African Powder Keg: Cameroonian Conflict and African Security

President Biya continues to preside over Cameroon, a key ally in the West's fight with ISIS. However, recent elections have left Cameroon in a state of unrest and possible civil war as Biya uses American-trained soldiers to violently suppress the English-speaking minority.

Updated Feb. 12, 2019

Cameroon may have held its presidential election on October 7, 2018; but the battle between victorious incumbent President Paul Biya and his opposition is far from over, as most recently demonstrated by the Feb. 11 burning of a major hospital. Biya, who has been in power since 1982, now faces growing civil unrest from groups that accuse him of rampant election fraud that may result in yet another explosion of sectarian violence in a country that is in desperate need of stability.

784px-Un-cameroonAmbazonia, Cameroonian Anglophone’s proposed separate state, rests along the western border with Nigeria. Photo: United Nations

Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, Cameroon was ruled by both the French and British as a mandate (interim protectorate) of the League of Nations, resulting in a Francophone (French speaking) majority and Anglophone (English speaking) minority. The Anglophones account for one fifth of the population, control a similarly sized portion of the economy through numerous plantations and farms, and are located primarily along the Southwestern portion of the Nigerian border. Despite their influential position in Cameroon’s culture and economy, the Anglophones of western Cameroon find themselves increasingly at odds with Biya and the French speaking majority, who have been accused of trying to destroy any trace of the Anglophone nation.

They point to episodes like Biya’s 1984 renaming of the country, when 23 years after the unification of the two former colonies he changed the name to that of the French speaking colony and removed one of two stars from the flag, indicating the end of the federation of the two Cameroons, ostensibly to present a “unified” nation. Ensuing violence took a significant toll on a struggling economy, resulting in the closure and abandonment of numerous English speaking towns.

With the most recent elections, this division has become more pronounced as the government continues to inflict numerous human rights violations on its Anglophone population. Alongside this violence, it should come as no surprise that the legitimacy of Biya’s elections has always been questioned since he was forced from a one-party system in 1992, with each round of criticisms and demonstrations resulting in new government crackdowns. Last year, however, Anglophones seized on a growing separatist sentiment and declared independence from Cameroon as the Republic of Ambazonia.

1280px-Southern_Cameroonians_We_DidAmbazonian separatists hold a rally outside of the United Nations headquarters in New York City in October 2013. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 2016, resentment over corruption and Biya’s appointment of school teachers and judges in the Anglophone region who did not speak English led to protests demanding equal rights. These protests weren’t solely in response to the recent appointments, but also to Biya’s inequity in government infrastructure spending. Protestors claimed Biya directed a disproportionate percentage of infrastructure spending towards Francophone areas, despite infrastructure crises in western Cameroon. The Anglophones thus demanded independence, seeking to create the state of Ambazonia. International institutions initially sought to mediate peaceful dialogue; but Biya became increasingly obstinate, both silencing opposition and denying atrocities regardless of evidence.

In October, the New York Times collected harrowing accounts like the following:

“At 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 27, [the eyewitness] said he was called to a home where he found the bodies of six men strung across a living room, some limp across chairs and one lying by a door as though he was trying to escape… Before they died, the men were having a party, smoking marijuana in the early morning hours and making noise… He said security forces heard the racket and executed them after deciding they were separatists, who are rumored to be heavy smokers. One of the dead included a neighbor who also heard the noise and decided to investigate.”

President Biya claims to have legitimately won his 7th term as president, but opposition leaders highlight issues of armed government coercion preventing Anglophones from voting, targeted violence in Anglophone areas that resulted in more than 90% of the population fleeing, and false claims of third party election monitoring. This violence has spilled into 2019; both parties blame each other for the Feb. 11 burning of a major hospital in the Anglophone region. While the government has been quick to blame the Amba Boys, an Ambazonian separatist group, the Ambazonians blame the government, citing reprisal for the hospital’s treating of local separatist forces. Naturally, President Biya was quick to and continues to claim that all violence is perpetrated by separatist terrorists, despite the lack of evidence. Reports indicate that Cameroon’s elite counter-terror Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), a force that is essentially fully trained and equipped by the U.S. military, is behind the violent crackdowns. This puts the U.S. in a particularly tricky, yet familiar, situation.

Why, then, has the United States stood by Cameroon, continuing to supply it with training and equipment for its armed forces? Regardless of its human rights concerns, the geopolitical value of Cameroon is apparent despite its ranking as the 23rd most fragile state in the world. Cameroon’s locale is plagued with terror, tribalism, and civil wars; to Cameroon’s northwest is Boko Haram-ridden Nigeria, to the east is a restive Central African Republic, and to the south the never ending strife in the Congo. For the U.S., Cameroon serves as a useful agent for dealing with regional conflict, as evident in the extensive U.S. investments in their ally’s military. To U.S. Africa Command, training local forces and providing supplemental support has become a key goal in the fight against Boko Haram, an ISIS affiliate. It is atrocious that American expertise and supplies are being turned against the Anglophone minority, but even worse is that the United States has said and done nothing to halt this abuse. 

14653694880_9d6500460b_kPresidents Biya and Obama standing together in the Oval Office on Aug 5, 2014. Photo: U.S. State Department

While the need for allies in the developing world is growing more apparent, it has also become increasingly clear that human rights are continuously dismissed in the name of stability in developing regions. Regardless of the Anglophones’ pleas to the international community, their cries have not resulted in action against the American ally. This is similar to the French response, defending the Hutus, in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. In response to the fall of the Mobutu and Habyarimana regimes in Zaire and Rwanda, respectively, a senior French official stated, “We cannot let Anglophone countries decide on the future of a Francophone one. In any case, we want Mobutu back in, he cannot be dispensed with.”

This attitude has not changed in the developed world. Although intervention on behalf of the Anglophones would not solve terror threats, a question to how the U.S. approaches Africa should be asked. For the current administration, however, the answer is less personnel in Africa, despite Africa Command not even being headquartered on the continent. The current leader of U.S. Africa Command Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser stated that Cameroon did not need U.S. troop accompaniment anymore; claiming that they “have improved to the point where they (Cameroon) no longer need Americans” and “[Cameroon] would be an example of a country where we have worked.”

In a time in the U.S. when election woes continue to distract from more serious issues, such episodes outside the country serve to remind why obstructive rhetoric is simply used to obscure the real issues and further divide the public. The public should not be arguing over a falsified claim of high schoolers yelling “build the wall” at Native Americans, but should instead focus on issues of substance that can unify the nation in the face of actual travesty like what is happening around the world. It is in this writer’s opinion that Gen. Waldhauser’s statements regarding the status of Cameroon, which occurred alongside reports of election violence, should be reexamined, and that we must allow a more meaningful discussion on the necessity of military expenditures in a region where both terror and domestic conflict can be solved. If done correctly, the administration may save the lives of the Anglophones, effectively combat terror, and demonstrate the capacity of American leadership instead of relegating us to the subordinate or isolated roles that we, as a country, have mistakenly taken up to this point.

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