Since 2016, the Anglophone separatist movement in Cameroon has become characterised by political violence. Armed separatists have imposed boycotts on education, burned down schools and infrastructure, and abducted or killed civilians accused of collaborating with francophone authorities.
In October 2016, lawyer and teacher unions held a series of protests in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon. They were protesting the economic, cultural, and linguistic discrimination of the Anglophone minority by the Francophone majority. The protests were peaceful, and took place after a series of formal requests to remove the French language from schools and courts in the Anglophone regions were denied. The government response to these peaceful protests was disproportionate. Over a period of several months, the government used an anti-terror law to imprison and charge Anglophone leaders with the death penalty. In addition, security forces arrested over 100 protestors, killed four, dissolved multiple Anglophone civil society organisations, shutdown internet access, and closed school and medical facilities.
The disproportionate response to the protests – notably through the use of the anti-terrorism law – catalysed the violent “Anglophone crisis” in Cameroon. As a consequence, it eliminated opportunities for peaceful solutions to the conflict. Public opinion in the Anglophone regions hardened, and initially modest requests for administrative reforms, such as the protection of the common-law tradition and English-speaking schools, turned into calls for outright secession and the formation of an independent state called Ambazonia. The resulting conflict between separatists and Cameroonian security forces has killed over six thousand people in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions and internally displaced over seven hundred thousand.
The origin of the Anglophone crisis is colonial; in 1916, the German colony of Kamerun was distributed to France and Britain as Cameroun and the British Southern Cameroons. In 1961, the two territories reunified as a federated state. The Constitution granted two official languages, education systems, and legal systems to represent the French and British systems of government. In reality, power was consolidated by leaders in the francophone capital, Yaoundé. Anglophone Cameroonians have complained of political and economic marginalisation since.
What has been overlooked is that the adoption of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1373 presented an opportunity to better develop the state arsenal that ensured power and control over resources, which remained in Yaoundé. Adopted in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, resolution 1373 required all UN member states to implement domestic anti-terror legislation. In reality, adherence to resolution 1373 created the context under which the Cameroonian government could eliminate the Anglophone self-determination movement, by framing its repression as counterterrorism. Since that time, studies have identified a strong correlation in some states between the strong adoption of anti-terror legislation and the desire to inhibit protests and penalise government dissent. The 2014 anti-terror law, promulgated in adherence to resolution 1373, is a highly effective tool for eliminating government dissent for several reasons: First, the anti-terror law “doubles up” on the penal code. This creates a dual legal system that is applied selectively according to who the Cameroonian government considers a threat. For example, after the 2016 protests, leaders of Anglophone civil society organisations were arrested and charged with the death penalty under the anti-terror law for “acts of terrorism, complicity in acts of terrorism, insurrection, rebellion against the state, incitement of civil unrest, propagation of false news.” Under the penal code, the death penalty is only applicable in states of emergency, siege or war. Under the anti-terror law, the death penalty becomes applicable in peacetime. Although the Cameroonian government relies more on the threat of the death penalty than on executions themselves, it is the selective application (at the discretion of government-appointed military judges) that deters opposition.
Second, the anti-terror law is approved by the international community. Because it is pursuant to the requirements of resolution 1373, it becomes difficult to criticise when it is used for illiberal intentions instead of a response to genuine threats of terrorism. The UNSC, for example, has only held one informal discussion on the situation in Cameroon, on 13 May 2019 – it focused on the humanitarian situation, not the use of the anti-terror law. The mutual evaluation reports that evaluate state compliance to resolution 1373 are also telling. In the 2022 report for Cameroon, written by the Task Force on Anti-Money Laundering in Central Africa (GABAC), the Cameroonian government was praised for using the anti-terror law against the Boko Haram militants in the Far North region and against the Anglophone separatists in the Northwest and Southwest regions. In doing so, the report constructs a moral equivalence between the Boko Haram terrorist group and the Anglophone separatists. These two groups not only have dramatically different goals and intentions, but utilise violence differently: for religious ideological nationalism in the former, and political goals of self-determination in the latter. By applauding the Cameroonian government for its use of anti-terror law against both groups, the GABAC implicitly approves of the denial of Anglophone self-determination by the Cameroonian government. As a consequence, Cameroon serves as an example of the spread of international norms for illiberal purposes.
Third, by designating the Anglophone separatists as “terrorists,” the anti-terror law has eliminated democratic avenues for dialogue on the issue of Anglophone self-determination, and successfully consolidated power in the francophone government. When the Cameroonian government used the anti-terror law to arrest the Anglophone leaders, the government signalled the self-determination movement as a threat and depoliticised it. This has been identified as a catalyst for the violent shift in the Anglophone movement and the civil war we see today, because democratic avenues for self-determination and dialogue were removed. Efforts at dialogue and the granting of a “special status” to the English-speaking territories have not minimised separatist violence, but instead allowed the elimination of legitimate political opposition and blurred the lines between self-determination movements and terrorism.
In sum, the use of the anti-terror law has not just eliminated opportunities for Anglophone self-determination, but has resulted in increased political violence: the very problem it was intended to solve.
Culled from Australian Institute of International Relations