Jude Mutah is a program officer for Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy.
The conflict in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon is a civil war that started in 2017 between Cameroonian security forces and non-state armed separatist groups vying for an independent state they call “The Federal Republic of Ambazonia.” Longstanding grievances in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, dating back to the colonial era, re-emerged in October 2016 in the form of peaceful protests against marginalization, political exclusion, and the state’s preference for the use of French over English. The demonstrators demanded reforms, primarily in the education and judicial sectors, but the government’s response was brutal. Several protesters were arrested and detained. By early 2017, the peaceful agitations had morphed into an armed conflict, with Anglophone calls for secession from the majority Francophone Republic of Cameroon. Cameroonian President Paul Biya labeled the protesters “terrorists” and has yet to entertain an inclusive dialogue. Security forces have continued indiscriminate arrests, killings, and torture of civilians. Armed separatists have also committed grave atrocities; there has been no accountability on either side. Impunity remains the order of the day, encouraging the abusers, fueling further violence and harm, and prolonging the conflict. Human Rights Watch reports that over 6,000 people have died; Cameroon also faces a daunting humanitarian crisis, with over 600,000 internally displaced persons and more than 77,000 others seeking refuge in Nigeria. Thus far, efforts to end the conflict, which has its roots in colonialism, have not yielded any meaningful strides.
Germany originally colonized Cameroon in 1884. Following the defeat of Germany in World War I, Britain and France partitioned Cameroon between themselves in 1916; France took 80 percent and Britain took 20 percent. The two countries administered their respective spheres as mandated territories under the Covenant of the League of Nations. Based on their colonial experiences, the two Cameroons developed different lifestyles regarding language, legal practice, and governance, mirroring the colonialists. French Cameroon gained independence in 1960 as the Republic of Cameroon; British Cameroon achieved its independence in 1961 by voting in a UN-organized referendum to join the Republic of Cameroon, forming a two-state (British West Cameroon and French East Cameroon) Federal Republic of Cameroon. The federation had to conserve and safeguard the Anglophone legal and cultural identities, including the Anglo-Saxon institutions of West Cameroon, as laid out in the UN resolutions and Foumban Conference of 1961. Unfortunately, this did not happen; thus, colonial events largely explain the roots of the Anglophone crisis, now an armed conflict.
This article draws on publicly available reporting to provide an overview of internal and external efforts to address the crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, explain the challenges undermining peace, and outline recommendations for an effective response to the conflict.
Civil Society Efforts
Cameroon hosts several vibrant civil society groups in different parts of the country. However, given the government’s authoritarian nature, the civic space is shrinking. A good example is the ninety-day internet shutdown imposed in the Anglophone regions in 2017, which constrained civil society actors’ freedom and ability to organize effectively. These groups also face financial challenges, competition for scarce resources, poor coordination demonstrated by duplicate efforts, and threats of de-registration or closure by government authorities. In 2018, the government even obstructed efforts by the Catholic Church to organize a national Anglophone conference geared toward finding a solution to the conflict. Civil society groups also suffer threats from separatist organizations, who accuse them of colluding with government forces and subject members to intimidation, assault, and abduction.
However, civil society remains crucial despite these constraints. For example, groups have adopted various approaches to support those affected by the conflict and campaign for a resolution. These efforts include providing humanitarian relief such as food, health services, and shelter, especially for internally displaced persons. Civil society groups in the affected regions—northwest and southwest Cameroon—also conduct peace campaigns and education efforts directed at both the government and non-state armed groups, drawing international attention to the conflict. These efforts include the “stop the killing,” “back-to-school,” “we want dialogue,” and “ceasefire” campaigns mainly led by Southwest/Northwest Women’s Task Force (SNWOT). SNWOT has led demonstrations and organized press conferences in Cameroon’s political capital, Yaoundé, demanding an immediate ceasefire and a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Other local organizations, such as the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) and the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa based in Cameroon, have continuously documented human rights abuses, including the February 14, 2020 Ngarbuh Massacre carried out by government security forces in the northwest regions. Thirteen children and one pregnant mother were killed in the incident. Other NGOs have focused on peace education—training youth and women on mediation skills so that they can, in turn, educate family members in non-state armed groups to drop their weapons. As the examples of Ghana, Bosnia, and other countries indicate, peace education is critical in de-escalating tension, establishing norms of tolerance, and managing prejudices.
Though the conflict persists, the pressure and activities of civil society groups have yielded some positive results. Following the Ngarbuh Massacre, for example, President Biya set up an independent commission of inquiry that investigated the atrocity and confirmed government security forces’ responsibility, undermining original government rebuttals. Civil society efforts in Cameroon have also exposed the conflict to the international arena. CHRDA, for example, has presented the dispute to the US Congress, the United Nations, and other foreign and international fora. Additionally, pressure from civil society groups within the country contributed to the first significant internal effort to address the conflict, dubbed the “Cameroon grand national dialogue” of October 2019.
The 2019 Cameroon Grand National Dialogue
On September 10, 2019, President Biya, in an unusual address to the nation, announced a “major national dialogue.” According to the president, the dialogue would bring together Cameroonians to reflect on issues of national interest, including “peace, security, national integration, unity, and progress.” It is widely believed that the government pushed for the national dialogue to stage-manage the conflict’s outcome, desperately trying to project the image of benevolence and restraint through reconstruction and ex-combatant reintegration efforts. Nevertheless, these processes were poorly organized, poorly implemented, and came “too little, too late.” Although the dialogue initiative appeared genuinely aimed at resolving the conflict in the northwest and southwest, a deeper analysis raises concerns about its implementation, explaining why the conflict persists to this day.
Amalgamating the Anglophone conflict with other internal issues in official government statements had some advantages, especially given the strict social and cultural divisions between Anglophones and Francophones and the increasingly hostile rhetoric they use towards each other—for example, Francophones often use the derogatory term “Anglofools.” Many believed the dialogue could help mitigate such differences. However, it ultimately devalued the relative agency of Anglophones and replicated previous national discourses in which the perspectives and grievances of English Cameroonians were relegated or met with intangible solutions—such as the “special status” accorded to the two Anglophone regions at the end of the 2019 national dialogue.
The national dialogue was also not as inclusive as the president had claimed it would be. While some separatist leaders based abroad were invited to attend, they chose to boycott the talks over security concerns. Their fears were credible; in January 2018, several separatist leaders were arrested in Abuja, Nigeria by Cameroon government security forces in coordination with the Nigerian government and were repatriated to Cameroon, even though many of them had submitted asylum applications. They were later tried in the military court of Yaoundé, Cameroon’s political capital, and handed life sentences on charges of terrorism. Several relatives of separatist leaders also suffered arbitrary arrests and detention in the country, raising serious security concerns for the invited separatists.
Moreover, other key stakeholders in the conflict were deliberately left out of the talks. The separatist leaders abducted from Nigeria, revered by most Anglophones as the most credible leaders of the struggle, were sidelined despite the negotiations being held in Yaoundé, where they were detained. The dialogue’s exclusive nature and poor organization caused several credible international and local stakeholders and experts to boycott the meeting as well. Even though the conflict has continued for three years since the discussion in 2019, the government still claims that the dialogue was a success, arguing that it is only a matter of time before the resolutions are fully implemented. The government has also demonstrated a lukewarm attitude towards the potential for international response or intervention, asserting the issue is purely internal.
While the Cameroon government is not interested in international intervention, the separatists believe only discussions mediated by a third party can resolve the conflict. However, the global response to the Cameroon Anglophone crisis has been feeble. For example, the Norwegian Refugee Council has designated the conflict as the most neglected crisis worldwide based on “lack of funding, media attention, and political neglect.” The following sections examine responses from the West and the rest of the African continent before delving into potential future solutions.
Major Western Responses
Although minimal and far from vigorous, most international responses to the conflict have come from the West, especially the United States. The United States alone issued at least five statements starting in 2016 when the protests began. Earlier this year, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs released a bipartisan resolution that condemned the violence and human rights abuses perpetrated by government security forces and armed separatist groups. The resolution also urged the conflicting parties to “seek dialogue and [a] peaceful solution for their differences.” On January 1, 2021, the Committee passed another bipartisan resolution inviting the government of Cameroon and the armed separatist fighters to end violence, respect human rights, and pursue genuinely inclusive dialogue to end the conflict, among other statements. This 2021 resolution raised the conflict’s global profile and prompted conversations in Western capitals—including Ottawa, London, and Berlin, which had remained mute about the crisis initially—about condemning the violence and calling for dialogue among the disputants.
The United States and Cameroon have enjoyed diplomatic relations since 1960, when French Cameroon gained independence from France. Cameroon is not only critical to maintaining stability in the Central African subregion but also a key regional partner in countering terrorist activities in the Lake Chad Basin, which are mainly perpetrated by the dreaded and deadly terrorist group Boko Haram. The United States has provided substantial security assistance in support of Cameroon. However, starting in 2019, the US government cut some of this assistance over human rights concerns. In 2020, Cameroon also lost its eligibility for participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a bilateral investment treaty that has facilitated trade between the two countries since 1989—especially important for Cameroon’s exports to the United States. One of the most recent US responses prompted by the conflict was the designation of Cameroon for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Effective for 18 months beginning in June 2022, TPS allows Cameroonian citizens who have resided in the United States since April 2022 to remain and work in the country until the situation in Cameroon stabilizes.
Although a critical stakeholder, France has striven to maintain a low profile since the start of the conflict. Some argue that it even supported the government’s repressive response for strategic, political, and economic reasons. France still strongly influences its former colonies in Africa. For example, it not only maintains strategic military advisors in the defense ministries of these countries but also benefits tremendously from their rich and diverse mineral and natural resources; to this day, France still collects colonial taxes from its former colonies, including Cameroon. The Anglophone regions possess most of Cameroon’s natural and mineral resources. Thus, Anglophone secession from French Cameroon would end these benefits, an unthinkable prospect for France. In the worst-case scenario, France will privately support decentralization—delegation of key decision-making and management from the central government to local administrative authorities—having ruled out even federalism, much less the independence or separation of Anglophone Cameroon from French Cameroon. However, confronted with pressure at home and abroad as well as an escalating conflict, France has called for a political solution and encouraged the Anglophone Conference, which the Cameroon government refused to grant in 2018. President Biya has also met with French diplomats at length. French President Emanuel Macron even visited Cameroon in April 2022 and held talks with Biya, although the discussion focused on broader issues facing the country and the subregion. In short, as a critical stakeholder, France is expected to do more but has not yet delivered.
Although known for its neutrality in global affairs, Switzerland has engaged in a mediation process to end the conflict. In collaboration with the Humanitarian Dialogue (a Swiss NGO), the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs has held several meetings with Cameroon’s separatist leaders since 2019. Swiss officials have also traveled to the country, meeting with Cameroon government officials and civil society actors to better understand the dynamics of the conflict. In March 2019, for example, the Swiss president traveled to Cameroon and proposed an initiative to serve as mediator in a bid to end the conflict through an inclusive negotiation process. However, President Biya’s reaction was ambiguous. While the United Nations and the United States backed the Swiss-led process, the Cameroon government only implicitly committed to the initiative. This year, Biya officially suspended its participation in the Swiss mediation effort out of distrust, instead inviting Switzerland and interested stakeholders to support Cameroon in implementing the resolutions of the largely ineffectual 2019 National Dialogue. The Swiss government has also officially ended its efforts to find a sustainable solution to the six-year conflict. However, the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Swiss Foreign Ministry have held several discussions with various separatist groups in preparation for future dialogue with the Cameroon Republic.
Multilateral responses have not been effective either. For example, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres phoned and met with Biya in Cameroon in 2017. The UN has also urged both sides to facilitate humanitarian access and engage in inclusive dialogue to end the conflict. It has even offered to mediate. However, the conflict has yet to secure the required number of votes to feature on the Security Council’s agenda. In 2017, the conflict managed to feature at a biannual meeting of the UN Security Council. The United States, the United Kingdom, and other vital Western actors demanded dialogue, investigation of the human rights abuses committed by both sides, and humanitarian access for the UN and other rights organizations. However, the UN’s apparent lukewarm attitude towards resolving the crisis remains widely criticized.
The European Union is a significant partner of Cameroon in trade, humanitarian aid, and development, but the organization carries minimal political weight and cannot intervene in major internal political issues such as the Anglophone crisis. However, it has considered reevaluating its development and humanitarian aid to Cameroon if the country’s government fails to take active measures to end the war. In 2019, for example, the EU voted for a resolution ordering the release of political prisoners, including Maurice Kamto, the leader of one of Cameroon’s main opposition parties. The resolution also asked both sides to engage in dialogue to seek a peaceful political solution to the conflict. Additionally, EU officials have issued statements calling for, among other things, proportionate use of force and punitive measures against perpetrators of violence, especially those who have committed violence against civilians.
Apart from multilateral institutions, international civil society organizations have tried to improve the situation. For example, human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group have conducted extensive research and offered policy recommendations to the government of Cameroon, international policymakers, and other key stakeholders on the best ways to end the conflict. In addition, the United States Institute of Peace conducted a rigorous conflict analysis, undertook a scoping mission to Cameroon, and engaged with separatist leaders and Cameroon government officials to better understand the situation. The organization later provided policy recommendations to the United States government and other stakeholders. The National Endowment for Democracy, a US-based private foundation, has also provided grants to local civil society actors to help them explore avenues for ending the conflict.
The famous mantra “African solutions to African problems” explains why many Western diplomats and Africans expected entities in Africa to play a leading role in addressing the Anglophone crisis. However, African regional organizations and individual countries have been remarkably discreet and, in some instances, have even sided with the government of Cameroon. The African Union (AU), the foremost African continental institution, has issued only a few statements. In 2017, former Chairperson of the AU Commission, Her Excellency Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, expressed concerns about the crisis. She called for restraint and encouraged dialogue to resolve the sociopolitical and economic issues at the root of the war. She also emphasized respect for the law—in particular, the right to conduct peaceful demonstrations. In 2018, current AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat visited Cameroon for two days and met with several high-level government officials, including President Biya. While the discussions focused on issues affecting the region and Cameroon more broadly, the Chairperson lauded Biya’s humanitarian efforts and reiterated the AU’s “commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of Cameroon.” He rejected violence and called for inclusive dialogue to facilitate a peaceful resolution. Beyond the Chairperson’s visit and weightless statements, however, the AU has not engaged in any meaningful efforts to improve the situation. Other regional bodies, such as the Economic Community of Central African States and the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa, have also remained silent.
Responses from African countries would make a difference even if carried out unilaterally. However, most, if not all, of these countries have been silent. Nigeria, for example, has the leverage to help broker a peace deal in Cameroon. Under Nigeria’s leadership, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has supported several African countries, such as Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone, in resolving internal conflicts. Beyond its influence in ECOWAS, Nigeria’s direct links to Cameroon place it in a powerful position to meaningfully intervene. Both countries share a 2,100-kilometer border along which separatists from both countries vie for independent states. For example, Cameroon’s northwest and southern regions share a common boundary with eastern Nigeria, where the Indigenous People of Biafra separatist movement fights for an independent state they call “Biafra.” Nigeria also suffers from the Anglophone conflict; it hosts thousands of Cameroonian refugees and has to impose frequent border closures that paralyze trade between the two countries. Furthermore, Cameroon is a strategic partner of Nigeria in the fight against the terrorist group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin. While these factors appear crucial, they have not led Nigeria to pressure Biya for a sustainable political solution. Perhaps President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria fears angering Biya, a key ally. Many also argue that the Nigerian government tends to support Biya’s position in the Anglophone conflict because any uncalculated move might put weight behind the separatist movement in his own country. In 2018, the Nigerian government arrested suspected Anglophone Cameroon separatist leaders in Nigeria and repatriated them to Cameroon. While a Nigerian court ruled in 2019 that the arrest and extradition of the separatist leaders was “illegal and unconstitutional” and ordered their return to Nigeria, Buhari and Biya have ignored the court order.
The international response to the Anglophone conflict in Cameroon is weak. Statements, visits, and other diplomatic measures have undoubtedly helped raise the conflict’s profile, especially in the international arena. However, more robust steps are critical; strong, active measures are needed to bring the opposing parties to the negotiation table.
Towards Effective Responses to the Crisis
Given its stagnant response to the conflict, the international community should consider the following recommendations.
Generating sufficient attention to the conflict through interactions with Western and African governments, public news coverage, and global dialogue is a critical prerequisite for policy suggestions and actions. The crisis will continue if it is not given the global attention it deserves.
Because both sides of the conflict have committed wanton atrocities and abuses, prioritizing the investigation and documentation of these atrocities is crucial. This response would deter future atrocities, promote justice for the victims, and send a strong message to each side that the world is watching. Several options can be considered, such as deploying an international fact-finding mission and providing criminal evidence to international institutions such as the International Court of Justice. Also, countries like the United States should send high-level personnel or special envoys to meet with victims and belligerents and, in coordination with other stakeholders, support internal efforts to investigate and document atrocities. For example, similar actions have been carried out by the United States in the past regarding Burma, South Sudan, Darfur, and other foreign conflicts.
Investigating and using targeted sanctions against those benefiting from and fomenting the conflict on both sides could incentivize peace efforts. Such sanctions must be internationally coordinated to be effective. Many individuals helping to incite the conflict have children in Western schools or rely on international travel for health and other reasons. Implementing travel bans against these individuals and their families would pressure them to work toward peace and desist from violence against civilians.
Prioritizing humanitarian access is essential. The conflict has produced thousands of internally displaced persons and the destruction of property like schools and hospitals, with children and women suffering the most. Foreign governments have an opportunity to address these problems through multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, focusing on the protection of vulnerable groups and the advancement of children’s rights. Such an approach could mitigate atrocities until more comprehensive political peace efforts to address the war are put in place. Moreover, humanitarian actors have suffered backlash from the Cameroonian government and non-state armed groups. The international community should hold accountable those blocking humanitarian access to the country. Finally, civil society groups in Cameroon have demonstrated their ability to mitigate the conflict and promote peaceful discussions in the country. International support for these organizations, both moral and financial, is necessary to condemn the intimidation, targeting, and pressure they face.
Multilateral institutions, such as the UN, EU, and AU, as well as individual countries, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, France, and Switzerland, have shown interest in the conflict, especially through official statements. However, the conflict has continued for six years, indicating that more robust actions are needed. The United Nations, in particular, must assume a leadership role in galvanizing efforts to resolve the conflict by working closely with and supporting interested stakeholders.
Only a genuine and inclusive dialogue, not a military solution, will end Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict. The international community has a critical role to play in achieving this outcome.
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