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In recent months, political violence in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon has escalated dramatically. So far, at least 400 civilians and 160 state security officers have been killed in the conflict between the government and an armed separatist movement that, just two short years ago, started as a peaceful strike of lawyers and teachers. How did such upheaval come to a country that has prided itself for decades as a bulwark of stability in a region of violent conflict? And why has it escalated so quickly?
The Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon have a special historical legacy that sets them apart from the country’s other eight regions: between 1922 and 1960, they were ruled as a British trust or protectorate while the rest of the territory was administered by France. This is why today, 3 million residents of the Northwest and Southwest regions—roughly 20 percent of the Cameroonian population—speak primarily English, not French. These two regions also use their own legal and educational systems, inherited from the British, and have a unique cultural identity.
Many analysts argue that the current conflict stems from the intractable historical animosity between Cameroon’s Anglophones and Francophones. Yet if that is the case, it is strange that the violence is only occurring now. Why not in 1972, when Ahmadou Ahidjo, the first president of Cameroon, ended the federation between the Anglophone and Francophone regions, forcing the Anglophones to submit to a unitary state? Or in 1992, when current President Paul Biya held Cameroon’s first multi-party elections, and narrowly won a heavily rigged contest by four percentage points against Anglophone candidate John Fru Ndi? Furthermore, if differences in identity are the primary driver of the conflict, it is quite surprising that Cameroon—one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Africa—has largely avoided ethnic conflict.
Most Anglophones themselves say that they would be happy to put their national identity above their linguistic one if they weren’t systematically neglected and repressed by Cameroon’s central government. According to a survey from the Afrobarometer, an independent polling and research network, when asked whether they identify more as Cameroonians or more with their ethnic group, the vast majority of respondents in the Northwest and Southwest regions said they identified with these categories equally. Less than five percent said they identified more with their ethnic group. Nonetheless, members of this population have long felt themselves to be treated as second-class citizens in their own country. Anglophones who go to the capital city of Yaoundé to collect government documents, for example, often report being ridiculed or turned away by public officials because they cannot speak French. Separatists argue that this mistreatment and discrimination by Yaoundé, and Francophone Cameroonians more broadly, is grounds for secession.
Yet regional neglect and mistreatment are not enough to explain the current wave of violence. If they were the root cause, then we should also be seeing separatist movements in Cameroon’s North and Far North regions, where state violence has become endemic in the fight against Boko Haram over the past four years. Moreover, in the North and Far North regions, the poverty rate is higher (more than 50 percent in each, compared to 15 percent in the Southwest and 25 percent in the Northwest) and state investment in public goods such schools, health clinics, and roads is lower than anywhere else in the country.
To be sure, the Anglophones’ unique linguistic and cultural identity has played a role in the rebellion. But in order to understand why the escalating violence is taking place where and when it is, we must consider not only the Anglophone regions’ exceptional political isolation and relative economic autonomy from the rest of Cameroon, but also the increasing impatience of Africans living under non-democratic regimes.
Biya, who last month won his seventh term in office, has been in power since 1982, making him one of the longest ruling leaders in the world. In fact, Cameroon has only had two presidents since gaining independence in 1960. Because the country’s median age is 18, this means that the majority of Cameroonians have only ever known one president. Yet the decline of Africa’s strongmen over the past two decades—most recently Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso, Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, and even Jacob Zuma in South Africa—has made Biya’s continued rule increasingly untenable. Democracy may have begun to lose its appeal in many parts of the world, but it remains important to most sub-Saharan Africans. Many Cameroonians with an education and a smart phone consider their president’s extended rule increasingly illegitimate. The political tide currently washing away the strongmen of Africa has made this moment an exceptional one for mobilizing people against the regime.
In spite of these democratic headwinds, Biya has managed to maintain his legitimacy in some quarters through his cooptation of Francophone elites and control of information by means of the (largely Francophone) state-owned media. He has masterfully brought Francophone leaders into government, offering them lucrative ministerial posts and control over various government revenue streams. Importantly, he has not been excessively repressive—at least not before the current outbreak of violence—and has gone out of his way to uphold the façade of democratic legitimacy through holding regular elections, allowing a relatively unfettered (although weak) independent media, and having a general laissez-faire attitude toward governing.
The state media and elites within the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement are stalwart defenders of the president, operating whole-heartedly on the fictitious assumption that the regime is democratic. Many Cameroonians, especially those isolated from independent media, opposition parties, or information from outside of the country, earnestly believe this narrative. Another survey by the Afrobarometer conducted in 2015 before the outbreak of violence, showed that the presidency is the second most trusted institution of the state, after the army. It also showed that only ten percent of Cameroonian respondents believe that their country is not a democracy.
The Anglophone regions’ relative distance from both Biya’s networks of patronage and influence and the Francophone state media puts them in a unique position to see the autocratic nature of the regime.
In contrast, the Anglophone regions’ relative distance from both Biya’s networks of patronage and influence and the Francophone state media puts them in a unique position to see the autocratic nature of the regime and rebel against it. Although 75.4 percent of Francophone Cameroonian respondents said they trust Biya “somewhat” or “a lot,” in the Afrobarometer poll, only 45.5 percent of Anglophones felt the same way. Part of the reason for this is easier access to criticism of the Biya government. In electoral autocracies, opposition parties are often the only institutions that consistently voice the view that the regime is not truly democratic. The strongest opposition party in Cameroon—the Social Democratic Front (SDF)—is headquartered in the Northwest region, thus further exposing Anglophones to narratives of state repression. Other parts of Cameroon do not have occasion to become as familiar with opposition party politics. In the most recent 2013 elections for the National Assembly, for example, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement ran completely unopposed in 13 of the country’s 83 electoral districts.
In comparison to other parts of the country, such as the north, Cameroon’s Anglophone regions are also more economically autonomous from Yaoundé. They have a robust cross-border trade with Nigeria, successful plantations in the Southwest, and fertile farming land. They are not overly-reliant on the export of primary resources, such as oil or timber, which funnels through state-owned corporations. And they are not as poor as, for example, the northern regions, which face chronic food insecurity. The Anglophones thus have not only the will, but also the resources to rebel.
Unfortunately, an end to the crisis is nowhere in sight. Last month, Biya won his seventh term as president with 71.3 percent of the vote. The already unfair election was marked by exceedingly low participation in the Anglophone regions—just five percent in the Northwest—due to security fears. Meanwhile, Biya has responded to the separatists with an iron fist. He refuses to negotiate with them, instead sending in his elite Rapid Intervention Battalion (trained by the United States and led by a retired Israeli officer), which has now been accused of burning villages and attacking civilians in the Northwest and Southwest. But as long as the violence does not spill over into the Francophone regions, the crisis will likely not affect the president’s legitimacy in the rest of the country. Moreover, Biya remains staunchly supported by the West—especially France, but also the United States, which relies strongly on Cameroon in the fight against Boko Haram. The separatists, meanwhile, remain fractured, weak, and guilty of their own atrocities against civilians. Apart from attacking security forces, they have been kidnapping and torturing teachers and students who refuse to participate in a school strike.
It is extremely unlikely that Biya will make the concessions necessary for attacks from separatists to stop, and the fluid nature of the insurgency will make it difficult for state security forces to end the violence. The scorched earth tactics on both sides only work to further alienate the population, many of whom have fled to Nigeria. It seems likely that a resolution to the crisis can only happen once the questions of when Biya will step down and who will replace him are fully answered. Right now, there is only unsubstantiated speculation. Many assume he will appoint a successor before the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2025. But if there are any surprises in the meantime similar to the military move against Mugabe in Zimbabwe or the popular uprising against Compaoré in Burkina Faso, a transition may come sooner than expected. A post-Biya political opening might provide a way for Cameroon’ s Anglophones to claim their long-awaited autonomy.