The crisis that has thrust Cameroon into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons is unfortunately getting worse by the day. The country that was known as an oasis of peace in a desert of chaos has itself become the epitome of chaos. Human rights abuses are legion. The country’s English-speaking population is being depleted through organized state killings, with many heading out of the country in search of safe sanctuaries. For many helpless English-speaking Cameroonians, Nigeria is always their first port of call as it is close and they do not require any visas to travel to Nigeria. But their destinations of choice remain the United States and Canada which are countries which have, for decades, opened their doors to people fleeing persecution in their countries of birth.
Despite the growing refugee and humanitarian crisis playing out on the country’s border with Nigeria where some 50,000 Cameroonian refugees have sort asylum, the Yaoundé government has not shown any signs of remorse or planned any initiatives that will help resettle the people it has destabilized. The refugee crisis is gradually becoming a huge concern for Nigerian government officials, as hordes of English-speaking Cameroonians show up every day in Nigeria, complaining about Cameroon government brutality that has left not less than 500 civilians dead and hundreds homeless in towns where government troops resorted to collective punishment as a means to send home a strong message to the population that is clearly sympathizing with Southern Cameroonian fighters who have, over the last six months, given the cash-strapped Cameroon government a run for its money.
The government seems to be in denial that it is losing the country’s two English-speaking regions after more than 17 months of turmoil. There is increasing insecurity in the two regions. Boko Haram attacks in the northern part of the country and Central African rebel attacks in the eastern part of the country are clearly setting Cameroon up for a huge failure. The country’s economy has been losing jobs at a disturbing rate, and many of its best and brightest are heading out of the country to seek stability and prosperity for their progeny. Falling oil production and declining export earnings have clearly manufactured a nightmare for the country’s ailing and aging government. Economic and political experts around the world hold that Cameroon will surely be the next fragile state on the continent if care is not taken. Given its position as the sub-region’s economic engine, if something is done and in time too, the fragile sub-region will end up with a sticky mess on its hands.
But the government of Cameroon known for its inefficiency, manipulation and indifference seems to be putting a brave face on the ugly socio-political situation. Despite the growing insecurity in the two regions, it is still maintaining that there is security in the regions. But the creation of a fifth military region in Bamenda, the North West region’s capital, and the vast increase in troops in other parts of the English-speaking regions speak to the government’s apprehension and confusion. Despite the lull in fighting, there are still many skirmishes in the region and tensions remain very high. Places like Kembong in Manyu Division and Mbonge in Ndian Division are still considered by many as ticking time bombs that could go off at any time. Indeed, the entire region is a tinder box waiting to explode.
Analysts across world see the government’s deployment of troops in the regions as a move to face off with the separatists who are hell-bent on breaking up the country to grant the English-speaking population the independence it has been longing for years. The Southern Cameroons crisis might just be the final financial nail into the government’s coffin. The crisis has gobbled up tons of money and this has caused the government to review its economic growth forecast for this year.
The deployment of troops and movement of military equipment to the English-speaking regions have left the government with a huge and scary financial bill. Its economic partners and foreign investors are reluctant to pour money into a country they consider as a black hole. Poor economic policies and corruption have reduced the country’s attraction and this is costing it tons of jobs. Cameroon’s unemployment rate is very high and the youths are the most affected, especially as the government is governed by the old who clearly belong to a different epoch. Their ability to introduce innovative measures to power the economy is impaired by greed and outdated economic theories.
The Southern Cameroons crisis that is gradually sapping the country’s economy of it vitality remains a major concern to the government. The government’s inability to contain this crisis is baffling many people across the globe. A crisis that started with just socio-professional demands has been mismanaged, causing it to metamorphose into a full-blown civil war that is threatening to destabilize the entire sub-region. The fear of having another sticky mess on its hands has left the international community perplexed. There have been calls for a broad-based and inclusive dialogue by the African Union, the Francophonie and the United Nations. But the calls seem not to have reached their destination.
Recently, Nigeria’s former Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, has called on the Cameroon government to take appropriate action to ensure the crisis does not roll over into other countries. Speaking to Jeune Afrique on October 25, 2017, Mr. Obasanjo discussed the crisis in Cameroon’s restive English-speaking regions. He used the occasion to denounce Mr. Biya’s continued stay in power, adding that “federalism is a good system of governance because thanks to federalism, each party can express itself on the future of the country and move at its own pace without disturbing others.” He added that in a federal system each state would have its executive, judiciary, and legislature, stressing that matters pertaining to nationality, currency and foreign policy will be the business of the federal government. He underscored that the fear inspired by anti-federalism was not justified, adding that he could mediate if given the opportunity to do so.
But all these calls have fallen on deaf ears. Mr. Biya and his plethoric government are hard of hearing. The Cameroon government is still counting on its policy of attrition. It is noted for leaving things to time. But this time around, time does not seem to be on its side. Armed groups are cropping up across the entire region and their actions have left the government in a tight spot. The armed groups have succeeded to kidnap a few government officials and they are threatening to kidnap more as a strategy that will push the government into telling the world where their arrested leaders are.
The groups also hold that this may help to reduce the abuses that are fueling the conflict.These abuses are ongoing and getting serious by the day. The international community is concerned about the Cameroon government’s refusal to call for genuine and inclusive dialogue. And its approach to the resolution of this conflict has been criticized by the International Crisis Group and other rights groups. It should be recalled that Southern Cameroonians leaders are being held incommunicado in Yaounde and this fueling the violence in the restive regions. Cameroon is not playing by international rules and by refusing access to the jailed Southern Cameroonian leaders, Mr. Biya’s government is clearly telling the world that it is an iron fist in a velvet glove, an accusation many Cameroonians have been making for years.
Behind the government’s facade, there are genuine and justifiable fears. Southern Cameroonians fighters have been making significant gains in recent times. The killing of over 300 army soldiers remains a concern to the government. Besides, its near-empty coffers are causing the country’s president to lose sleep. Last week, the government had to cancel an international cycling event due to a lack of financial resources. But it is the Africa Cup of Nations that is keeping government officials awake all night. The stadia are yet to be completed, the country’s road infrastructure is begging for improvement and with the violence in the English-speaking regions taking a turn for the worse, it is clear that Southern Cameroonian fighters would like to use the event to make a huge statement to the government and international community.
Yesterday’s cabinet meeting that was held behind closed doors and supposedly chaired by the country’s president, Paul Biya, speaks to the growing fear that is taking root within government circles. According to our sources which elected anonymity, the meeting focused on security. The sources added that Mr. Biya said the government was winning the fight to secure the country’s English-speaking regions and the Far North which is riled by incessant attacks from the Boko Haram group. If security was the only item on the agenda, then Southern Cameroonian fighters are having a huge impact on a government that has been orchestrating a charade.
In a statement published on the CRTV website, Mr. Biya said “Thanks to the firm action of our defense and security forces, we have been able to drastically curb the atrocities perpetrated by criminal groups in the Far North, North-West and South-West Regions.Efforts in that regard need to be continued, especially to ensure that economic and social activities return to normalcy,” adding that “There are a lot of things to do.” He pointed to the Africa Cup of Nations which Cameroon will host next year and the presidential election scheduled for October 2018.
There cannot be any better way of expressing the government’s fear. Mr. Biya’s statement above speaks volumes. It is obvious that the government has taken a blow to the liver and it is scrambling for solutions. Its rhetoric looks more like a charade. While putting a brave face, the government knows that there are major concerns and this year’s elections could spell the end of a system that is loathed by many Cameroonians.
The government, for its part, is not resting on its laurels. It has always rigged elections and it masters the art and science of robbing the people of their victory. In 1992, the popular SDF Chairman, John Fru Ndi, beat Mr. Biya in an election that was highly contested. But the Supreme Court that was acting as the constitutional council handed the victory to Mr. Biya who after that consolidated his grip on power.
Today there is a constitutional council and it is headed and populated by Mr. Biya’s men. Even the country’s elections body, ELECAM, is full of members of the ruling party. It is therefore clear that Cameroonians are in for more trouble. They will be seeing more of the Biya drama for the next eight years and the ailing and aging Biya is determined to hold on to power by all means even though his health is failing him.
However, there is something Cameroonians are counting on. The country’s youthful population believes that it can help counter any Machiavellian plan the ruling party is hatching. Many younger voters are currently registering to vote and they are determined that their votes must count. Besides, many opposition parties understand that a younger candidate may tilt the scale in this year’s election and that explains why the Social Democratic Front (SDF) has produced a younger presidential candidate in the name of Joshua Osih who is not only bilingual, but very conversant with the political machinations of the ruling party that have robbed the people of their victory in the past.
The government’s charade is obvious. The fears are easy to perceive. It is up to Cameroonians to take major actions that will help them kiss the Biya government a lasting goodbye. In this struggle to reboot the country, individualism is not the best option. Cameroonians must sink their differences if they really want to rid themselves of this government that has robbed them of their happiness. A holistic approach is also very necessary. While the fighting in the restive English-speaking regions is continuing, Southern Cameroonians must also understand that change could also come through the ballot boxes. They must register to vote and they must help to sensitize their Francophone colleagues who are considered to be politically inactive.
By Kingsley Betek, with contributions from Etchi Ebot and Soter Agbaw-Ebai in Dublin, Ireland.