Cameroon is currently facing multiple threats. Attacks by Boko Haram have plagued the extreme north since 2014, and over the past two years the country has also been forced to deal with the escalating crisis in its so-called anglophone north-west and south-west regions. Both issues are weighing heavily on peace and stability in Cameroon and have serious regional implications.
Linked to that is a highly polarised political climate, as evidenced by the contested October 2018 presidential polls. The 86-year-old incumbent Paul Biya, in power since 1982, was re-elected with 71% of the vote. Given his advanced age and that this is probably his last term in office, the question of succession should also be of concern.
Combined with the ongoing challenges, a succession battle could further complicate Cameroon’s fate. Yet despite these alarming signs, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) has not once looked into Cameroon. This is regardless of the fact that the protocol establishing the PSC states that it is a ‘collective early warning arrangement’, mandated to ‘facilitate timely and efficient response to conflict and crisis situations in Africa’.
Given the silence on the part of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the PSC should step in to prevent further escalation and having the growing instability spill over into the region.
Fighting on two fronts
The threat of terrorism in Cameroon is not really a new phenomenon, even though Boko Haram has proven a different and particularly resilient menace. Similarly, the crisis in north-west and south-west Cameroon has obvious historical underpinnings.
While Boko Haram attacks in Cameroon have been curtailed, the terrorist group still has the capacity to strike – contrary to claims by the Cameroonian and Nigerian governments that it has been crushed.
As a transnational problem, Boko Haram in Cameroon will only be defeated if it is driven out of its other strongholds, particularly in neighbouring Nigeria. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) – formed by Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – has been trying to eliminate the extremist group across the borders of affected countries. However, Institute for Security Studies senior researcher Akinola Olojo believes that ‘dealing with the propaganda driving extremism is as important as addressing its socio-economic and political drivers’.
Two regions gravely destabilised
The crisis in the south-west and north-west is even more daunting for the government of Cameroon. It has destabilised both regions and affected the lives of thousands of people. There are competing narratives and a war of numbers among the different stakeholders, particularly the government, the various groups opposing the regime, and international and civil society organisations.
In late 2016 the government’s initial reaction to strikes by lawyers and teachers was to deny that there was a problem, after which it deployed the army to quell the protests. The situation subsequently worsened because the government's response crystallised the positions of south- and north-westerners between those in favour of federalism and those advocating separatism, including the fighters now known as the ‘Amba boys’.
What thus began as civil unrest over feelings of marginalisation has subsequently turned into an armed insurrection that has completely destabilised those parts of the country. Reports suggest that both separatists and government forces have committed human rights abuses, including school and hospital burnings, summary executions, kidnapping for ransom, and arbitrary arrests. The resulting insecurity badly affected the October 2018 presidential polls in the anglophone regions, with very low voter turnout as people feared for their lives.
The crisis has had a major impact on the daily lives of people. Children in the area have been unable to attend school for months. The number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the north-west and south-west is estimated at 437 513, while registered Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria are believed to number 32 601, of whom 50% are under the age of 18. These figures are conservative, given the fact that many refugees are unregistered.
Economic impact of the crises
The economic cost of the protracted fighting is also increasingly being felt. A study by Groupement Inter-Patronal du Cameroun, a federation of Cameroonian business leaders, shows that the coffee–cocoa sector recorded losses of 56 billion CFA francs (US$96,5 million or 20%) in the 2017–2018 financial year, as south-western Cameroon produces 45% of the country's cocoa. Coffee production in the north-west has also been severely affected, especially since the region accounts for about 70% of the national Arabica production.
The Cameroon Development Corporation, the country's largest private employer, is also affected by the insecurity. The company recorded material losses of more than 1 billion CFA francs and a shortfall of 12 billion CFA francs in the period 2017–2018.
In the end, the Cameroonian government, in prioritising regime security over national security and stability, has caused the so-called anglophone crisis to deepen. The imprisonment of Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, Cameroon’s separatist leader, and his comrades has hampered the possibility of dialogue. Currently, the government claims there is no credible spokesperson in the separatist camp, only bandits and looters.
Besides the Boko Haram threat and the now armed insurgency, the general political climate is gloomy. Maurice Kamto, who was the official runner-up in the October 2018 presidential polls, and 145 other members of his party have been detained in Kondengui prison since January 2019. They are accused of incitement to insurrection and hostility against the state, among other charges, and could face the death penalty.
In addition, legislative elections are scheduled for November 2019. All of these issues have obvious implications for national and regional stability.
The PSC should consider Cameroon
Notwithstanding the impact of the above issues on the stability of Cameroon and possibly the region, the country is yet to be discussed at the PSC. Currently, the increasing complexity of these issues warrants that the PSC consider Cameroon as a matter of concern. This is the council’s duty, as it is the primary entity tasked with ensuring ‘early responses to contain crisis situations’ on the continent ‘so as to prevent them from developing into full-blown conflicts’. However, the politics around getting a particular country on the PSC’s agenda have prevented Cameroon from featuring.
There has been a debate about the gap between early warning and early action by the PSC. Cameroon is a good illustration of that. The country is gradually sliding into an instability that is being poorly managed by the government. Often the African Union (AU) or the PSC struggles to determine when to intervene; the question is how bad a situation must get before action is taken. It appears from all indications that the situation in Cameroon is worsening.
At the regional level, ECCAS, the body to which Cameroon belongs, seldom makes pronouncements on its member states’ internal issues. It is therefore the responsibility of the PSC to step in. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, remarked in a 2017 address to the United Nations: ‘Neglected local crises gather pace and become transnational with broader implications.’ The situation in Cameroon fits this categorisation and, if left unchecked, might become another crisis in an already unstable region with which the continent will struggle to deal.