Acting with Impunity: Who Can Force Paul Biya’s Hand?

In the midst of the most serious crisis that Cameroon has faced since the 1950s, with over 1,850 people killed, 500,000 displaced, and perhaps as close as 4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, President Paul Biya decided the time was ripe to vacation at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. The location is not new. Over his 35 years in power, Biya has spent approximately 15% of his time abroad, often in Geneva, at an astonishing cost of $50,000 a day. During this visit, over 250 Cameroonian demonstrators greeted him, and were dispersed by Swiss police using teargas and riot gear. A petition by Swiss parliamentarian Sylvain Thévoz to oust Biya from Switzerland went nowhere. Biya returned to Cameroon, where he is expected yet again to postpone legislative and municipal elections

The impunity with which Biya has been able to operate is remarkable. Almost two years into the crisis, the violence continues to take a heavy toll. Human Rights Watch has documented several new instances of abuse by security forces, including indiscriminate shooting, arbitrary arrests, and scorched earth tactics. Separatist groups still attack security forces, but have increasingly turned toward kidnapping and intimidating civilians. John Fru Ndi, the once venerated chairman of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), was kidnapped twice in the span of two months and pressured by separatists to authorize a recall of his parliamentarians. Meanwhile, political rights remain heavily constrained, and 350 supporters of imprisoned presidential candidate Maurice Kamto were arrested in June. The president has delegated the new Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Ngute, to visit Anglophone regions on a peace-seeking mission, but has also refused to support efforts to create an All-Anglophone Conference that could bring various groups together into dialogue.

What would lead to a breakthrough that could bring some modicum of dialogue and solution to the crisis? The gaps between Anglophones and the regime are large. The Anglophone movement now consists of numerous armed groups, a government in exile, civil society organizations, churches, and the SDF. These groups have held positions that range from addressing cultural grievances to decentralization to federalism to separatism. On the other hand, the government has vehemently rejected any changes to the structure of the state, and has only offered half-measures in support of decentralization, like constrainedregional elections. The government would have to be pushed to consider genuine decentralization, and Anglophone groups would be forced to coalesce around the idea. Moreover, it is not even clear what set of confidence-building measures any side would agree to, just to get people to the table. Sisiku Tabe, the imprisoned former president of the Ambazonia Interim Government, has called for the complete retreat of armed forces and civil servants from Anglophone regions and the release of all prisoners as a precondition for internationally sponsored talks. The SDF has specified a less stringent set of requirements, but these are also not likely to garner any regime support.    

There are signs that the international community is beginning to take this crisis more seriously. In February, the United States withdrew $17 million of military aid, and in March the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, visited Cameroon for the first time. The EU representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, described the situation in Anglophone areas as unacceptable. In May, the United Nations Security Council held its first informal meeting on the crisis.  The UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned of escalating violence and criticized the security force’s scorched earth tactics. These efforts have not yet borne fruit, and to some are unlikely to unless international actors, and particularly the United States, significantly increase pressure on the Biya regime

But, the reality is that Cameroon has always been an astute player of international affairs, and has been able to position itself as a key strategic ally. The “special relationship” between Cameroon and France is well documented. After colonialism, France made it a key priority to maintain political support from Cameroon, in part because of existing economic interests (particularly French oil companies), and in part because it wanted Cameroon’s support in international organizations. Throughout the current crisis, France has maintained a lower profile, and presented itself as more diplomatic and private in its approach, in contrast with the growing public criticism and condemnation from other international actors. While French diplomats have privately pushed the regime toward some concessions like releasing prisoners, this is not backed up with any real pressure on the regime to enter into negotiations. This relationship limits the efficacy of other international pressure, and the ability of international institutions to coordinate a response.   

The United States was once a vocal critic of Cameroon, and withheld aid from Cameroon from 1992 to 2001. However, the second Iraq War and the global war on terror brought Cameroon back into the American fold. In my other research, I note how Cameroon was heavily lobbied by the George W. Bush administration to abstain on an Iraq War resolution, when Cameroon held a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. The United States returned the favor with support for Cameroon during the Bakassi Peninsula dispute. Cameroon has also developed elaborate security ties with the United States, as part of the coalition to combat Boko Haram and terrorism in the Sahel. Cameroon banks on its image as an “island of stability” to maintain these security ties. By the same token, Cameroon has spent large amounts of money on US-based lobbying and PR firms to bolster its image abroad. In one of the more blatant examples, in 2004 Cameroon paid $80,000 for an election observation mission organized by the US Association of Former Members of Congress. In my research, I also document how local embassy staff was acutely aware of the contradictions of their mission in Cameroon, and the difficulty of balancing national security incentives with a commitment to democracy and human rights.  

Changing these geopolitical incentives and perceptions of national security is quite difficult, absent substantially more lobbying and advocacy. But, might the mechanism of accountability instead come from insidethe regime? There is actually a divide in the governing elite of Cameroon’s ruling party, the CPDM. Most Francophone leaders are quick to defend the government’s military solution, and those who are critical of the government are not likely to express that sentiment publicly. By contrast, many Anglophone CPDM MPs have deep reservations about the government’s strategy, but little credibility among the Anglophone population. During the last legislative session in March (which I attended), the Anglophone MPs had basically decamped from their home regions to Yaoundé, and felt that it was unsafe to return to their constituencies. Fearful of massive public backlash, there was likely lobbying on their part to postpone the legislative elections. This divide extends to the military, where there is evidence of disagreement among senior officers about the sustainability and utility of the anti-insurgency campaign, absent greater political dialogue or strategy.

One visible internal effort at pressuring the Biya regime is the NW/SW Peace Movement, founded by Chief Robert Nangiya Mbile (a former MP and the son of a known CPDM elite from Ndian) and current CPDM MP Francis Ndi Enwe. The movement takes the position that the Cameroonian parliament should openly discuss the Anglophone crisis, and that it should be open to meeting with all leaders, including those who are jailed or in the bush. This places them at odds with the government’s attitude, which demands a full ceasefire before negotiations and refuses to recognize separatist groups. Nonetheless, the movement has been met with extreme skepticism from Anglophones, who doubt Enwe’s credibility and capacity to pressure the Biya regime. This is a valid criticism, especially given fear that the regime implicitly supports these kinds of initiatives as a way to stall and buy more time. The movement, while perhaps laudable in its goals, is unlikely to gain much traction under the current circumstances.  

These dynamics have emboldened the Biya regime. Stronger international pressure, seen by many as an essential step, is difficult to fathom without a change in how international actors view the question of regional stability in Central Africa. Highlighting the internal divisions within the CPDM also faces a problem since anyone associated with the regime (including opposition parties) are now viewed with intense suspicion by Anglophones. Solutions might only be possible in that ever-elusive “post-Biya world.” In the meanwhile, as the country burns and the economy suffers, Biya knows that he can wait all of this out with a taxpayer-funded vacation to Switzerland. 

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