By Rebecca Tinsley
The distinguished genocide scholar Gregory Stanton has identified eight stages which a society goes through before genocide begins. Unfortunately, the central African nation of Cameroon is well on the way to meeting Stanton’s criteria. Equally regrettable is the international community’s reluctance to pressure the Cameroon authorities to prevent a slide into ethnic cleansing.
Cameroon’s crisis is rooted in the increasing marginalisation of the Anglophone minority (20% of the population). In addition, the high centralised government denies English-speaking regions (the south west and north west) any degree of autonomy. Anglophone frustration exploded a year ago when lawyers went on strike, protesting that new laws were not translated from French into English; courts in Anglophone areas were forced to conduct their business in French; and they had Francophone judges who could not or would not speak English foisted upon them.
The lawyers were soon joined by teachers and others from civil society, all of whom feel aggrieved at being ignored for decades. Anglophone activists have urged schools and shops to join regular strikes called Ghost Towns, and in some places children haven’t been to school for more than a year. There are suggestions that some Anglophone citizens feel intimidated into cooperating with the Ghost Town protests by the more militant Anglophone activists who are pushing for secession.
The government reacted by suspending the internet in the Anglophone areas for three months, preventing civil society from organising. At the end of September, the Francophone authorities ordered a disproportionate military crackdown, a curfew, the arrest of journalists and opposition figures, and the reported torture of dozens of activists. According to the International Crisis Group, 30 people were killed. There were credible reports of soldiers shooting civilians from helicopters, and spraying tear gas at people emerging from Sunday mass.
The government's actions have fuelled calls for secession. At a recent All Party Parliamentary Group meeting at Westminster, the Diaspora in attendance were split between moderates who want a federal solution, and the growing number of secessionists. President Biya, who has been in power since 1982, is said to be in denial about Anglophone grievances. However, until there is a unified and coherent Anglophone position, it is feared he will divide and rule.
Representing the more moderate Anglophone voices are the Roman Catholic bishops of Bamenda, who have called on the government to engage in genuine dialogue and to investigate attacks on civilians. The bishops warn that a volatile situation may deteriorate further. Observers believe the church is well-placed to host any dialogue which would need to include grassroots representatives for it to be perceived as legitimate.
The Anglophone movement’s more extreme fringe allows the government to characterise the uprising as terrorism. In October 2017, Anatole Fabien Nkou, Cameroon’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, told the UN’s human rights committee that demonstrations in the English-speaking north-west and south-west regions “could not be called peaceful”. “Initially, the Government had thought that the demonstrations had been organised by trade unions, namely lawyers, and had responded in good faith. However, the strike had turned into a political campaign; it had been joined by the teachers’ trade union and artisanal firearms had been fired. An armed uprising would counter the constitutional order of the country, stressed the delegation…….in February 2017, the security forces had found hidden arms. The crisis had turned violent with rebels attacking local security officers, state institutions and symbols, and calling for the secession of the English-speaking regions.”
Some Background on Cameroon
Before independence in 1961, Cameroon was administered by the British and the French in two distinct regions, with different government systems, language and customs. After a contested referendum, the English-speaking regions in the north west and south west were united with French-speaking areas (80% of the population). A federal constitution guaranteed each group a degree of self-determination. However, the federal model ended in 1972 and power has been increasingly centralised, giving Francophone politicians the upper hand. Over the years, the Anglophone population (five million people) has felt increasingly side lined and economically marginalised. There are approximately 19 million French speakers, and their representatives hold most positions in government and the armed forces. For instance, only one out of 36 ministers with portfolio is an English speaker.
The Reaction of the International Community
Cameroon is perceived as an oasis of calm in an ocean of instability in the region (to quote the UN High Commission for Refugees). Moreover, Cameroon’s armed forces are fighting the West’s war against militant Islamism. Its soldiers are engaged in battle against Boko Haram in the Far North, where 2,000 Cameroon civilians and soldiers have been killed. The country also hosts 348,000 refugees fleeing sectarian conflict in the neighbouring Central African Republic. Consequently, the international community is reluctant to criticise Biya’s government.
In May, the then-Africa minister, Tobias Elwood, said that the UK stood by the disputed referendum that took place at independence. Following the violence in October, Lord Ahmad, for the British government, expressed concern, “urging restraint, and calling on all parties to reject violence and enter into dialogue to find urgent solutions to Anglophone grievances.”
The French Foreign Ministry issued a similarly bland plea for all concerned to resist violence. Unfortunately, for the Anglophone population, such moral equivalence ignores both the disproportionate force used by the Cameroon government, and it assumes both sides (armed forces against unarmed civilians) are equally to blame. Cameroon watchers suggest the regime is more sensitive to foreign pressure than internal protests. Yet, the international community avoids criticising Cameroon while its soldiers are fighting Boko Haram, a situation which also applies in Chad, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda.
Hopefully, Cameroon will choose the path that eventually leads to a Quebec-like situation, where the minority creates its own unique system and society within a federal structure. The alternative is that the regime clings to its highly centralised power structure, refusing to discuss a federal solution for fear of provoking wider unrest. If so, the calls for secession will become increasingly violent. In the worst scenario, the government will use propaganda to manipulate the majority into rising up and killing the minority, as happened in Rwanda. It is time for the international community to recognise this danger and to engage.