Why We Shouldn’t Ignore What’s Happening in Cameroon

When Cameroon’s President Paul Biya decided to switch the internet in Cameroon’s anglophone provinces back on in April after three months, it might have looked like the crisis that had paralysed those parts of the country since the end of last year was over. But faced with continuous internal and external problems, including anglophone discontent, political uncertainty, the threat of Boko Haram and violence in neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon remains fragile.

Regionally, the situation is fraught. Cameroon currently hosts over 370,000 refugees who have fled either violence created by Boko Haram in Nigeria or the ongoing conflict in CAR. In both countries, continuous insecurity makes return unlikely any time soon, and new arrivals probable. While Boko Haram seems to have been weakened militarily, it continues to commit gross human rights violations against the civilian population and create displacement. Despite this, Nigerian refugees have already been forcibly returned by Cameroonian security forces, a move criticised by UNHCR. Though there has been no evidence of forced returns to CAR, a recent UN survey, conducted before CAR’s most recent escalation of violence, indicated that only one in four refugees from CAR is considering returning “home”.

At the same time, internal challenges remain, and this combination creates the possibility violence, human rights abuses and displacement taking in Cameroon itself, a view confirmed by civil society activists whom IRRI spoke to.

Elections and repression?

For more than 35 years, Cameroon has been run, with a firm hand, by President Paul Biya. Human rights groups have regularly denounced the shrinking civil society space, the lack of freedom of expression and abuses by the security services. The dubious April 2017 conviction of Ahmed Abba, a local correspondent of Radio France International (RFI), to 10 years in prison for “collaborating” with Boko Haram is a clear illustration of the lack of freedom of expression in the country, with Amnesty International denouncing his sentence as a “travesty of justice”, citing an unfair trial, torture and unlawful detention by the secret services.

Notwithstanding, and with elections due to take place in 2018, the President’s supporters have called for him to run again, despite his age (he is now 86) and his long tenure in power. But many in the country have their concerns. According to Aziz Moustafa Ibn Ismail, president of a local human rights group, “the political situation is the biggest threat [for violence and instability]. There is no rule of law, and Cameroonians are not involved in public policy. […] The president should give freedom and responsibility back to young Cameroonians, and not run for president again.” The elections also run the risk of exacerbating Cameroon’s internecine language-based crisis, which has been simmering for decades.

An “anglophone” crisis

Long-standing grievances about political and economic exclusion, in Cameroon’s English-speaking provinces, have led to an increasingly radical federalist/secessionist agenda. Recently, tensions re-emerged when, in October 2016, English-speaking lawyers went on strike to protest the absence of common law in the Cameroonian legal system. They were joined in November by teachers in the two English-speaking provinces (Northwest Region and Southwest Region), denouncing the dominance of French in the education system. Gradually, the disquiet grew and widened beyond these professional groups. Activists took to the street and clashed with security services, who responded with disproportionate violence and repression. In Bamenda, the English-speaking region’s main city, the military used live rounds to suppress the protests, killing several protestors and arresting many others.

In January 2017, the central government cut the internet connection in the two provinces, in what appeared to be an attempt to silence dissent and prevent mobilisation. On 20 April, after an internet blackout of more than three months, President Paul Biya ordered the internet to be reconnected, thereby ending the longest ever internet shutdown on the African continent. A government spokesperson cited an improvement in the conditions, but warned against hate speech and “terrorist acts” of “extremist activists”.

Unsurprisingly, a NGO-worker told IRRI that the crisis is all but over: “There has been a lot of violence in the anglophone part of the country. There is a risk of the crisis re-erupting, the situation is very fragile. The Cameroonian state only responded by security measures, by deploying a lot of military. There is no dialogue to respond to the root causes in the north-east.”

International reaction

The international community has responded hesitantly at best. In March, the UN Security Council visited Cameroon as part of a regional tour focused on the fight against Boko Haram. The delegation met refugees and internally displaced people affected by the ongoing conflict with Boko Haram and stressed the need for addressing the “root causes” of this conflict. But failed to mention the anglophone crisis or the national political situation.

A month later, the regional UN representative issued a statement calling upon the authorities to “examine with diligence the difficulties of the populations and entrepreneurs of the English-speaking regions” and deploring the deprivation of internet since mid-January 2017. He also reacted “with relief” after the re-establishment of the internet services. The strongest reaction came from the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, who called the internet shutdown for English speakers “an appalling violation of their right to freedom of expression.”

While it may appear that the immediate threat to peace and stability in Cameroon has been avoided for now, it is not the time for international and regional actors to ignore what is occurring.  Now is the time to work with the Cameroonian authorities and all other actors, to make sure the potentially explosive combination of a tenuously united country with upcoming potentially controversial elections is mitigated.

In order to prevent the situation from disintegrating any further, regional and international actors should keep Cameroon on their watch list and use any leverage they have with the Cameroonian government to not only raise regional problems, but also urge them to resolve internal issues which, if left unaddressed, could see the situation in Cameroon deteriorating rapidly.

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