In 2019, Cameroon’s government acknowledged the Anglophone regions’ distinct identity by giving them Special Status. Yet this legal framework has not quelled the separatist rebellion. Would reforming it bring the parties closer to a settlement? The question is worth investigating.
What’s new? In 2019, amid fighting with separatist militants in its two Anglophone regions, the North West and South West, Cameroon granted those areas a Special Status to respond to demands for greater autonomy. This step has failed to quiet the six-year conflict, however, as clashes between government and rebel forces continue.
Why does it matter? The military campaign to quash separatist militias in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions has achieved limited results. Amid continued fighting, a Canadian-led peace initiative encountered obstacles in early 2023, with the parties now silent about where talks stand. Exploration of Special Status reforms could help the conflict parties find a political solution.
What should be done? Should talks gain traction, the government should discuss prospects for robust reform of the Special Status with separatists. Possible changes include introducing statutory joint sessions for the Anglophone regional assemblies and direct universal suffrage for their election. The assemblies should receive increased autonomy and funding.
In 2019, as a separatist revolt raged in Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions, the government granted the North West and South West a Special Status. Though a potentially significant legal and policy change, the move failed to mollify Anglophone separatists or quiet their conflict with the national government. These unsatisfying results reflect the government’s failure to adequately consult Anglophone leaders in advance, but also the reality that little has changed on the ground. Though the Special Status notionally gives the Anglophone regions increased autonomy by creating regional assemblies with greater powers than Francophone regional councils, the assemblies remain weak and under the thumb of governors appointed in the capital Yaoundé. They show little inclination to serve as a platform for discussing the educational, judicial and linguistic issues that go to the heart of Anglophone identity. Reforming the Special Status to address its shortcomings could, if done in robust negotiation with the Anglophone community, help enhance Anglophone autonomy and build momentum for a broader peace deal.
Six years of conflict have killed over 6,000 in Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions and displaced hundreds of thousands. Armed separatists continue to ambush security forces and harass aid workers in their fight to secede from the majority-Francophone country. Efforts to facilitate a peace settlement between the warring parties have ebbed and flowed without gaining significant traction. Most recently, a Canadian-led effort appeared to hit a hurdle when the government issued a statement rejecting the idea of foreign facilitation to arrange talks with the separatists. Since then, the parties have been publicly mum about the status of any talks.
Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict has deep roots. Its immediate history traces to 2016, when the government cracked down on Anglophone protesters who were demanding protections for the regions’ educational and judicial systems. But tensions between the Anglophone regions and the majority-Francophone central government go back decades. Today’s Cameroon is an amalgam of territories that were controlled by the French and British during the colonial era. In the years right after Cameroon’s independence in 1961, a federal structure helped preserve a sense of autonomy in the Anglophone regions, but that arrangement did not last. Instead, the central government reconfigured the state to consolidate power in Yaoundé.
The moves toward centralisation played poorly in the Anglophone regions, where people feared assimilation into the majority-French system, and in the 1990s Yaoundé started using promises of decentralisation to soothe Anglophone anxieties. The Special Status, rooted in a provision of the 1996 constitution allowing for more power to be allocated to some regions, is part of this trend. The 1996 innovation lay dormant until 2019, when the government gave it new life by enacting a law that transformed the “regional councils” in the two Anglophone regions into more powerful “regional assemblies”. This transformation is at the core of the Special Status that the North West and South West regions now enjoy.
Although arguably a step in the right direction, the rollout of the Special Status got a chilly reception in the Anglophone community and met with outright hostility from separatists. It did not help that the government pushed its changes through without consulting Anglophone leaders and separatist activists. Yaoundé also undercut the impact and legitimacy of the 2019 measures by filling the assemblies with government proxies and giving veto power over their decisions to the centrally appointed governors. In part because of the way delegates are selected, the assemblies are not representative of their constituents, with women in particular under-represented.
But that does not mean the Special Status is unsalvageable. It still represents a potentially useful step toward recognising that the North West and South West regions should fall under a differentiated jurisdiction and could – if appropriately reformed – create a framework for devolving select powers to the regions. Any changes should be the product of meaningful consultations with both Anglophone political elites and the broader public; strengthen the assemblies’ capacity to work together on core issues relating to Anglophone identity; and include the institution of universal direct suffrage as a mechanism for electing more representative members to the assemblies. Reforms should also create a new position in the regional executive that focuses on addressing gender-differentiated concerns among constituents and one in the Public Conciliator’s office that can assist in addressing grievances against the national military.
Reaching agreement on a reformed Special Status would not be easy. Nor, by itself, would it be sufficient to cement a peace deal in Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict. Still, it would be a useful topic to explore if and when talks reach an appropriate stage. Promoting a higher level of autonomy for the Anglophone regions could help address grievances and ease tensions that have fuelled the conflict. It is likely to be key to any successful settlement. It would thus be a good move in its own right, while also representing a possible area of compromise between the parties. In the best case, taking a second look at the Anglophone regions’ Special Status might even lend momentum to talks about bringing this conflict to a long overdue end. After six years of conflict, that is a proposition well worth testing.
Culled from Reliefweb.int