Tag Archives: Anglophone Crisis

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. 

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. 

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.