A Reversion to Type in Cameroon

When Paul Biya was controversially reelected in October 2018, it was not clear whether it would herald a new direction in the Anglophone crisis or simply perpetuate the status quo. Up to that point the government had stuck to a hardline strategy that rejected any negotiation with secessionists or threats of popular mobilization. The result has been devastating in the Northwest and Southwest. According to recent estimates over 1,000 people have been killed, 430,000 have been internally displaced, and 30,000 have become refugees in Nigeria. The Anglophone community has become increasingly fractionalized, and the current secessionist movement has eclipsed the original civil society-based protest movement. 

Biya’s reelection opened a window for a change in direction. With questions of succession and the future of the regime temporarily brushed aside, Biya could have used the opportunity to help local groups, and particularly churches, coordinate an All-Anglophone Conference. Anglophones had been trying to get this platform off the ground since November, and it could have provided a format for more moderate voices to emerge. The government was largely supportive of the initiative, and in December took the step of announcing a disarmament and reintegration committee and the pardon of 289 detained Anglophones. However, these developments have paralleled a continued government offensive in Anglophone regions and prosecution of hundreds of detained Anglophone activists.

It has become clearer that Biya has reverted to type. In January, Biya announced a major cabinet reshuffle. He had done something similar in May 2018 when he appointed two Anglophones to cabinet positions. This time Biya kept 20 ministers and appointed 16 new ones. Biya maintained the two Anglophones from the previous cabinet – Atanga Nji Paul as the Minister of Territorial Administration, and Nalova Lyonga (who is now one of only two women in the cabinet) as the Minister of Secondary Education. The Prime Minister position, which has been held by an Anglophone since 1992, was reshuffled, and Biya appointed Dion Ngute Joseph to replace Philemon Yang after a decade of service.

This is par for the course in Cameroon, where for decades Biya has maintained tenuous ruling coalitions by offering prestigious executive positions to political supporters. Cameroon now boasts the largest cabinet in Africa, with over 60 ministers, minister delegates, and secretaries of state (not to mention countless other deputies and vice ministers). In my own research I examine how Biya’s centralized control of political careers in a vast state bureaucracy has been a key factor that has sustained his regime. These changes were ostensibly made to signal Biya’s commitment to Anglophone concerns over the allocation of resources, and their previous lack of faith in the former Prime Minister 

These changes were met with skepticism in the Anglophone movement, and in some quarters with outright opposition. The new Prime Minister cut his teeth in the office of the presidency and is considered a Biya ally. Nji Paul is likewise a staunch Biya loyalist, and came under heavy criticism in 2016 and 2017 for denying that there even was an Anglophone problem.Fundamentally, these kinds of tactics are all too familiar to Anglophone activists, who see them as entirely symbolic and self-interested. Many other figures in the current cabinet are hardliners who oppose any negotiation with Anglophone groups until the insurgency is completely defeated. 

This has been combined with reversion to another tactic that Biya has employed before – the coercion of elite challengers. During the 2018 election Maurice Kamto and the MRC party surprisingly emerged as the biggest thorn in Biya’s side. Kamto was a former insider who left the regime to form his own party and challenge Biya for the presidency. His roots in the Western region of Cameroon, and the Bamileké community in particular, gave him some stability but also potentially limited his national appeal. Nonetheless, Kamto won 14% of the vote. 

After the election Kamto continued his vocal opposition to Biya. He spearheaded the legal challenge to the 2018 election, and was then banned from holding press conferences. Kamto then helped organize a series of protests and marches in Cameroon’s commercial capital, Douala. He was placed intermittently on house arrest. On January 28, Kamto was arrested along with other opposition members and charged with sedition and inciting rebellion. Per the 2014 anti-terror bill, Kamto is being tried in a military tribunal, which has come under criticism for its loose definition of due process. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned his arrest and detention without bail.

Kamto’s agitation was particularly threatening since it came from a former regime insider and spread discontent outside of the Anglophone regions. His prosecution under the 2014 anti-terror law is novel for such a high-profile figure. But in the past, Biya has used his control of anti-corruption investigatory bodies to eliminate similar political opponents. In 1996 Titus Edzoa left the ruling party to challenge Biya in the 1997 presidential election. He was arrested along with his campaign manager Michel Atangana and jailed for 17 years on charges of embezzlement. Similarly, in 2012 former Minister of Territorial Administration Marafa Yaya and former Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni were arrested on corruption charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Both were rumored to have made moves to challenge Biya internally for the presidency in 2011. 

For now it seems like the regime is committed to crushing the Anglophone insurgency rather than taking any bold moves to reconcile or really address Anglophone concerns. In addition to an All-Anglophone Conference these measures could include a mutual ceasefire, the release of more political detainees, and more public acknowledgement of Anglophone grievances. Outside of some minor cutbacks of military aid, and some offers of a reconciliation mission, there has not been significant international pressure on Biya. The conflict is not even on the African Union Peace and Security Council’s meeting schedule. This has likely signaled to Biya that the status quo is still the way to go. 

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