one million more, ushering in one of the world’s most neglected humanitarian crises.

Crisis Group has repeatedly advocated for talks between the government and the separatists.

Crisis Group has repeatedly advocated for talks between the government and the separatists that might yield a political solution to the conflict. But thus far the government has been unwilling to negotiate in good faith. It ignored a Swiss dialogue initiative in 2019 that had assembled a dozen separatist groups calling for talks, instead organising its own putative National Dialogue in October of that year. That effort failed to include separatist participation, virtually ensuring that it would flop. As a conciliatory gesture, the government then unilaterally established a special status for the regions, under which it created two regional assemblies with limited powers. This measure fell short of what Anglophones had been demanding and predictably failed to reduce the conflict’s intensity.

The Anglophone conflict escalated in 2021. Separatist militias continued to campaign in what they call Ambazonia, the territory known as British Southern Cameroon in the colonial era and now referred to by the state as the North West and South West regions. National security forces have failed to overpower the militias despite heavy deployments. In September, in Ndop town, in the North West, separatist fighters launched a coordinated offensive, killing about fifteen soldiers and destroying two armoured vehicles. Thereafter, the army intensified its operations and killed several rebels, but the most prominent separatist commanders remain at large. Separatists believe they are gaining momentum despite internal divides. The government, for its part, is preparing for a long war, purchasing new military supplies. With neither side clearly ascendant and both reluctant to engage in talks, the conflict has reached a stalemate amid a lack of international attention.

While it would be inconsistent with the separatists’ modus operandi for them to attack venues where the matches are being played, violence could intrude on the tournament in other ways. Since 2018, separatist militias have often sought to disrupt sports events in the Anglophone regions. In January 2021, during another football tournament, the African Nations Championship, militias detonated an explosive device in Limbe, wounding three policemen. On 21 December, as President Biya met in the capital Yaoundé with Patrick Motsepe, president of the Confederation of African Football, separatist fighters attacked a police checkpoint in Kumba, in the South West, reportedly killing one officer. Also in December, clashes between separatist militias and government forces hit Bamenda, Cameroon’s third-largest city. When a man dressed as the Africa Cup costumed mascot, Mola the lion, toured the city on 16 December, he wore a bulletproof vest and was surrounded by a heavily armed military escort.

The tournament is a propitious moment to seek a football truce.

Despite the challenges, the tournament is a propitious moment to seek a football truce, under which the parties would pledge to cease hostilities for at least the duration of the Cup and possibly even create the foundation for a new peacemaking effort. Given the shortness of time and the absence of formal communications between the conflict parties, a major diplomatic push by national and international officials will be crucial in the coming days. International actors who have been quietly lobbying President Biya for fresh talks will need to urgently press the government to reinvigorate the direct channels it developed in 2020 with influential separatist leaders in jail, perhaps by underscoring that it is strongly in Yaoundé’s interests for the games to come off without a hitch. In parallel, Swiss officials could seek to build support for a truce among separatist leaders living overseas and remobilise UN, U.S., British and Canadian backing for their dialogue initiative.

The benefits of even a brief cessation of hostilities would be significant. In addition to the protection it would grant to players, fans and residents, it would afford humanitarian agencies a chance to deliver more aid into the Anglophone regions that right now can be too dangerous to reach, offering a respite to the thousands of people endangered by the fighting. But it could also develop into something more. It could help lay a foundation for much-needed peace negotiations and invite the sorts of near-term measures by the government – from conciliatory statements to the release of Anglophone prisoners being held for non-violent crimes – that might help bring separatists to the table. Ideally, the separatists would send positive signals of their own by reiterating their commitment to a political solution and making clear their interest in talks.

Whether any of this progress is achievable right now is unclear. The first test will be to see whether officials in Yaoundé are willing to reach out to separatist leaders, who in turn will have to persuade their most intransigent commanders to abide by a ceasefire. Outside actors with channels to officials in Yaoundé like Switzerland, the U.S., Canada and the UK should waste no time in pressing them to take these steps. Swiss outreach will be most effective for mobilising separatist leaders. The forthcoming tournament presents a rare opportunity for bringing some creative sports diplomacy to bear on this often overlooked war. All those with an interest in bringing the conflict to an end should seize it.