from Africa in Transition , Africa Program , and U.S. Interests in Africa

Lessons From the Past on Cameroon’s Crisis

A sign saying "Speak English or French for a bilingual Cameroon," outside a now abandoned school in rural southwest Cameroon, on May 22, 2019.
A sign saying "Speak English or French for a bilingual Cameroon," outside a now abandoned school in rural southwest Cameroon, on May 22, 2019. Giles Clarke/UNOCHA/Getty Images

January 3, 2020

A sign saying "Speak English or French for a bilingual Cameroon," outside a now abandoned school in rural southwest Cameroon, on May 22, 2019.
A sign saying "Speak English or French for a bilingual Cameroon," outside a now abandoned school in rural southwest Cameroon, on May 22, 2019. Giles Clarke/UNOCHA/Getty Images
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Herman J. Cohen is the former assistant secretary of state for African affairs (1989–1993), the former U.S. ambassador to the Gambia and Senegal (1977–80), and was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service for thirty-eight years.

The violent conflict in Cameroon, still rarely discussed in Washington, is becoming increasingly dire. Both President Paul Biya’s Francophone regime in Yaounde and the Anglophone separatists in the southwest region are accused of brutal human rights abuses, including the burning of villages, attacks on schools, and the killing of men, women, and children. Despite mediation attempts by the Swiss government and sanctions by the Trump administration, there are no signs of any progress towards a negotiated settlement. 

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Cameroon

Eritrea

Ethiopia

Secession and Independence Movements

Paul Biya

In 1991, I mediated an end to a different African conflict with some striking similarities: the Eritrean war of independence, which raged for nearly three decades. Lessons from that precedent offer clues to a potential endgame in Cameroon.

Colonial-style takeovers

Both Eritrea and Cameroon’s Anglophone regions were engaged in governing federations with more powerful nations, then lost autonomy when their counterpart took over after deciding the relationship no longer suited them.

The Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea was inaugurated in 1952, with two separate governments having their own legislatures, internal controls, and flags, while sharing foreign policy, defense, and currency. Ten years later, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I unilaterally dissolved that arrangement and annexed Eritrea, sparking the long and bloody war. 

In 1961, Cameroon’s Anglophone region voted in a UN-sponsored referendum to join Francophone Cameroon in a very similar federal arrangement. Eleven years later, then-President Ahmadou Ahidjo defied the UN to hold his own referendum on whether to effectively annex the Anglophone areas by unifying the two regions, while conveniently providing Ahidjo with expanded powers. Officially, the vote tally was 99.99 percent to dissolve the federation, with 98.2 percent turnout.  

A crackdown by the Francophone authorities immediately ensued. Widespread discrimination against Anglophones was compounded by a takeover of the education and judicial systems to abolish the English language. Like the Eritreans subjected to sudden Ethiopian subjugation, this move to consolidate power understandably upset Cameroon’s minority Anglophone population. 

More on:

Cameroon

Eritrea

Ethiopia

Secession and Independence Movements

Paul Biya

What do these parallels tell us about the crisis in Cameroon?

Paul Biya cannot expect to win through war

Unlike in Eritrea, tensions grew slowly in Cameroon over decades, before boiling over into the open violent conflict of the last several years. But the twenty-nine-year length of the Eritrean war indicates that bloodshed is likely to persist as long as Anglophone Cameroonians feel their culture and autonomy is being stolen by the Yaounde regime (and as long as they have friendly neighbors on their side of the border.) Prolonging this conflict will not lead to a resolution.

A mediated negotiation is the only realistic solution, and the United States can lead it

The Ethiopia-Eritrea war ended rapidly after the U.S. became the official mediator. In Cameroon, the lack of progress in Swiss mediation does not simply mean the conflict is unsolvable for now. The responsibility to engage in serious negotiations must be made clear to both sides. They will feel comfortable in offering concessions to an influential mediator like the United States that they would not offer each other. 

Despite the Trump administration's supposed neglect of Africa, it has in fact been heavily invested in conflict resolution there: currently it is working to end saber-rattling between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter's move to dam the Nile river. President Trump has appointed a highly capable U.S.-Africa diplomat, Tibor Nagy, to the assistant secretary position I once held. Ambassador Nagy is an excellent choice to oversee this process.

There are additional incentives for President Trump to pursue peace in Cameroon. The administration’s efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict are likely to be met with failure. By contrast, ending the Cameroon conflict, while difficult, is within this administration's grasp, and it would do far more to improve U.S. standing in Africa than John Bolton's aggressive anti-China, anti-Russia campaign there.

The longer the conflict lasts, the less likely that Cameroon will remain a single nation

Eritreans refused to accept any federation with Ethiopia after three decades of war. There was simply too much bitterness. Even after the independence accords, a two-year border war in 1998 killed hundreds of thousands; it did not officially end until Ethiopia’s new premier Abiy Ahmed made an unexpected, unilateral peace overture last year. 

It may not be too late to return to the UN-approved federation between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon that existed prior to 1972. That arrangement would provide Anglophones with the autonomy they deserve. But time is running out.

Genuine democracy is a requirement for post-conflict stability

For decades, Ethiopia’s domestic politics relied on a coalition of ethnic parties, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which originally fought the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. Consternation over the dominance of one small ethnic group, the Tigrayans, eventually led to deadly protests and the ouster of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn last year. In November, Prime Minister Abiy moved to merge the EPRDF parties into a single unit, but this was met with protests by the Tigray constituency, and may ultimately lead to further destabilization just as ethnic tensions in the country are especially inflamed.

The weakness of Cameroon’s democratic institutions is aggravated by the monopoly of Paul Biya’s ethnic group, the Beti, over political and economic power. Many of the non-Beti French speakers feel just as marginalized as Anglophones. Ethnic domination within a putative democracy is inherently unsustainable. And after thirty-seven years of autocratic rule and fraudulent elections under Biya, Cameroon’s problems may not end with any resolution of the Anglophone crisis.

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