There has been little media attention focusing on the biggest political crisis to hit Cameroon in decades. Plagued by an ongoing linguistic secessionist movement, instability present in the small West African country threatens to spill over to neighboring Nigeria and the surrounding region. While the UN and former colonial powers Britain and France have called for the cease of hostilities and open dialogue, the Cameroon government has attempted to resolve the crisis through force instead of diplomacy.
As a result, tensions between separatist elements and government authorities have continued to escalate; thousands of civilians have fled to the Nigerian border, and a crackdown against secessionist militants has resulted in large-scale arrests, detainments, and killings. The government’s heavy use of force has led some to call the crackdown a form of ethnic cleansing , which has only served to heighten the level of political agitation in the country. The conflict has undermined bilateral relations with Nigeria as separatists have crossed the border intending to wage their militancy with the aid of local sympathizers. The response of the Cameroon government has been to illegally cross the border in pursuit, raising ire in Abuja, and placing the interests of both governments at odds – a tension not welcomed considering that both nations are closely coordinating their military operations against Islamic extremists along the northern Cameroon-Nigerian border.
As the present crisis shows, the linguistic status of English was greatly undermined in favor of a unitary state that disseminated the practice of spoken and written French in the majority of the state’s main institutions.
The advent of the secessionist sentiment is particularly inconvenient for President Biya, who is scheduled to run in national elections this year. Having served as one of Africa’s longest running heads of state, it was presumed Mr Biya will hold on to his status as the nation’s leader, but the on-going crisis raises questions on whether Biya will follow the same fate as Robert Mugabe and Yahya Jammeh.
The Anglophone crisis has been a simmering point of contention in Cameroon’s society. Dating back to the days of colonization, grievances leveled at the French-speaking government have not been just linguistic in nature, but rooted in economic and political deprivation. Formerly a German colony, Cameroon was divided between France and Britain as one of the spoils of the First World War – France occupied the majority of Cameroon, while Britain annexed the westernmost region along the border with Nigeria. In 1960, the French territory of Cameroon voted for independence as did the British territory in the following year. The vote was meant to unify the English and French speaking regions together and place both languages under equal status, but this did not come to pass.
As the present crisis shows, the linguistic status of English was greatly undermined in favor of a unitary state that disseminated the practice of spoken and written French in the majority of the state’s main institutions. There was also a widespread sentiment amongst the Anglophone regions that the government was gradually attempting to impose “frenchification” as the Biya regime began to demand that local administrative and civil services should converse on French. Economic deprivation of the Anglophone regions became increasingly apparent. The southern regions of Cameroon were noted to have received a greater allocation of resources for projects relating to critical infrastructure than all of the Anglophone regions combined. It is no coincidence that the southern state of Cameroon is also the home region of President Biya. These long held grievances eventually manifested in large scale demonstrations. Their eventual trigger was the nomination of French-speaking magistrates in the English speaking region. Ultimately it was the government’s refusal to address the issues at hand that gave way to the social unrest that has swept across the country.
A greater risk of insurgency and damaged bilateral tensions
The government’s disproportionate use of force will most likely encourage even greater insurgency. As can be seen from clashes between separatists and security forces, potential militants will seek to cross the Nigerian border and support guerrilla attacks. This can be viewed as capitalizing on the fraught relations between Cameroon and Nigeria as questions over whether Nigeria can legally extradite Cameroon independence leaders have been raised by human rights bodies. In addition, private diplomatic spats between the two neighbors will most likely provide time for independence separatists to conduct the training of new recruits and launch counter operations against the government. However, impeding these developments are the bilateral commitments that exist between Nigeria and Cameroon. Given their joint operations against Boko Haram in the north, it is likely that the Nigerian government will eventually begin military operations to root out Cameroonian dissidents, both to appease Cameroon so that bilateral military relations will continue unabated and to eliminate the risk of inciting more secessionist sentiment amongst the Indigenous people of Biafra (IPOB).
The growing refugee crisis will also pose problems for Nigeria and Cameroon. At present, more than 43,000 refugees have fled to Nigeria amid the government’s heavy crackdown, straining the monetary resources of the federal government. This proves to be particularly strenuous given the fragmented social climate of Nigerian society, with secessionist tensions in the Biafra region, on-going clashes with Niger Delta militants, and the continued pressure to eradicate Boko Haram. As such the refugee situation will only add to Nigeria’s problems. If the exodus of refugees continues to swell, Nigeria may close the border in order to prevent the onset of regional instability or begin to impose pressure on the Cameroon government to contain the violence within its own borders.
Deterioration of political and economic stability
Both separatist militants and the Biya regime have given no indication of ceasing hostilities, increasing the likelihood of a breakdown of law and order and the continuation of violence committed on both sides. It is likely that current government crackdown will continue to be presided over by President Biya, who has declared war on any individual who seeks to pursue a secessionist agenda. Separatists are equally determined to oppose the Biya regime and establish the “Federal Republic of Ambazonia.” The clash will only serve to deteriorate the political stability in the region as the violence will result in civilian casualties and the suspension of ordinary business and local services.
The crisis will also undermine the country’s economy as methods to root out the secessionists have greatly affected local business and enterprises in the Anglophone region. The government’s decision to impose an internet shutdown for the past four months has acted as a double-edge sword – while it has prevented English-speaking Cameroonians from communicating with the outside world, the economy has suffered greatly. In total, two major shutdowns were implemented – the first one lasting 93 days cost the Cameroon economy at least $38m, while the second shutdown had similar monetary loss. The production of one of the country’s largest exports, cocoa, will be stunted in the months to come as violent clashes have already cut off buyers from the Southwest Region, which produces more than 100,000 tons of cocoa beans, reported to be nearly half of the country’s output. The production slowdown will also increase the already existing cocoa smuggling trade, undermining the amount of revenue Cameroon garners from the exportation of the bean.
The international community will continue to divert its attention away from the situation in Cameroon due to the country’s importance in quelling radical extremism in the Sahel region and northern Nigeria.
As such, it is most likely that regional powers will be forced to intervene to prevent destabilization along their own borders. However, they will abstain from pressuring the Biya regime to address the root causes of the political turmoil so as to not encourage similar separatist sentiments within their own borders. With the upcoming elections, president Biya’s position as the presidential candidate may become compromised if the political agitation is not quelled.
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