The House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations met on Wednesday to discuss challenges in the Republic of Cameroon. Over the past year, the relationship between Cameroon’s government and the country’s minority Anglophone community has become increasingly violent, accelerating into armed conflict.
Hans De Marie Heungoup, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, called conflict in the Anglophone regions “the biggest security threat to Cameroon stability, which if left unaddressed could turn into civil war as has occurred in other African countries,” in a statement issued to the subcommittee.
The roots of the current conflict go back to Cameroon’s achieving independence almost 60 years ago.
Prior to independence, France and the United Kingdom colonized the territory. French Cameroon became independent in 1960, and one year later part of British-controlled Cameroon joined in a referendum overseen by the United Nations.
Since that referendum, the Anglophone community in Cameroon has felt increasingly marginalized. Initially, political power between the Anglophone and Francophone regions of Cameroon was balanced in a federal system. In the years following independence and unification, however, Cameroon moved toward a unitary, rather than a federal model, thereby limiting political autonomy for the minority Anglophone community.
The political system also provides for a strong executive. In 2008 constitutional amendments abolished term limits and granted the president immunity from prosecution after leaving office, resulting in protests. President Paul Biya, who has been in office since 1982, has concentrated power in the French-speaking part of Cameroon. His political party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, controls most of the seats in the National Assembly and the Senate.
The English-speaking community also feels marginalized economically. The government tends to invest more in projects in French-speaking regions, as opposed to Anglophone areas. For example, the 2017 public investment budget allocated $225 million for projects in the Francophone South region, while the Anglophone North West and South West regions were given just over $150 million combined.
The current crisis began in late 2016, when lawyers and teachers in the Anglophone regions protested the appointment of French-speaking judges and teachers who lacked familiarity with British customs in the Anglophone parts of Cameroon. Negotiations with the government collapsed, spurring a crackdown that included cutting internet access in English-speaking regions and prosecuting leading activists.
Protests reignited in late 2017, and on Oct. 1, the anniversary of the reunification of Francophone and part of Anglophone Cameroon, secessionists proclaimed an independent state called Ambazonia.
The International Crisis Group reported that “defence and security forces responded with disproportionate force, leading to at least 40 deaths and over 100 injured protesters between 28 September and 2 October.” Cameroon security forces also “arrested hundreds of people without warrant, including in their homes” and “made use of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.”
The report adds that the violence of September and October 2017 “opened up a rift between the government and the population, exacerbating the climate of mistrust and making the idea of secession more attractive.”
Christopher Fomunyoh, a senior associate and regional director for Central and West Africa programs at the National Democratic Institute, told the Free Beacon that support for secession has increased over the past two years “in large part because of the manner in which this crisis has been managed.”
In the past eight months, over one hundred secessionists and civilians have been killed by security forces, and hundreds of others have been arrested. Rebels have reportedly killed at least 80 soldiersin the past year and have tortured local officials and government supporters. The U.N. says more than 160,000 people have been displaced within Cameroon since 2016, and over 20,000 refugees had fled to Nigeria by the end of March.
Earlier this month, BBC News released video depicting violations of human rights, primarily by security forces. A clip from April shows soldiers setting fire to a house in Azi, a village in the Anglophone South West region. The soldiers’ uniforms were consistent with those worn by Cameroon’s elite Rapid Intervention Battalion, although a government official claimed that separatists are able to obtain military uniforms and commit violent acts in order to blame the government.
Fomunyoh thinks that if a transparent referendum or consultative process took place in Anglophone Cameroon, then “the vast majority of Anglophones today would say that based on the grievances of the past plus the manner in which this government has managed this crisis in the past two years, there is no reason for them to be part of the Republic of Cameroon.”
If the government continues to insist on a violent crackdown and refuses dialogue, Fomunyoh warns, “the potential for this crisis to worsen is extremely high” because of “long pent-up frustrations and grievances that are legitimate and need to be properly addressed.”