Nigeria’s indifference to the separatist conflict in Cameroon—in which its minority English-speaking people (Anglophones) are seeking for a homeland they call Ambazonia —calls for a searing indictment. Apparently because of Boko Haram’s menace, Nigeria, which was once the destination for persons fleeing political persecution all over the African continent, has become inhospitable in recent years.
In 2018, in an extraordinary rendition scheme—since condemned by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and other countries—Nigeria arrested on its home territory, and subsequently deported to Cameroon, 47 Ambazonian activists, including former Ambazonia interim leader Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, who is presently serving a life sentence in Cameroon’s prison.
If Nigeria’s revulsion at the current Cameroon’s Anglophones’ aspiration for independence stems from the horrors of its 1967-1970 civil war—in which more than one million of its citizens died after Biafra, the short-lived republic, declared itself independent from Nigeria—then that argument is short-sighted for one reason: Timing.
Biafra’s secession, which was declared just seven years after Nigeria obtained independence from Great Britain, lacked the traction for success, because it was out of tune with the mood at that moment, which was for Nigeria’s ethnic and linguistic groups—as it was for other African countries emerging from years under colonial rule with similar characteristics —to merge and form the new republic.
It helps explain why General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s military head of state at the time, was able to marshal every available asset, including the United States’ “One Nigeria” policy under President Lyndon Johnson, to crush the Biafra secession. (A similar fate befell Katanga and South Kasai, two breakaway provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo(DRC), where, just weeks into its independence in June 1960, they also declared themselves “independent” from DRC, sparking a raging civil war that led to an end to their secessionist status.)
But if Biafra’s bid for independence collapsed —to validate my argument that the circumstances differ from the current conflict in Cameroon—because of its inauspicious timing, Anglophones’ yearning for nationhood (roused almost sixty years after failed attempts at creating an egalitarian federalism between them and Francophone-Cameroon) comes on the heels of other pro-independence movements in Africa and elsewhere in the world—South Sudan, Eritrea, East Timor, Macedonia—that have mostly been successful.
Nigeria’s frontline state status and its historical ties to Anglophones—up until October 1961 Anglophones were part of Nigeria—call for the former to bring on its diplomatic juggernaut to bear (as its previously done over other hotspots around Africa) on the current conflict, paving a way for a negotiated settlement. Its less inspiring commitment to this role further raises another question, which is whether Nigeria no longer acts—as it once did—as the massive rampart against French influence in West Africa.
Keeping the French at bay in this region has historically been one of Nigeria’s foreign policy objectives. And at the heart of this conflict lies French influence, which dates back to 1972, when “Total”, a French oil company, began operations in the Anglophone region.
That same year— over concerns that without a strong unitary system of government in place, its oil interests in the Anglophone region lacked the needed protection—France coerced Ahmadou Ahidjo, Cameroon’s head of state at the time, into abolishing the federal system of government then existing between Anglophones and Francophone-Cameroon, a decision that Anglophones felt was a betrayal, and whose consequences loom over the current conflict.
When Jaja Wachuku, Nigeria’s first Foreign Minister, spoke at the United Nations in October 1961 about his country being “independent in everything but neutral in nothing that affects the destiny of Africa”, and Yakubu Gowon (speaking at an OAU Conference in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1974) about “the inalienable right to self-determination; the necessity for decent life; and the unquestionable demand for human dignity”, they were apparently making references to these French machinations that have, to an extent, contributed to this conflict in Cameroon.
But at their hour of peril, when they needed Nigeria for guidance, Nigeria, it seems, deserted the Anglophones.
By Joseph M. Ndifor