Category Archives: Cameroon

Cameroon – Exploring the Anglophone Crisis: A Conversation with Felix Agbor-Balla

A political crisis continues to grip English-speaking regions of Cameroon, with no real solution on the horizon. A year ago strikes by various legal associations quickly expanded into a full-blown protest movement that encompassed teachers, students, and local trade unions. Underlying the movement are longstanding grievances and feelings of discrimination. These sentiments have been exacerbated by perceptions of misallocation of state resources and uneven representation in the highest levels of government. The government has heavily resisted this movement and responded with violence. During the most recent round of protests a reported 17 people were killed in clashes with security forces.

The solution to the crisis is not clear. Dialogue with the government has been limited, and there is no consensus on what an endpoint would look like. The Anglophone crisis involves the resolution of many longstanding issues regarding the region’s British heritage. However, fundamentally the crisis also implies some restructuring of the Cameroonian state. At one extreme are violent groups like the Ambazonia Movement, which advocate for secession. Others like the now-banned Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) seem to want a return to federalism, while the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) wavers between calls for federalism and decentralization.

With these tensions in mind I spoke with Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla. Agbor-Balla is a human rights lawyer and the president of the CACSC and the Fako Lawyers Association (FAKLA). On January 18, 2017 he was arrested and airlifted to Yaoundé. A 2014 anti-terror law allowed the government to try him in a military tribunal, and he remained in military detention without bail until he was released by presidential decree on August 31st. I spoke to him from London over Skype on October 23. Our conversation, which I excerpt below, revolved primarily around the roots of the Anglophone crisis and the difficulty of resolving it within the context of the Cameroonian political system.

The Roots of the Current Anglophone Crisis

The “Anglophone Problem” has historical roots in the country’s brief experiment with federalism that united former British and French territories. The specifics of unification have been covered extensively, but the federal arrangement left significant authority in the hands of the presidency. The president could appoint critical administrative figures, direct the flow of resources, and use emergency powers to curtail political expression. By 1972, both multipartyism and federalism were abolished. Since Anglophones have seen themselves as the main losers of this arrangement. This was true under first president Ahamadou Ahidjo and his successor Paul Biya.

At one level Anglophones are responding to a specific set of discriminatory government policies. For instance, Anglophone lawyers oppose the imposition of French magistrates in English-speaking areas and the absence of sufficient recognition of Common Law. Similarly, teachers and students have protested the lack of English-speaking educational and career opportunities. The issue of language and belonging looms large for Anglophones. As Agbor-Balla noted, “French is the language of oppression for many. And they [the Francophone] do not care about the Anglophone problem because they think that French is the only language you need to speak if you want to have your way.”

At another level the crisis is over the perception that Anglophones have not had an adequate seat at the political table. This is reflected in the distribution of senior appointments and economic resources. For instance, after 1972 many local economic functions were transplanted to Yaoundé, and the government invested in the Douala port rather than Limbe. Most importantly, political exclusion has instilled fear of permanent political alienation from the highest offices of power, namely the presidency. Under Ahidjo the sense was the politics tilted toward the north, while under Biya it is to the south.

The hierarchy of state positions was evident from my conversation. Most clearly, I pushed Agbor-Balla to consider whether a more empowered Prime Minister would be satisfactory. The position was reinstated in 1992 and has informally always gone to an Anglophone. Agbor-Balla claims this concession is meaningless: “Having a Prime Minister without any power! The power resides in the Presidency. What powers does the Prime Minister actually hold? We used to have a Vice President and Speaker who were second in command, but now we have a Prime Minister that does not really matter. Why can’t we have a President? Why not a Vice President?”

Resolving the Anglophone Crisis

The government has not conceded much ground. An ad hoc committee led by the Prime Minister was largely maligned by Anglophones, including Agbor-Balla: “These are the same people who are ministers, the prime minster, members of government, parliamentarians. These are people who do not recognize a problem, who have not accounted for previous government atrocities.” Similarly, a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism was seen as cosmetic and a way to demonstrate progress to the international community.

The most significant government concessions emerged out of the March legislative session. While nothing has been implemented, there are new laws that call for the creation of a Common Law bench on the Supreme Court, reforms to the National School of Administration and Magistracy, and the recruitment of additional Anglophone magistrates. For Agbor-Balla “the Common Law bench is a step in the right direction,” but he also claims that “we have passed the stage where we say it is just the legal and education based issues to a stage where we tackle fundamental problems with the form of the state.”

And it is here that significant tensions emerge. Simply addressing questions of discrimination might not be agreeable to the movement. Agbor-Balla advocates for an inclusive constitutional conference, but his position on the outcome shifts. He maintains that decentralization and some form of truth and reconciliation can work. But, he also noted that anything short of a return to federalism would likely not satisfy Anglophones: “The CACSC believes that that federalism is a midpoint between the unionists and the independence movement. It is a win-win situation.” This involves rotating the presidency between an Anglophone and Francophone, restoring the office of the Vice Presidency, and explicit protections for minority rights.

But, this type of change is improbable given the incentives that underlie the Cameroonian political system. The presidency holds together a tenuous multiethnic coalition of entrenched elites who view the question of distribution and political control quite starkly. As Agbor-Balla notes, “They do not have the political will and do not want to lose their control over power. It is a patronage system where you have to have allegiance to them so they can manipulate you.” Indeed, Biya amended the constitution in 2008 to extend his term limits, and is likely to run again in 2018 to prevent a divisive succession crisis.

This implies that many of the underlying issues that propel the Anglophone crisis will persist. Absent a clear political strategy that changes the calculus in the presidency, it is difficult to imagine the government embarking on true reform. Biya has demonstrated a willingness to use violence and curtail discussion of federalism and even decentralization. This leaves Anglophones in a precarious situation as different voices pull the movement in various directions, some potentially violent.

Yonatan L. Morse – The African State, Presidential Power, and Electoral Authoritarianism in Cameroon

This is a guest post by Yonatan L. Morse, Assistant Professor in Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. It is based on his recent article in International Political Science Review.
Africa is a fascinating testing ground for the study of electoral authoritarianism. While not clearly part of the Third Wave of democratization, in the early 1990s the continent was swept by a wave of economic and political reform. However, the continent’s democratic credentials are quite tenuous. There is a strong consensus that alongside a number of democratic success stories like Ghana or Nigeria reside a considerable population of electoral authoritarian regimes. These regimes combine regular elections with undemocratic practices that range from fraud, harassment, censorship, and state violence. Today, several African countries are entering their third decade of electoral authoritarianism.

The persistence of electoral authoritarianism in Africa is puzzling, especially considering the crucial role of the state. In many comparative studies of electoral authoritarianism, the state’s capacity to extract resources via taxation, administer territory, command personnel, and deploy coercive units is seen as paramount. However, African states generally rank low along these measures. Nor do differences in state capacity clearly explain the relative longevity of African electoral authoritarian regimes. Longstanding electoral authoritarian regimes in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gabon, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe do not have demonstrably more powerful states than short-lived ones in Ghana, or Zambia.

In recent research I argue that the endurance of electoral authoritarianism in Africa can partially be explained by reassessing state capacity in relation to contextual logics of state building. The African state is often referred to as neo-patrimonial. Faced with acute post-independence challenges, foundational leaders stabilized politics by brokering with other elites, who were often representative of politically relevant ethnic blocs. The persistence of this political order required resources, but also marginally more capable states and, importantly, the elevation of presidents as critical actors. I illustrate this with reference to Cameroon, one of Africa’s most resilient electoral authoritarian regimes.

Coercive Capacity and Presidential Power in Cameroon

At independence the state in Cameroon was by no means robust, but it possessed unique advantages compared to other African countries. The colonial territory was bifurcated between the French and British, and neither entity made real investments into a civil administration, tax authority, or traditional military. However, an uprising in French Cameroon (called the UPC Rebellion) compelled the French to create emergency zones and augment Cameroon’s military with a gendarmerie and small intelligence-gathering unit. These innovations proved influential and were bequeathed to Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo.

Ahidjo used these tools to marginally expand the state’s coercive capacity and to elevate the presidency. By controlling the purse strings and threatening sanction, Ahidjo was able to coax other political parties into a singular entity called the Cameroon National Union (CNU). By 1972, federalism was abolished and Ahidjo stood virtually unchecked as the gatekeeper to state spoils. Throughout his tenure he maintained a careful balance of ethnic and regional interests in public appointment and spending. Other African regimes were built on similar principles, but not many were backed by the same threat of coercion against elites.

Ahidjo’s successor Paul Biya built on this system. Biya retained control over the powers of appointment, and much of Cameroon’s nascent oil wealth was managed for years in a secret account held by the president. Importantly, the orientation of Biya’s coalition was tilted toward his southern co-ethnics, while Ahidjo’s was toward the north. As one observer noted at the time, the essence of the regime relied on the “cohesion of a few important people.” This was not an authoritarian regime rooted in an objectively powerful state, but rather the support of a narrow political elite.

Electoral Authoritarian Resilience in Cameroon

This system came under severe duress prior to Cameroon’s foundational 1992 elections. Economic decline reduced Biya’s capacity to maintain elite support, while social grievances grew in the face of rampant public corruption. Opposition reached its apex during a six-month strike, which was matched by significant state violence. Indicatively, Biya eked by with just 40% of the vote, and the ruling party won just 49% of the seats. There were widespread accusations of fraud and repression by security services, the Ministry of Territorial Administration, and provincial governors.

With Biya’s near-term survival ensured his preeminence as the chief broker stabilized the regime. Biya quickly entered into coalitions with various small parties like the Movement for Defense of the Republic (MDR), the United People’s Congress (UPC), and the National Party for Progress (NPP). By 1997, he had coopted members of the larger National Union for Democracy (NUDP), and elements of the Bamileké community. Installing an Anglo Prime Minister bolstered support from English-speaking regions. Today, Cameroon has the largest cabinet in Africa with over 60 appointed ministers and deputies. Biya has also resisted privatization efforts and controls access to hundreds of patronage positions. Fraud and coercion still impacts elections, but in 2011 Biya won 78% of the vote, and in 2013 the ruling party won 82% of the seats.

Coercion has also helped the regime deter challenges to Biya’s position as president. In 1997 Biya faced two internal challengers – one died of apparent medical complications, while the other was charged with corruption and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 2008, regime elites revealed their concerns in private that a post-Biya reality would undermine the delicate balance of power. Unsurprisingly, Biya amended the constitution to change term limits to run for election again in 2011. A year later two other likely internal challengers – Marafa Yaya and Ephraim Inoni – were both convicted for embezzlement. State coercion has been used against citizens, but it has a clear role in maintaining the elite coalition.

Much of this builds on Thomas Calleghy’s insight that many African states are “lame leviathans,” meaning they cannot be exploited for massive social and economic projects, but nonetheless provide the necessary scaffolding for patrimonial orders. This holds true during elections too. When electoral authoritarian regimes retain some comparatively basic coercive features that help them keep the president at the apex of political coalition making, they can persist for extended periods of time despite electoral and internal challenges.