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Cameroon: Prevention is Better than Cure
Cameroon: Prevention is Better than Cure
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The PKK Conflict in the Context of EU-Turkey Relations
The PKK Conflict in the Context of EU-Turkey Relations
Briefing 101 / Africa

Cameroon: Prevention is Better than Cure

Cameroon’s apparent stability belies the variety of internal and external pressures threatening the country’s future. Without social and political change, a weakened Cameroon could become another flashpoint in the region.

I. Overview

Cameroon’s apparent stability and recent government reforms can no longer hide its vulnerabilities. While the government of President Paul Biya has manipulated the electoral system to his advantage, options for effective political expression by the opposition are minimal, social discontent is widespread and new security threats are emerging. The combination of external pressures (Boko Haram and the Central African Republic crisis) and long lasting internal social and political deadlock is a destabilising mix. Yet, ironically, for the moment, it is the principal source of support for the current regime; for the majority of Cameroonians, a preference for the devil they know – rather than any intrinsic appeal of the ruling party – is what seems to ensure a semblance of stability. To reduce the risk of violent crisis ahead of the next election in 2018, the government and opposition should set up a framework for dialogue and agree on a package of meaningful political and institutional reforms.

The key question for both local and foreign observers of Cameroon is always the same: how will the transition to a post-Biya political landscape play itself out? After 32 years as president, 81-year-old Paul Biya, reelected in 2011 for seven more years at the helm, does not seem ready to leave office in 2018. In 2010, the International Crisis Group outlined the weaknesses of Cameroon’s non-violent status quo and the dangerous consequences of a growing rift between the regime and society at large. Since then, vulnerabilities have deepened.

Despite accepting demands by opposition and civil society for some institutional reforms (new electoral code, creation of the Senate), the governing Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) party still dominates the political scene. Amid claims of electoral fraud, the outcome of the 2011 and 2013 elections resulted in only a residual role in parliament, towns and cities for opposition parties, reinforcing the notion that a change of power through the ballot box was improbable under the current dispensation.

Despite the proliferation of media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society has lost the influence it had during the 1990s. Some local NGOs are under the sway of the regime while others are dependent on financial foreign assistance. Due to corruption, unemployment, and poverty, much of the NGO sector has turned into a market and consequently civil society’s influence on public policies is limited.

In addition, some pillars of the regime are cracking. Internal tensions are deepening in the CPDM while security forces are divided and under pressure. The expansion of attacks by Nigeria’s extremist Islamist group Boko Haram into northern Cameroon and the spillover of the Central African Republic crisis into eastern Cameroon are increasing the fragility of the security apparatus and may feed internal discontent.

The mix of external security challenges with political and social stagnation could prove potentially dangerous if there is an unmanaged transition. As shown by the 2011 and 2013 elections, neither the opposition nor civil society can serve as vehicles for social and political change in a context of a widening generation gap and massive youth unemployment. The bulk of the Cameroonian population is young (the average age is nineteen), often jobless, and views the ageing elite as the main cause of stagnation.

Crisis Group’s previous recommendations on the transparency of the electoral process, institutional reforms and the fight against corruption are still relevant and should form the thrust of an agreement on a post-Biya transition signed between the regime, opposition and civil society and guaranteed by an international witness (the African Union). This agreement should include:

  • creating a dialogue framework between the opposition and the ruling party to negotiate and agree on institutional reforms;
  • injecting new blood into the leadership structures of political parties through the implementation of age quotas;
  • President Biya’s promise not to contest the 2018 presidential election in exchange for a guarantee that no legal actions (excluding crimes under the Rome Statute) will be undertaken against him and that he can retain his assets;
  • organising primaries in all political parties, including the ruling party, before 2018;
  • changing the appointment mechanisms for the members of the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Council and the electoral commission in order to improve their independence; and,

reducing discontent within the army by providing the same equipment, wage and financial benefits to the special and regular military units and rotating troops in the Far North.

Nairobi/Brussels, 4 September 2014

The PKK Conflict in the Context of EU-Turkey Relations

On top of major challenges, including the spillover from the war in Syria, Islamic State terrorism and increasingly heavy-handed governance, Turkey's conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) also reignited last year. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to increase efforts toward two related objectives: improving relations with Ankara and finding a political end to the PKK conflict.

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

The relationship between EU and Turkey is in flux, while Turkey – amid shifting strategic fault lines in the region – faces multiple challenges: Islamic State (IS) attacks, the pressures of hosting three million Syrian refugees, a deteriorating economy, and domestic upheaval exacerbated by the failed coup attempt and increasing social and political polarisation, all feature alongside a dramatic intensification of conflict between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Reflective of deep-seated animosities, the increasingly febrile domestic scene, and spillover from fighting in Syria, the renewed PKK conflict has killed some 2,500 and displaced up to 300,000 since July 2015. Bringing the violence under control and back on the path of a sustainable settlement will be crucial to restoring stability. In this fraught environment, the EU – whose relations with Ankara have suffered amid mutual feelings of disappointment and betrayal – has options to refine and better coordinate its strategy toward Turkey, with a view both to helping calm the conflict in the south east, and halting strategic drift in relations.

A Worsening Conflict

Alongside fatalities and displacement, intense fighting between the security forces and the PKK between December 2015 and June 2016 led to the destruction of some towns and districts in Turkey’s south east. In the last few months, PKK militants have increased improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in big cities around the country. Fighting in the south east, which subsided with the onset of winter, is expected to pick up in the spring.

Ankara’s crackdown against the Kurdish political movement has intensified. Twelve MPs from the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) including the party’s co-chairs, more than 60 elected co-mayors and thousands of party members and supporters are under arrest for broadly-defined charges of support to or membership of a terrorist organisation or making terrorist propaganda. More than 150 journalists have been arrested on the basis of the anti-terror law, some for alleged links with the PKK.

In northern Syria, Ankara’s Euphrates Shield military operation aims, among other goals, to block gains by PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), in particular PKK/YPG ambitions of creating a contiguous corridor of Kurdish territory along the Turkey-Syria border. Ankara has threatened to push into YPG-held Manbij, which would lead to armed confrontation between the Turkish military and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

All these dynamics have severely reduced the chances of a return to peace talks between the government and the PKK – even as this remains the only way to a lasting solution. In the short term, the focus needs to be on preventing further escalation of violence, de-escalation in the south east, and laying the groundwork for a new political process.

An Approach for the EU to Mitigate the Conflict

Against this backdrop, growing anti-Western rhetoric and mounting mistrust between Turkey and the EU are narrowing avenues for cooperation, including for the EU to play a meaningful role in helping Turkey find a sustainable path out of the PKK conflict. Yet these twin imperatives – improving relations and an end to the conflict – form part of a mutually reinforcing loop, one unlikely without the other. At the same time, in the context of the Syria crisis the EU urgently needs to better integrate its Syria, Turkey and Russia policies. In this context the EU, in addition to supporting a political solution to the PKK conflict, should focus on measures aimed at dialling down tensions between it and Ankara. This means delivering on its commitments, for example on visa liberalisation, as soon as feasible, while maintaining a principled stance on international human rights norms.

EU institutions and member states should continue to support civil initiatives in favour of a political solution to the PKK conflict.

EU institutions and member states should continue to support civil initiatives in favour of a political solution to the PKK conflict. European support for local media and civil society platforms conducting independent/impartial reporting on the Kurdish issue is also important if these organisations are to be able to continue to function.

Human rights violations and the stifling of freedom of expression on Kurdish demands such as for decentralisation and mother tongue education must inevitably be addressed in any lasting peaceful settlement. However, European support for such reforms is often decried by the Turkish political leadership and nationalist circles as support to the PKK. These criticisms, alongside seeking to balance out other strategic interests with Ankara (such as on refugee/migration issues, counter-terrorism, investment and trade), have rendered EU member states increasingly reluctant to raise such issues. However, recent legal measures taken by the Turkish government following the Council of Europe Venice Commission’s opinion on emergency decree laws, which calls for stronger human rights protections, shows there are ways to positively influence human rights through existing international mechanisms to which Ankara is a party.

Overcoming the Impasse on Anti-terror Laws

Now that accession talks have stalled, visa liberalisation is the most enticing prospect Brussels has to offer to help re-energise the relationship. However, it hinges primarily on Turkey amending its anti-terror legislation. The EU sees this as a key element in finding a long-term solution to the Kurdish issue, but would also like to see the reform of legislation which is draconian and also qualifies more Turkish citizens to receive asylum in EU states – Germany alone received over 5,000 applications from Turks in 2016, four fifths of them of Kurdish origin. Ankara has claimed the legislation is a proportionate response to the threat faced. Despite the publicly reported standoff, Turkey is, according to officials, considering adjustments to current anti-terror laws in line with EU requirements in the spring. Once the EU’s conditions are met, Brussels should move to grant visa liberalisation quickly.

EU institutions and capitals need to better explain that the expected reforms to anti-terror laws will not hamper legitimate measures to restore public order and combat terrorism, but are meant to help Turkey abide by its own commitments on fundamental rights and freedoms. To address the widespread agitation within Turkey over perceived European interference in domestic anti-terror legislation, they need to make it clear to the Turkish public how it is that the anti-terror laws in their current form allow Turkish citizens to qualify as ­asylum-seekers in Europe.

EU member states should also communicate more explicitly their position on the PKK – which the EU lists as a terror organisation –both to the Turkish public and to Ankara. This will help overcome a widespread perception in Turkey that EU states harbour PKK activists and permit financial flows to the organisation. EU states should publicise measures they currently take against the PKK but about which the Turkish public remain largely unaware – for example Germany’s current investigation of around 4,000 names allegedly linked to the PKK for a range of alleged offences, and the UK’s effective curbing of funding channels to the PKK through its UK-based affiliates.

Making the Refugee Deal Work

Ensuring the March 2016 refugee deal remains in place and functions well will also be vital to stabilising relations, complemented by strengthening recognition of the refugee burden Turkey is bearing in large part in Europe’s stead. As controversial as the refugee deal is, its unravelling would be a disaster. As well as damaging EU-Turkey relations and undermining the EU’s internal cohesion, it would – most importantly – create additional insecurity for the refugee community. While the flow of EU funding for Syrian refugees has reduced negative rhetoric coming out of Ankara, the perception that EU countries prioritise stemming the flow of refugees from Turkey has undoubtedly given Ankara a sense of leverage over European counterparts.

EU member states need to continue to support refugee integration in Turkey’s labour market and education system.

EU member states need to continue to support refugee integration in Turkey’s labour market and education system, also focusing on social cohesion by supporting NGOs working at the local/community level to foster social dialogue and defuse tensions between host and refugee communities. This should be in addition to the ongoing imperative to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk through resettlement as a clear demonstration of a greater commitment to equitable burden-sharing.