Authorities in Cameroon are jailing opposition politicians and barring their supporters from holding rallies. Security forces and separatist groups continue to carry out atrocities in the country’s restive Anglophone regions. More and more civilians are being forced from their homes, adding to a tally of displaced people that already exceeds half a million.
These problems and more were cited in a speech delivered last week to the European Parliament by Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top foreign policy official. Her words painted a picture of an increasingly volatile country, just six months after 86-year-old President Paul Biya coasted to reelection following a campaign in which he pitched himself as the only conceivable guarantor of stability.
Brussels isn’t alone in sounding the alarm. African and Western diplomats and human rights groups, to say nothing of observers within Cameroon, have become more vocal in denouncing conditions under Biya, who appears to have interpreted his reelection as an invitation to become even more aggressive in targeting his opponents.
The external scrutiny is the latest indication of Cameroon’s deteriorating international image, which is perhaps inevitable for a country that’s had the same autocratic leader for more than three decades and is battling multiple insurgencies. Yet it’s unclear, at this stage, whether diplomats are interested merely in signaling concern or if they’ll push for real change.
Moreover, there’s no guarantee that, with a leader as entrenched as Biya, the latter is even possible. Hans De Marie Heungoup, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, notes in an interview that while Biya once put more effort into guarding Cameroon’s reputation, these days he is playing a kind of political “survival game,” making it more difficult for outsiders to influence his behavior. If critical statements aren’t accompanied by steps that could undermine his security apparatus and patronage networks, Biya might be willing to simply ignore them.
“Nowadays he has prepared himself psychologically to withstand this kind of pressure,” Heungoup says. “If that pressure moves from simple, powerful statements to meaningful concrete action, then I suspect that Biya could step back and try to show a more democratic face.”
Cameroon’s security woes, which fuel many of the human rights violations taking place there, are complex. It’s been more than five years since fighters from Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based extremist group, first infiltrated northern Cameroon, drawing the country into a regional counterterrorism campaign. These days, however, instability stems primarily from the “Anglophone crisis,” which has been on the world’s radar for more than two years now. What began in late 2016 with anti-government protests in regions of western Cameroon dominated by the country’s English-speaking minority has turned into an all-out insurgency, with rebel fighters working toward the establishment of an independent nation called Ambazonia.
The separatist violence has triggered a brutal state crackdown. Human Rights Watch reported in late March that security forces, including the elite Rapid Intervention Battalion, have engaged in a spate of violent activity in the months since Biya’s reelection, shooting and killing civilians, sexually assaulting women and burning and looting homes. Human Rights Watch said security forces had “killed scores of civilians,” while warning that “the number of civilian deaths is most likely higher.”
It’s unclear, at this stage, whether diplomats are interested merely in signaling concern or if they’ll push for real change.
Separatists, for their part, have continued their campaign of kidnappings and assault. One witness told Human Rights Watch that two people were beaten to death by separatists on suspicion of having voted in the presidential election, which the separatists considered an illegitimate exercise.
Given the difficulty of reporting in the Anglophone regions, it’s unclear whether the overall level of violence there has increased since the vote. But Heungoup, with the International Crisis Group, says the conflict is expanding into areas that had previously been relatively untouched. And Human Rights Watch noted that violence on the part of the government risked making the situation even worse. “Cameroon’s authorities have an obligation to respond lawfully and to protect people’s rights during periods of violence,” Lewis Mudge, the organization’s Central Africa director, said last month. “The government’s heavy-handed response targeting civilians is counterproductive and risks igniting more violence.”
The political space is similarly troubling. Those looking to mount any kind of challenge to Biya are operating under mounting restrictions. Official results from the October election showed Biya winning reelection with 71 percent of the vote; his closest challenger, Maurice Kamto, officially earned 14 percent. Yet elections in Cameroon are neither free nor fair, and Kamto has insisted that he was the real winner.
In late January, supporters of Kamto’s political party, the Cameroon Renaissance Movement, participated in protests in multiple regions of the country, including its two main cities, Yaounde and Douala. In response, security forces used live ammunition to disperse crowds and arrested hundreds of protesters, according to Amnesty International. The following week, Kamto himself was arrested, and he has remained in custody ever since. His request for provisional release was rejected, a decision that was upheld on appeal earlier this month.
Kamto’s fate seems to be of particular interest to Western officials. In addition to Mogherini, Tibor Nagy, the top U.S. diplomat for African affairs, has raised it publicly, including on a visit last month to Cameroon. This prompted a quick rebuke from a government spokesman. “The Cameroonian government deeply regrets these words which denote a lack of knowledge of the issues, realities and facts,” the spokesman wrote in a press release that accused Nagy of interfering in the government’s internal affairs.
As Emmanuel Freudenthal pointed out in an in-depth report for WPR last year, Washington has recently been more inclined to criticize Cameroon than has France, a former colonial power with deep ties to Biya. Yet Heungoup says that, across the board, there are signs diplomats are recalibrating their approach to Biya’s government.
“They have started to realize the true nature of the regime,” he says. “When I discuss with some diplomats, they are less defensive of Biya. We now see statements at the highest level—statements that we used to not see.”
But will these same diplomats do anything to back up their words? Perhaps Biya’s greatest vulnerability is the security forces. In February, the U.S. announced that it was reducing military aid to the country, citing human rights concerns related to the fight against Boko Haram and Anglophone separatists. “The bottom line is right now in Cameroon, they have been a good partner with us counterterrorism-wise, but you can’t neglect the fact that they have—there are alleged atrocities in what’s gone on there,” Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said at the time.
Similar measures from the U.S., France and Israel, all of which have been involved in military training and security assistance, could ramp up pressure on Biya. Targeted sanctions could also get the Biya government’s attention, though Washington might want to avoid the kind of standoff they would produce.
In the absence of such steps, it will likely fall to Cameroonians to spur change, perhaps via large-scale protests like those that have threatened the government in the past, most recently in 2008. This would be the messiest kind of upheaval, further giving the lie to the notion that Biya, and only Biya, can keep the country stable.
Reported by World Politics Review