In late 2016, when lawyers and teachers began organizing demonstrations against the perceived marginalization of Cameroon’s English-speaking population, one of the most significant questions was whether their discontent would translate into a broader anti-government movement that could mobilize French-speakers as well. More than a year later, the answer appears to be no, or at least not yet. While the crisis has intensified, it remains concentrated in the two western Anglophone regions, which are home to a fifth of the Central African nation’s 22 million people. It has failed to spread east to threaten the capital, Yaounde, and the regime of President Paul Biya.
To the extent the crisis is expanding at all, it is in the opposite direction: into Nigeria, which borders Cameroon to the west. Last week, the United Nations refugee agency reported that more than 15,000 Cameroonians fleeing the government’s heavy-handed response had crossed into Nigeria, and that more were no doubt unaccounted for. The following day, Amnesty International warned that 10 separatist leaders from the Anglophone region had been detained in Nigeria and were at risk of extradition to face “torture and unfair trials” back home.
It was perhaps inevitable that Nigeria would get sucked into the troubles of its neighbor, whose internal tensions can be traced back to the colonial era. Initially colonized by the German Empire, Cameroon was divided between the British and the French after World War I. When French-speaking Cameroon attained independence in 1960, half of the British-occupied territory opted to join it, while the other half voted to join Nigeria.
Close ties between Cameroon’s Anglophone regions and southeast Nigeria persist today. “There are intense interactions between the populations on both sides of the border,” says Antonio Canhandula, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative in Nigeria, who notes that this complicates efforts to track all Cameroonians who cross over. “There are Cameroonian refugees that may be absorbed in the local population, be it because of blood relations, be it because of intermarriages, which can confer on citizens of Cameroon the possibility of actually becoming naturalized.”
Canhandula notes that his agency has asked Abuja to try to “use its diplomatic influence on Cameroon to see if the refugee problem could be resolved and averted.” Yet while this might sound like heartening news for those hoping Yaounde will be pressured to make genuine concessions to Anglophone demands, there are reasons to doubt that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s government is inclined to push hard enough to produce a genuine change in the situation on the ground. Nigerian officials’ wariness of sacrificing Cameroonian cooperation in other areas, combined with fears of stoking separatist sentiment at home, mean they will likely do little beyond trying to mitigate the burden posed by the refugee influx.
It was perhaps inevitable that Nigeria would get sucked into the troubles of its neighbor, whose internal tensions can be traced back to the colonial era.
The most important aspect of the Nigeria-Cameroon relationship at the moment is their partnership in the battle against Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based Islamist militant group. In 2015, as the extremists began attacking Nigeria’s neighbors with greater frequency, Cameroon ramped up cooperation under the Multinational Joint Task Force, a regional military effort to address the threat. Despite the task force’s gains, both Nigeria and Cameroon remain vulnerable. To cite just the latest evidence, 12 people were killed when a suicide bomber struck a market in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri on Wednesday, and four people were killed in two attacks in Cameroon’s Far North region last week.
The regional deployment has nonetheless offered an opportunity for productive cooperation between the two countries, and for moving past old sources of enmity, principally the dispute over the Bakassi peninsula in the Gulf of Guinea. In addition to preserving those gains, Abuja will also be keen to ensure that its actions with respect to Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis don’t inadvertently embolden separatist Biafran activists in Nigeria’s southeast.
The situation involving the 10 Cameroon separatist leaders recently detained in Nigeria is particularly delicate. According to Amnesty, plainclothes officers rounded up the group as they met in a hotel in Abuja on Jan. 5; the detainees have said they were discussing the refugee situation. The officers did not have warrants, and the separatists have not been allowed access to legal representation. “Human rights lawyers in Nigeria have said that an extradition request has been made by the Cameroonian government, but no details have been made public,” Amnesty reported.
Amnesty has warned against extradition, citing the Biya regime’s rough treatment of anyone suspected of violating sweeping anti-terrorism legislation. Fritz Nganje, a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Johannesburg, says that, for now, extradition is unlikely.
As Abuja weighs its broader response to the Anglophone crisis, there are signs the standoff could deteriorate further. The decision by the separatists last October to proclaim independence for Ambazonia, the state they hope to create, led to a crackdown in which more than 20 civilians were killed, according to Amnesty. Recent attacks by the separatists, some involving homemade bombs, have claimed the lives of more than 10 members of the Cameroonian security forces.
It remains unclear how many people in the Anglophone regions want a formal break from Cameroon; many, perhaps most, would presumably be happy with a more responsive, inclusive government. But the Biya regime’s strong-arm tactics are doing nothing to defuse tensions, and online activism, including by Cameroonians in the diaspora, is helping the separatists win more people over. “You have to understand where the younger generation is coming from,” Nganje says. “Because these are not concerns that originated today. They’ve always been there, but the government has shown no inclination to try to deal with the fundamental issues that have been raised.”
Yet to mobilize a large-scale campaign that could resonate beyond the Anglophone regions will require a different framing. Specifically, Nganje says, Anglophone protesters, whether they want to secede or not, should try to make clear the connection between Anglophone marginalization and more generalized dissatisfaction over corruption and lack of development. Only then might anti-government sentiment rise to a level that would require a more meaningful response by Yaounde. “Until the grievances of the Anglophone population are somehow linked to the fundamental grievances of the larger population in Cameroon,” he says, “I don’t think we’ll have any significant change in the situation in Cameroon.”