The African nation of Cameroon has lived for years between the fires of civil warfare—in Nigeria to the west and the Central African Republic to the east. But the authoritarian regime of President Paul Biya for decades has suppressed peaceful and moderate dissidence, violating citizens’ human rights with impunity, helping ignite an armed conflict with members of Cameroon’s anglophone minority. Cameroon’s 25 million people now risk their own civil war, which would damage economies and stability in Central and West Africa. Avoiding that war will require influential partners of Cameroon’s government—including the United States and France—to press President Biya to open a dialogue with his citizens.

Cameroonian soldiers participate in a 2013 military exercise with U.S. forces, who have helped train them to confront Boko Haram in Cameroon. (U.S. Army/Flickr)
Cameroonian soldiers participate in a 2013 military exercise with U.S. forces, who have helped train them to confront Boko Haram in Cameroon. (U.S. Army/Flickr)

After 36 years in power, Biya is expected to claim a new term in office following elections on October 7. The U.S. government holds influence with Biya’s government through U.S. support for the Cameroonian military, notably in the fight against Boko Haram. USIP’s Jude Mutah, a native Cameroonian, and Oge Onubogu discussed the rising crisis in Cameroon and ways that the United States and others might respond.

Americans have not heard much about the fighting in Cameroon. What’s this about?

Jude Mutah: Separate parts of Cameroon were colonized a century ago by France and Britain. So the west of the country, next to Nigeria, is an English-speaking region that holds about 20 percent of the population. Peaceful protests began in 2016, for example with lawyers and teachers demanding the right to use English in the schools and the courts. The central government enforces the use of French, which has left the anglophone population feeling politically excluded. President Biya labeled the anglophone activists extremists and terrorists, and responded brutally. Police and the army have arrested, tortured and killed civilians indiscriminately, according to the State Department and Human Rights Watch. Anglophone groups have taken up arms to demand secession, and also have committed atrocities, according to Human Rights Watch. At least 180,000 people have been uprooted from their homes, according to the United Nations’ count. The day-to-day life of the people is shattered; every street corner in the English-speaking region is militarized; schools have been closed for two years, and the courts are not working. Yet no process is underway for any kind of peaceful resolution.

Oge Onubogu: The crisis in Cameroon is a manifestation of years of weak, authoritarian governance. Paul Biya has ruled since 1982, and in his six terms in office, large portions of the population have progressively felt excluded from the governing process. Political decisions are often made by presidential decree, with little or no public consultation. Cameroon remains essentially a one-party state, with the many opposition parties highly fragmented and marginalized. This marginalization is visible not only in the anglophone crisis but also in the far north region, where the violence by and against Boko Haram has exacerbated the weak economic and development situation.

Is this conflict anything that the United States or other governments can help to stop?

Oge Onubogu: After about a decade of sending U.S. troops to train Cameroonian soldiers to combat the threat of Boko Haram, the U.S. military says it will begin drawing down such deployments in Africa, and the 300 troops in Cameroon will be among the first to leave. While U.S. officers say Cameroon’s forces have improved their ability to oppose Boko Haram, the security forces also have been accused of committing human rights violations in the anglophone crisis. In any case, military training is not enough to support stability in Cameroon.

The anglophone turmoil could inspire citizens in other parts of the country to protest what is a predatory government.

While the U.S. government has acknowledged the violence and human rights violations, more constructive diplomatic engagement is needed to understand the origins of the conflict, to hold human rights violators accountable, and then to support an inclusive national dialogue process. Many Cameroonians and some international groups have recommended such a dialogue. Given the deep divisions, even within the anglophone and francophone communities, a critical analysis of the necessary conditions for a successful dialogue will be an important first step.

Jude Mutah: The conflict in the anglophone region has reached the point where there is no trust among Cameroonians on the two sides. So really there is an urgent need for outside mediation. Credible institutions and leaders within Africa have a stake in this and should take meaningful steps to salvage Cameroon from an impending civil war. The United States can encourage this. Any effective dialogue would require the participation of moderate leaders on both sides, including those who are now in exile or in jail. So international support for dialogue should encourage Cameroon’s government to permit their inclusion in a peace process.

A group of religious leaders in Cameroon has organized a conference for November 21-22 in the anglophone city of Buea—a remarkable first step. These kinds of initiatives—notably dialogues led by civil society, whether secular or religious—should get strong support from governments and international organizations, including the U.S., France, the European Union, the African Union, and even the Vatican. The International Crisis Group has recommended the Catholic Church as potential mediator of the crisis.

What are the stakes for this, and is there a realistic chance to focus U.S. or other governments’ policies on taking action?

Jude Mutah: Cameroon is the fulcrum of Central Africa. Its biggest city, Douala, is the region’s only deep-water seaport, so Cameroon is the import-export route for the Central African Republic and Chad. And it controls overland trade between Central and West Africa. Cameroon leads the Central African Economic and Monetary Community, with about 45 percent of the community’s GDP. So instability in Cameroon ultimately risks disastrous effects on the economies of neighboring countries. Cameroon also has been a major troop contributor to the regional task force that is fighting Boko Haram. And it has sent troops to the United Nations stabilization mission in the Central African Republic. Any escalation in Cameroon’s internal instability—whether from the anglophone crisis or from disputes surrounding the October 7 elections—would risk forcing Cameroon to pull back from these regional security roles.

Regarding U.S. policy, Cameroon usually gets little attention in Washington. But this crisis has begun to be noticed. The Africa subcommittee in the House [of Representatives] has held a hearing, and a few members of Congress have issued statements, as has the State Department. 

Oge Onubogu: A key to focusing U.S. attention on this is Cameroon’s strategic role as a security partner in opposing violent extremism in the Sahel and the Lake Chad basin. For Cameroon to reliably play that role, it needs also to resolve its anglophone secession protest—so it is in U.S. interests to support that. Given the complexity of reducing violent extremism, greater unity of U.S and international efforts is needed to maximize the impact of diplomacy, development, and defense support in Cameroon. 

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