When the international community ignores ethnic cleansing, it often ends up with a massive bill. If history teaches us anything about averting our eyes from repressive regimes it is that, sooner or later, we must fund refugee camps, send peacekeepers, host negotiations, accommodate thousands of migrants seeking asylum, and then help rebuild shattered nations. Never mind the stain on our collective conscience for standing by as civilians are slaughtered and displaced.
Cameroon, a central African country best known for soccer, is sliding toward ethnic cleansing. Yet, our politicians offer the usual clichés (‘we urge all sides to exercise restraint’). Gregory Stanton, the genocide scholar, has identified the stages through which a society goes before genocide begins Unfortunately, Cameroon is on the way to meeting Stanton’s criteria.
The government of Cameroon’s leader, Paul Biya, has responded to peaceful protests with 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, dozens have been killed. There are credible reports of soldiers shooting civilians from helicopters and spraying tear gas at people emerging from Sunday mass. There are also verifiable reports that the security forces have carried out beheadings.
Consequently, since the crackdown on dissent began two years ago, more than 40,000 civilians have fled across the border to Nigeria, leaving behind empty villages. In January, 80 Cameroonian troops followed the refugees, trying to forcibly return them, breaking numerous international and regional laws while they were at it. Yet, Nigeria facilitates the violation of its own sovereignty, keen to supress activities that might inspire its domestic secessionists.
Cameroon’s crisis is rooted in the marginalisation of the Anglophone minority (20 per cent of the population). The government denies English-speaking regions in the south west and north west any degree of autonomy. The Francophone-dominated regime labels anyone calling for devolution of power a terrorist. Yet, the more the government cracks down, the more popular are calls for a new Anglophone nation called Ambazonia. In response to the regime’s tactics, some English-speaking activists have begun kidnapping or murdering officials and security forces.
In January, 47 Anglophone leaders were abducted from a meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, with the apparent assistance of local security forces. The leaders were deported to Cameroon where they remain in jail, without access to legal representation. Their treatment fuels rumours, intensifies distrust of the authorities, deepens the sense of grievance, radicalises civil society and polarises the population.
Meanwhile, in French-speaking Cameroon there is little media coverage or debate about the increasing violence in the English-speaking areas. One local observer comments (in an email exchange in March) that Francophone public disengagement resembles the attitude of the rest of the British Isles toward Northern Ireland during the Troubles: they don’t want to know about it and hope it will fade away.
Anglophone frustration exploded two years ago when lawyers went on strike, protesting that new laws were not being translated from French into English; courts in Anglophone areas were forced to conduct business in French and Francophone judges refusing to speak English were foisted upon them. The lawyers were joined by teachers and others from civil society. Each Monday, many schools and shops join strikes called Ghost Towns and in some places, children haven’t been to school for more than a year. There are suggestions some citizens feel intimidated into participating in Ghost Town protests by the more militant Anglophone activists who are reported to have burned 30 uncooperative schools since January 2017. Some parents are said to have sent their children to schools in the more peaceful Francophone areas.
President Biya, in power since 1982, denies there are grounds for Anglophone grievance. However, until there is a unified and coherent Anglophone position, he will likely divide and rule. Biya also survives because of his usefulness to the international community: Cameroon is fighting Nigeria’s Islamist Boko Haram rebels in its Far North. In addition, the country hosts 350,000 refugees fleeing the violence in the Central African Republic and Nigeria. Biya is supported by France which has units of its Foreign Legion stationed around the region. Whereas the British left Africa at independence, the French never did. They remain closely involved in the economic and military life of their former colonies. Cameroon’s oil may be off the coast of the English-speaking region, but it is French companies running the rigs.
Representing moderate Anglophone voices are the Roman Catholic bishops of Bamenda, who have called on the government to begin 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 negotiations. However, the bishops’ opposite numbers in Francophone Cameroon failed to see the unrest in the same manner. A cleric interviewed for this article (who is anonymous for his own safety) suggests that the church’s French-speaking hierarchy prefers to maintain close ties with the regime, much as the church did in Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide.
The background to Cameroon’s unrest
Until 1960, there were two Cameroons: the larger territory was administered by France, using the French legal and education systems and language. In the south and west, the British were in charge. At their schools, students spoke English and studied for O and A Levels, and in their courts, English common law was dispensed by English-speaking judges.
In 1961, a referendum asked the inhabitants of British Cameroon if they wanted to join next door Nigeria or French-speaking Cameroon. A third choice – independence – was not on offer. By default, the English-speaking Cameroonians found they were a minority in the new nation. A constitution guaranteeing equal rights was soon disregarded, and the Francophone majority took positions of power in the military and in government. Currently, only one of 36 cabinet members is Anglophone. And Cameroon long since ceased being a democracy: Amnesty condemns President Biya’s jails (‘deplorable’), and his track record of having journalists arrested and tortured. The World Justice Project ranks Cameroon as 109<sup>th out of 113 countries surveyed, worse than Afghanistan and Venezuela.
The UN Secretary General has called for inclusive talks, but as is often the case, the African Union takes no position on the violence. In May 2017, the UK government said it was standing by the disputed referendum at the heart of Anglophone grievances. In October, the UK called on all sides to reject violence. Such moral equivalence ignores the disproportionate force used by the Cameroon government, and it assumes both sides (armed forces against unarmed civilians) are equally to blame.
Cameroon could choose the Quebec model, with its own unique system within a federal Canada. Or the regime could cling to its centralised power structure, refusing to discuss a federal solution for fear of provoking wider unrest. If so, the calls for secession may become increasingly violent. The Ambazonia independence leaders have vowed to lay down their lives to achieve their goal. In the worst scenario, the Biya regime may use propaganda to manipulate the majority into rising up against the minority, as happened in Rwanda. Preventing this bloody eventuality depends on pressure from the international community, but most obviously from the French and British. The Catholic Church could also play a vital role, if it chose to. The time for it to assert its moral leadership is now.
Rebecca Tinsley’s novel about Africa, ‘When the Stars Fall to Earth’ is available on Amazon.