Yaoundé gets red-carded

The republic will have to forego hosting the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations due to delays in its organisation and a precarious security record

Demonstrators in Douala against the independence of the English-speaking regions in Cameroon. The recent policies have further marginalised the English-speaking population. REUTERS/Joel Kouam/Contrast
Demonstrators in Douala against the independence of the English-speaking regions in Cameroon. The recent policies have further marginalised the English-speaking population. REUTERS/Joel Kouam/Contrast

The political crisis that since October 2016 has given rise to a wave of hatred and violence in Cameroon’s English-speaking provinces is now having serious repercussions on the African country’s social and economic fabric.

One of the most recent consequences was the decision by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) that Cameroon was no longer entitled to host the Africa’s Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2019 due to delays in the organisation of the event, not to mention the dicey security levels in the country’s Anglophone regions.

The decision to deprive Cameroon of the right to organise the most prestigious sporting competition on the continent, besides undermining a consolidated football tradition, will prevent it from taking advantage of the expected economic benefits in terms of tourism and hotel occupancy.

According to a report published in July 2018 by the Private Industrialists Association of Cameroon (GICAM), the economic recession triggered by the secessionist forces in the English speaking provinces have caused business losses of more than 410 million euro, and 6,500 jobs.

For a few months now daily clashes have broken out between the army and the separatist forces in many cities of the north-western and south-western provinces. These attacks have led to the destruction of bridges, roads and homes isolated many communities that on a humanitarian front are bearing the full brunt of the ongoing crisis, as proven by the International Crisis Group estimates.

According to the Brussels think tank, the repressive actions undertaken by the governmental forces in the two provinces inhabited by the English-speaking minority have already caused the deaths of 500 civilians and hundreds of insurgents. Over 200 security force personnel have been killed in the armed attacks launched by the rebel independentist groups. According to figures published at the end of December by UNHCR, these attacks have caused over 440,000 internal displacements and forced over 30,000 civilians to seek refuge in Nigeria, with over half a million people currently facing major food shortages.

Various organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have noted that both the government forces and the armed separatists have committed serious violations against civilians in the west of the country such as kidnappings and killings, and have also seized students and forced a number of schools to close, while Cameroon’s soldiers have responded with brutal reprisals which have included setting fire to entire villages, killing civilians and arresting and torturing suspected separatists.

The Yaoundé government has mobilizes its Rapid Reaction Battalion (BIR), an elite army unit engaged in the battle against Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram and repeatedly accused of having been involved in serious violations against civilians.

A large number of video clips, widely shared on social media, show villages being torched, executions and torture. The conflict is further fuelled by inflammatory rhetoric, which at first saw the military label the Anglophone separatists as “terrorists”, who in turn accused the army of orchestrating a form of “genocide” designed to exterminate their minority population.

The reasons for this conflict date back to the Berlin Conference held in 1884-1885, when according to the colonial divisions traced on a map with ruler and compass, Cameroon became a German colony. Then, after the signing of the agreement in London in March 1916, the former German colony was divided. The southern and northern parts, one fifth of the country, was assigned to Great Britain; the rest was handed over to France in 1919. Three years later, the Society of Nations granted the two European states the ownership of the areas, later ratified by the United Nations in 1946.

On 1 January 1960, the part administered by the French obtained independence and became the Republic of Cameroon. This was followed by a referendum, as a result of which, on 1 October 1961, the northern English speaking part decided to become part of Nigeria, while the southern, English-speaking region voted to join the new Republic. This led to the birth of the Federal Republic of Cameroon, within which the Anglophones and the Francophones were to have the same rights.

So the two colonies joined to form a bilingual federation, which maintained a certain regional autonomy until May 1972 , when then President Ahmadou Ahidjo called a new referendum to abolish federalism and introduce a centralist power system and replaced the federal state with a unitary one, which took on the name of United Republic of Cameroon, with the capital remaining in Yaoundé.

The subsequent constitutional reforms started to blunt the bilingual and bicultural nature of the country, and things only got worse once former Prime Minister Paul Biya took over the presidency in 1982, a firm believer in the centralisation process. A few months after his election, Biya decided to divide the Anglophone region into two provinces: North-West and South-West.

Ahidjo and Biya were therefore the two masterminds behind the policies that shifted the African country towards a government structure and has caused the Anglophone minority to feel politically, culturally and economically engulfed by the Francophone system.

Over the course of the years, centralisation has increased, restricting democratic options and individual freedoms and French cultural references are now predominant, adding to the sense of loss of identity and belonging of the Anglophone minority, which represents 20% of the almost 25 million inhabitants of Cameroon. Despite the minority's protests, the government has stuck to its policies in favour of the Francophone population.  These policies have marginalised the English-speaking population and monopolised the allocation of all top institutional posts and ministries.

All this has generated a vacuum of political representation for the Anglophone minority. This has incensed the English-speaking youth, who now exploit social media to voice their grievances.

The combination of all these aspects and the indifference of the government towards reforming the centralist policies have further spiked divisions and encouraged the secessionist drive that gave rise to the protests in October 2016.

Any solution to the crisis seems to be strewn with obstacles, including the hypothetical form of government, either federal or decentralised, to be installed in the Anglophone areas, not to mention the considerable number of activists who are calling for secession in Yaoundé. Then there's the problem of providing the English-language minority with representation in the country’s political and economic decisions, and the need fore the government to own up to the decades of discrimination and injustice suffered by the English-speaking population.

Up to now, the reiterated attempts by members of civil society and pro-federal leaders, sponsors of decentralisation, to entertain a constructive national conversation have not produced any results. And a proposal put forward by the country’s three religious leaders to organise a general Anglophone conference has also been ruled out. Further proof of the difficulty in getting government and the separatist leaders to sit around a table.

@afrofocus

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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