There is a penchant for governments in general and African governments in particular, to convert relatively easily resolved political grievances into intractable insurgencies.
It would appear that the Camerounian Government has enjoyed the Boko Haram insurgency so much that it wishes to replicate the experience in Southern Cameroun.
In order to understand this issue we will look at the area, the history of this crisis and possible outcomes.
Southern Cameroun- Physical Terrain
Cameroun lies between West and Central Africa, sharing its longest border with Nigeria to the west. Chad and Niger are to the north, with all 3 countries sharing Lake Chad. Central African Republic lies to the east, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and DRC to the south east and the Atlantic Ocean to the south west. It is subdivided into Regions (equivalent of States), which are further sub divided into Departments (equivalent of LGAs) and arrondissements (equivalent of wards).
Southern Cameroun refers to the two English speaking Regions in the South West corner of Cameroun (Nord Ouest and Sud Ouest Regions). They are bordered to the south west by Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom State, to the west by Nigeria’s Cross River and Benue States, to the north west Nigeria’s Taraba State, to the east Cameroun’s Ouest and Littoral Regions and the Atlantic Ocean to the South. The terrain consists of a coastal plain characterised by Mangrove swamps to the west, rising through highlands known as the Cameroun Range (including Mt Cameroun) through densely forested hills of the South Cameroun Plateau to the grassy, rolling hills of the Adamawa Plateau along the Nigeria border. Rivers flow south from the highlands into the Gulf of Guinea.
Nord Ouest Region is divided into 7 Departments with its capital in Bamenda. Sud Ouest Region with its capital Buea at the foot of Mount Cameroun is divided into 6 Departments.
Southern Camerouns- Human Terrain
The Southern Camerouns are populated by Tikari, Widikum, Fulani, Moghamo, Wimbum, Yamba, Nguemba with the Bamileke spread across both Regions as well as Ouest Region.
Other than native languages, English and French, a Camerounian form of pidgin English is spoken mixing French and English. Most are Protestant Christians.
Nigerians form a significant minority with some having lived there for generations; they are mainly Igbo, Efik and Ibibio.
Anglophone refers to peoples from these Regions not necessarily people who speak English, likewise Francophone refers to the rest of Cameroun. Most Camerounians are multilingual.
Southern Camerouns- History
The German colony of Kamerun lasted from 1889 to 1919 when it became a League of Nations Mandate administered by the UK and France under the treaty of Versailles. Some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War in West Africa took place in Cameroun, with the Germans surrendering after a campaign by British, Belgian, French and Nigerian troops. In 1923 British Cameroun divided into Northern and Southern British Camerouns.
British Cameroun was administered from Nigeria with a British Resident in Buea, whilst unskilled and semi skilled migrant labour from Nigeria’s Eastern Region (mainly Igbo’s) led to ethnic frictions. In 1946 the League of Nations Mandate became a United Nations Trusteeship. The 1950 Ibadan General Conference in Nigeria devolved colonial administration to the Regions, with Southern Cameroun becoming two provinces (Bamenda and Buea) in Nigeria’s Eastern Region. 13 Southern Camerounian members were elected to the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly but left in 1953, citing Nigerian high handedness and tribal disunity. Forming its own parliament in 1954 in Buea, the Southern Cameroons became a self governing autonomous Region with its own Parliament, Executive and Judiciary.
Meanwhile a Marxist Leninist pro independence party, the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) was formed in April 1947 in Bassa (in present day Littoral Region) agitating for independence from France. Upon being banned in 1955, it developed into a Chinese supported insurgency, which was aggressively suppressed by French forces, whilst British/ Nigerian forces from the Queens Own Nigeria Regiment, blocked the insurgents through aggressive patrolling in the highlands of British Camerouns. The UPC insurgency did not end until 1970 when its leader was captured and shot (they resurrected in 1991 with the return of multi party democracy standing in parliamentary and Presidential elections).
French Cameroun became independent in January 1960 under Ahmadou Ahidjo (a Northern Fulani) and then Nigeria in October 1960. The UN organised a plebiscite to determine the status of British Camerouns presenting them with the option of joining either Nigeria or Cameroun in 1961. The North went to Nigeria becoming part of Nigeria’s Northern Region, whilst the South voted to join the Republic of Cameroun. Prior to unification both Southern and independent Cameroun drafted a new constitution at the Foumban Conference in July 1961, defining Cameroun as a Federal Republic with English and French as the official languages and a high level of autonomy for the Southern Camerouns which became West Cameroun upon unification on 1st October 1961, with its own Prime Minister who was also the Vice President of the Republic.
In September 1966 President Ahidjo created a coalition called the National Camerounian Union (CNU) as the only legal party. After a referendum in 1972, a new constitution was implemented abolishing the Federation and dividing West Cameroun into Nord Ouest and Sud Ouest Regions and East Cameroun into 5 Regions under a unitary system of government and changing the country’s name to the United Republic of Cameroun.
Ahidjo stepped down in 1982 in favour of his Prime Minister Paul Biya (a Beti from Sud Region), but remained head of the CNU. Following 2 coup attempts against Biya, Ahidjo was forced into (and died in) exile. Biya changed the country’s name back to the Republic of Cameroun in 1984, rebranded the CNU as Cameroun People’ Democratic Movement (RPDC/ CPDM) and reluctantly reintroduced multiparty politics in 1990, with the largest opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF) emanating from Bamenda.
The RPDC/ CPDM won the 1992 election and is yet to lose a Presidential election or control of Parliament. Term limits for the President were abolished in 2008 effectively making Biya President for life.
In 1994 clashes between Nigerian and Camerounian troops in the Bakassi Peninsula on the Nigeria/ Cameroun border led to the occupation and militarisation of the area until both sides agreed to UN mediation in 1996, with the court ruling in Cameroun’s favour in 2002, with Nigerian troops finally withdrawing in 2006.
Southern Camerounian Agitation
Complaints of marginalisation grew after the 1972 Constitution removed Anglophone autonomy. In 1984, when Biya renamed the country the Republic of Cameroun, an Anglophone Barrister Gorji Dinka released a document named the ‘New Social Order’, stating that by changing the country’s name French Cameroun had seceded from the union, thus the Southern Camerouns had the right to become an independent country which he named ‘Ambazonia’ after Ambas Bay, where the Mungo River enters the Atlantic, forming a border between Southern Camerouns and the other Cameroun. The document suggested both entities be joined in a confederacy as equal participants. He has been arrested and tried for treason several times.
In April 1993 several Anglophone groups held the First All Anglophone Conference (AAC1) in Buea, resulting in the Buea Declaration which called for the restoration of the 1961 Federation.
The Second All Anglophone Conference (AAC2) in 1994 in Bamenda, issued the Bamenda Declaration; essentially an ultimatum that if the Federation was not restored the former Southern Camerouns would seek independence.
The All Anglophone Conference (AAC) became the Southern Cameroun’s Peoples Conference (SCPC) and then morphed into a coalition of Southern Camerounian movements coordinated by the Southern Camerouns National Conference (SCNC) led initially by Sam Ekontang Elad who was replaced by Henry Fossung in 1996. Several factions within the SCNC existed, with one fconsisting mainly of student groups in Buea the Southern Cameroun’s Youth League (SCYL) led by Ebenezer Akwanga separating in May 1995.
The SCNC petitioned the UN in 1995 on secession and held a series of demonstrations timed to coincide with Cameroun’s ultimately successful application to join the British Commonwealth.
In March 1997 200 SCNC activists were arrested and tried, after SYCL activists attempted to attack security forces in Bamenda, giving the security forces a justification for increased harassment and repression. Leadership squabbles and infighting in 1998, led to two factions forming – one more militant that advocated unilateral independence led by an SDF politician Esoka Ndoki Mukete and the more conservative faction by Henry Fossung, seeking autonomy through negotiation and agitation, whilst this was going on the Bamenda treason trials concluded in October 1999, with many members convicted (despite allegations of torture and coercion by local and international NGOs)
On 30 December 1999 armed members of Muteke’s faction took over Buea radio station, broadcasting a proclamation of independence leading to multiple arrests and renewed persecution.
The leadership tussle was resolved in 2000, when Frederick Alobwede Ebong was elected leader. The group was declared illegal by the government in 2001, greatly increasing persecution and repression with 3 people killed in demonstrations.
In 2003 the SCNC filed a complaint against Cameroun with the African commission of Human rights and boycotted parliamentary and Presidential elections.
The Ambazonian Liberation Party was formed in 2004 in the USA, in 2006 the Southern Camerouns Peoples Party unilaterally declared the Republic of Ambazonia independent including the Bakassi Peninsula. Fighting in the peninsula between Nigerian and Camerounian forces died down but was replaced by bandit attacks on both forces. In 2007 the Southern Camerouns Peoples Organisation (SCAPO), which claimed an attack on the Camerounian military in Bakassi in 2007.
The AU rejected the SCNC’s petition in 2009 and agitation reduced slightly to mainly diaspora groups.
Current Anglophone Crisis
The current crisis emanated from concerns by Anglophone lawyers that the Common Law inherited from Britain was being side lined by the use of French language and French legal codes in courts as well as concerns that most Magistrates mainly trained in French legal codes adjudicated cases in Anglophone areas where English Common Law is used. After having their concerns ignored for 2 years a meeting of Lawyers associations from Nord Ouest and Sud Ouest Regions decided to go on strike from court and form an umbrella body called the Camerounian Common Law Lawyers Association in Bamenda in November 2016. Protests in Buea and Limbe in Sud Ouest and Bamenda in Nord Ouest on the 8th of November were confronted by police, gendarmes and BIR and dispersed with force and tear gas.
Solidarity strikes by teachers and students on 21st November, nicknamed ‘Ghost Towns’ organised mainly through Facebook and WhatsApp social media platforms, led to shutdowns and demonstrations in whichover 100 were arrested and at least 1 killed.
Activists from the lawyers, teachers, driver unions and other civil society groups formed the Cameroun Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) in Bamenda in December 2016 led by Barrister Nkongho Agbor Balla that same month another 4 people were killed during demonstrations in Bamenda. President Biya blamed the deaths on extremist rioters during his New Year’s Eve address to the nation.
On 9th January the CACSC along with commercial vehicle and motorcycle drivers resumed ‘Ghost Town operations’, shutting down not just courts but schools, markets and transport.
The Camerounian Government responded on the 16th January with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications warning people about ‘spreading false information’ and text messages with the same warning were sent to some mobile phone subscribers warning of jail terms and fines.
The next day, 17th January the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation banned the CACSC and SCNC and the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications shut down the internet to the 2 Anglophone Regions and the secret police (SED) arrested several activist leaders including the Attorney General for Sud Ouest Region; Judge Sokem Ngale Mborh, the Chairman of the CACSC; Nkongho Agbor Balla, Deputy Attorney General and head of the Popular Action Party Judge Ayah Paul Abine, CACSC leader Dr Fontem Neba, a local radio host (from Abakwa FM) Mancho Bibixy and Mr Penn a member of the teachers union charging them with 8 offences under the 2014new anti-terrorism law (promulgated to deal with Boko Haram).
On 10th February 2 were killed and 10 wounded by the police in Ndop during a demonstration outside a police station, 3 days, on 13th February later the treason trial of detained began in Yaounde, in which the accused were represented by human rights lawyer Alice Nkom new head of Cameroun Anglophone Civil Society Consortium and was adjourned to 23rd March.
This situation has several elements which inform comment;
Identity: the complexity of the situation in Cameroun is that Anglophones in Cameroun identify not necessarily by tribe but by their colonial/ linguistic heritage, thus certain tribes such as the Bamileke are spread across both Anglophone and Francophone parts of Cameroun, others such as the Widikum are only in Anglophone areas. Religion the other common identifier does not necessarily come into play as Francophones include Christians and Muslims.
However identity and ethnic politics in Cameroun exists, with not just divisions of tribe, North/ South, Muslim/ Christian, Anglophone/ Francophone, much of which is exacerbated by political history.
Ahidjo (a northern Francophone Fulani) handed over to Biya (a southern Francophone Beti), thinking he would be a malleable figurehead although once Biya had settled in he rapidly disabused him of that notion by replacing many mainly Northern Ahidjo loyalists with Southerners.
It is surmised that the first coup preceding Ahidjo’s exile was engineered by Northern officers to return Ahidjo to power (or was engineered by Beti officers to provide an excuse to purge Northern officers). The second coup launched by the Republican Guard (commanded by a Northerner) after Biya fired the Prime Minister and Armed Forces Minister (both Northerners) and tried Ahidjo in absentia for the first coup. The failure of this coup allowed Biya to purge Northerners from key military and government roles disband the Republican Guard and form the Presidential Guard allegedly manned mainly with Biya’s Beti tribesmen. Despite (or because of) this history Biya has been careful to appoint Ministers and officials from the North including the current Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Communications etc.
However as is typical in these situations, many tribes and Regions complain of exclusion (particularly the Anglophones) and northern discontent especially over lack of development and Boko Haram has become a motivating factor for sectional politicians.
Bakassi: the border conflict in the Bakassi Peninsula saw this area become heavily militarised, with an attendant increase in bandits and pirates who were wont to collect protection money from local fishermen and oil companies. Once Nigerian forces withdrew these bandits and armed groups began Niger Delta style attacks on Camerounian forces and infrastructure under a plethora of different groups such as the Bakassi Freedom Fighters, Liberators of the South Camerouns People, Africa Marine Commando and Bakassi Strike Force.
Some of these groups (which might be the same or different) have gone quiet, others such as the Bakassi Strike Force have recently engaged in talks with the Nigerian government seeking an amnesty. However the increase in oil prices, remilitarisation of the Niger Delta and renewed attention to the region could act as a spur to the numerous jobless, armed youth to restart an armed campaign of abductions, piracy, hijackings and thefts in the name of Southern Camerounian autonomy or Bakassi freedom. With Camerouns most competent forces fully engaged in the north, whilst others in the East seeking to prevent spill over from the Central African Republic’s chaos and others engaged in containing demonstrations in Southern Cameroun, Camerounian forces would be overstretched, leading to a loss of control.
Elite/ Grassroots: the separatist movement has been very much elite driven, with lawyers driving much of the agitation. This is an interesting factor that could indicate agitation is as much a vehicle for inclusion in patronage networks as it is a genuine political grievance. The corollary is that the persistent lack of concession has made ‘Anglophone marginalisation’ part of the Southern Camerounian conventional wisdom. Allowing an elite agitation to be easily relatable to the masses. This has been greatly helped by the repression which has seen the elites and common men arrested, killed and wounded by the state, allowing the separatists leaders to easily craft an ‘us and them’ narrative. As the trajectory of the crisis has shown, whilst the older more established activists have maintained a gradualist approach of agitation and petitions, younger activists such as students have attempted armed action. It could be argued that as the movement grows from being argument based and elite driven to an emotional mass movement, there are risks of increased and uncontrolled violence from both sides.
Governance: the failure of the Camerounian Government to respond to the concerns of the Anglophone lawyers turned a complaint into an insurrection. Common complaints about lack of development such as roads, employment etc aggravate these issues.
Politics: Although Anglophone politicians dominate the main opposition parties, Biya does not seem in danger of losing control of the Presidency or Parliament. Despite wide scale irregularities in the first multiparty elections in 1992, Biya still only received 40% of the vote to the 36% of the SDFs John Fru Ndi. The margin improved spectacularly to 92.57% in 1997 when the main opposition parties SDF, UNDP (a Northern party) and UDC boycotted the vote, whilst CPDM/ RDPC took 109 Parliamentary seats and the opposition 54 (43 of which were the SDF).
In 2004 Biya received 70.9% of the Votes, with SDF’s Ndi receiving 17.45% after refusing to support an opposition coalition with the UDC who got 4.5% of the vote.
In 2007 Parliamentary elections CPDM/ RPDC won 153 seats, the SDF 16 and others 11. In the 2011 Presidential election Biya got 77.99%, Ndi 10.71%, with UNDP pushed into 4th place at 1.73% by the ADD.
The irony is that the first and closest election was held under the auspices of the Ministry of Territorial Administration (whose Minister is appointed by the President), whilst subsequent ones have been held under a nominally independent electoral body, indicating that Biya has mastered the art of ‘winning’ elections, taking full advantage of the power of incumbency, as well as using the resources of the state to manipulate the vote and the disorganised and factionalised opposition.
A year from the 2018 Presidential election it could either be a wise or foolish move to neutralise senior opposition politicians by jailing or co-opting them. While it could make the prospective CPDM/ RPDC election victory easier it could also clear the way for younger more dynamic politicians not bound by the baggage of past elections, who are willing to form the necessary coalition to defeat CPDM/ RPDC (as happened in Nigeria with the APC coalition against the PDP incumbent).
International relations: Cameroun occupies a niche in which it is neither strategically important nor ideologically polarising to anybody. Most international awareness revolves around its football team and makossa music.
Biya’s elongated tenure has not been characterised by overt Mobutu style ostentation (beyond his wife’s hair, his prolonged stays in Paris and Geneva and reported $200m fortune) or excessive brutality, thus there is very little regional or international opprobrium for his rule. In fact the good showing of Camerounian forces against Boko Haram has earned Biya a semblance of international regard and credibility, with a US UAV base in Garoua as well as France and the US gifting equipment and providing training and other support.
The involvement of BIR, Gendarmes and the military in containing the Anglophone crisis means they could fall foul of the US Leahy Act, which precludes assistance to specific units or personnel involved in human rights abuses (although the internet outage appears to be getting more international attention than the killings of demonstrators), which could shut off equipment, intelligence and training to BIR, the Gendarmes and other Camerounian forces if they are implicated in abuses.
Repression against a nonviolent, minority undoes would generate international outrage and condemnation by NGOs such as Amnesty International which could cause Biya to come under pressure not to contest the 2018 Presidential election opening Camerounian politics up to either a succession battle or a Mugabe style, ‘sit tight’ campaign.
Nigeria: whilst there are many similarities between Anglophone and neo Biafran agitation, there are also important caveats. Both countries have active separatist movements with a conservative element (SCNC in Cameroun and MASSOB in Nigeria) who and a radical element (IPOB in Nigeria and SYCL, SCAPO and Bakassi militants in Cameroun),the background to the crisis is different.
The bloody history of the Nigerian pogroms and civil war add not just an extra element of bitterness to neo Biafran agitation but also a powerful brake on a rush to violence. No such historical motivator or demotivator exists in Cameroun. Likewise tribal and religious differences in Nigeria act as crisis multipliers whilst in Cameroun, tribe and religion are not necessarily key factors.
A key similarity with Biafra would be the lack of support from its larger neighbour; the Anglophones are unlikely to see any form of support from Nigeria, which would not seek to encourage separatism or secession in a neighbour, particularly in a region adjacent to its own restive Niger Delta and old Eastern Region.
One radical scenario see’s Nigeria manipulating the crisis to recover the Bakassi Peninsula, either by supporting the separatists or the Camerounian government in return for a renegotiation of the status of the area would be an interesting move, however it appears there is little appetite for such an action, nor would the benefits outweigh the fears of Nigerian separatism.
The incidents of the past few months have tended to strengthen rather than dampen Anglophone agitation, the clearly repressive actions of using police, gendarmes and troops to suppress demonstrations, deaths of protestors and the cutting of communications will increase the resolve of activists and radicalise many previously apathetic Anglophones.
This could have several effects
Political: opposition to Biya could form a coalition from all Regions coalescing around a unity candidate, with activists highly motivated to resist repression and election tampering in order to vote Biya out. Factions within his own party could also see an opportunity to increase their popularity and chances by joining the opposition. As was seen in Nigeria, an entrenched political system facing genuine electoral challenges uses either repression or patronage to ensure support, further draining the country’s economy and diverting strategic attention from the issues of the economy, development and security etc. If Biya wins (as is likely) there could be unrest as the opposition refuses to accept the results leading to further repression and instability, which could target Camerouns key export-oil.
Insurgency: the militant wings of the Anglophones could begin a campaign of violence in the same vein as the Niger Delta militants. An increase in attacks in Bakassi and on Camerounian infrastructure would be an easy step. Cameroun’s only oil refinery is in Limbe, Sud Ouest Region in the Anglophone area as are various oil facilities in Bakassi that could be prey to the type of attacks perfected in the Niger Delta, from where there would be no shortage of experts willing to lend their expertise to Camerounian militants.
External and Internal Security: whilst Cameroun is generally stable, its location between Central and West Africa puts it between Nigeria, Chad and Central African Republic.
The spill over from Nigeria includes Boko Haram in the north and Bakassi militants in the south. Camerounians have just about held the line in the north with the help of Chadians and by effectively ignoring some Boko Haram activities. The main work force has been BIR who are also heavily deployed in the Bakassi area. Whilst this well trained and well equipped unit has fought well it is relatively small and cannot hope to sustain the tempo of operations indefinitely.
Also to be considered is an underreported armed presence on the Adamaoua Plateau, armed bandits have stolen cattle, raided villages and recently attacked a UN Border Demarcation Team. It is unclear if these are Boko Haram, coupers des routes, cattle rustlers, armed bandits or another unknown group but it is clear that this area is rapidly becoming an ungoverned space. To the north is Chad where cooperation over Boko Haram overshadows the problems that Deby’s regime has with its various rebel groups. Central African Republics breakdown of government has pushed refugees across the border, with armed attacks against Camerounian units and government facilities in the area. All these internal and external security issues mean that the Camerounian military, which for years was a sleepy profession, is heavily deployed and committed and taking up a larger proportion of the budget, a further breakdown in public order or an insurgency in the Southern Camerouns, could catastrophically overstretch Camerouns forces.
The complaints of the Anglophone Camerounians are fairly basic and can be ameliorated without threatening the basic existence of Cameroun.
A return to the Foumban structure is not even necessary, simple concessions such as English language and qualifications in Anglophone areas, unifying the French and British legacy legal codes to create a compatible Camerounian system and ensuring adequate representation of Anglophones in national appointments would take the sting out of the crisis and preserve not just Cameroun as an entity but Biya’s regime.
It is however unclear if these easy solutions would be palatable to an entrenched ruler like Biya for whom any indication of weakness could trigger a succession or replacement battle and threaten not just his rule but that of his tribe and wider patronage network.
The situation bears close scrutiny by Nigeria, ECOWAS and the AU as what started as a demonstration by lawyers could turn into a transnational conflict, with effects not just on the population and economy of Cameroun and Nigeria but the international oil market.