Over the past two years, the crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions has worsened dramatically, resulting in an increasing number of atrocities committed against civilians which have claimed the lives of close to 2,000 people. In recent months, the international community has finally taken some initial steps to address the situation.
In late June, reports emerged of Switzerland launching an initiative to mediate between the regime and Anglophone separatists in Geneva. This came on the heels of a US-sponsored informal United Nations Security Council meeting, the first of its kind focused on the crisis, where council members again pressed for unconditional dialogue between the two sides.
While these first steps are indeed welcome, it would take a lot more than informal meetings and calls for dialogue to ensure peace and stability return to Cameroon. This is not only because the current political leadership has been particularly intransigent about decentralisation and giving autonomy to the Anglophone community, but also because the Anglophone crisis has deep colonial roots and is intertwined with other ethnic and religious fault lines in Cameroonian society which are also raising internal tensions.
Like many other conflicts across Africa, the one in Cameroon has deep roots in the colonial history of the country. Up until the 19th century, its territory was divided between various local kingdoms and fiefdoms. In the 1880s, the Germans launched a campaign of colonisation of the area and established Cameroon as their colony in 1884.
After World War I, the League of Nations handed control over the territory to Britain and France which divided it and established separate administrative systems. As anti-colonial sentiments swept through Africa following World War II, the French and British Cameroons separately sought their independence.
However, the British convinced the UN that Anglophone Cameroon was not economically viable and could only survive by uniting with Francophone Cameroon or Nigeria. While the northern part of Anglophone Cameroon voted to join Nigeria, neither option was as popular in the southern part which, in the absence of a much preferred option for separate statehood, ultimately joined with French Cameroon.
When the two territories reunited in 1961, a new constitution was drafted to define the new union as a federal entity in which the autonomy of the English-speaking minority would be protected. However, in 1972, a controversial referendum transformed the federation into a unitary state, effectively ending the autonomy of the Anglophone regions.
The fact that the will of the Anglophone population was overruled in 1961 and the subsequent systemic discrimination and marginalisation they suffered under successive governments dominated by Francophones planted the seeds of the current separatist conflict.
Under the present constitution, Cameroon is a decentralised unitary state. In reality, however, it is one of the most hyper-centralised states in Francophone Africa. For example, while all councils in the country are supposed to be governed by locally elected mayors and councillors, the executive often appoints “super mayors” who answer directly to the president, causing resentment and friction between the elected officials who represent the people and the unelected ones who represent the central government.
Calls to address the separatist conflict through broad-based reforms, including reinstatement of the federal system – which Fancophones, unlike before, are beginning to subscribe to – have been met with repression. The government has made it clear that the unitary character of the state is non-negotiable.
This, in turn, has fed separatist sentiments among the Anglophone population and resulted in the present conflict, which is threatening the territorial integrity of the country.
Though overshadowed by the separatist conflict, tensions rooted in ethnicity and religion also pose a significant threat to the state.
Ethnicity, in particular, has recently re-emerged, in the wake of the 2018 presidential election, as another deepening fault line. The ethnic tensions in Cameroon revolve around two groups that both have competing claims to power – the Bamilekes and the Bulu-Betis.
The first group occupies the western grasslands of Cameroon, and has strong cultural ties to one of the Anglophone regions, despite their Francophone colonial heritage. They control the economy, and most of the country’s manufacturing sector. This economic clout has increased their appetite for political power.
The second group, the Bulu-Betis, occupies the central and the southern regions where President Paul Biya hails from. They have dominated political power since 1981 when Cameroon’s first president, Amadou Ahidjo, handpicked Biya as his successor. Bulus and Betis see themselves as the natural rulers of Cameroon.
In the run-up to the 2018 election, both groups engaged in inflammatory rhetoric, with the most virulent and xenophobic attacks coming from journalists working for the Bulu-owned and dominated Vision4 Television.
In the wake of the disputed elections, this ethnic tension escalated into violent attacks by anti-government protesters of Cameroonian origin on Cameroonian embassies in Berlin, Paris and other Western capitals earlier this year. Eventually, Cameroon’s main opposition leader Maurice Kamto – a Bamileke – who is widely believed to have won the polls, was arrested and charged with sedition, insurrection and inciting violence. He remains imprisoned to this day amid escalating tensions.
Historically, Anglophones, not the Bamilekes, have been the targets of such intimidation and bigotry in Cameroon. For example, in 1992, when John Fru Ndi, an Anglophone, beat Biya in the presidential election, he was cheated out of his victory just like Kamto and placed under house arrest for three months. Biya then imposed a state of emergency on the English-speaking northwest region, increasing the resentment of Anglophone Cameroonians and solidifying the foundations of the ongoing separatist conflict.
In 2017, journalists from Vision4 Television, who lead the racist attacks on Bamilekes throughout the election season, also targeted Anglophones, openly calling for their elimination.
One might imagine these shared experiences of the two groups at the hands of the Bulu-Betis, and their cultural similarities would provide the impetus for an Anglo-Bamileke alliance as a powerful political force that could upend the status quo. However, four decades of British and French rule over the respective groups had left its mark. The mindset and political philosophies of each group developed along fundamentally different trajectories. These differences overshadow any other commonalities they may have that could allow such strategic and political cooperation between the two groups.
Another claim to political power comes from the north, the region Cameroon’s former President Amadou Ahidjo hailed from. Even though they are not vocal about it, northerners, who are predominantly Muslim (and also Francophone) widely believe that political power in Cameroon should alternate between the Christian south (Anglophones included) and the Muslim north, also known as the Septentrion.
About a decade ago, Amadou Ali, a Muslim northerner and justice and vice prime minister at that time, revealed as much. A 2009 US embassy cable leaked in 2011 quotes him as saying that while the north would support Biya for as long as he wants to be in power, they would not accept another southerner – much less another Beti-Bulu – to succeed him. According to the cable, Ali also said that even if the Beti-Bulus were to try to assert themselves in a post-Biya scenario, they would be too few to take on the northerners. In his view, the foundation of Cameroon’s stability rests on the detente between the north – which is culturally distinct from the rest of the country – and the predominantly Christian south.
In this context, it is important to recall, that Cameroon’s first-ever coup d’etat launched on April 6, 1984, was largely an initiative of elite soldiers from the Muslim north who were unable to come to terms with the transfer of power to a southern Christian two years earlier. After almost four decades of Christian dominance, they naturally feel the political succession question, whenever it is finally addressed, must be resolved in their favour.
Anglophones made similar claims in the past – that decades of uninterrupted Francophone majority rule (including the tenure of Muslim-Francophone Ahidjo) should logically be followed by a representative of the Anglophone minority taking over the presidency and setting up a mechanism to alternate power between the two groups in the future.
Indeed, Cameroon’s fault lines are complex and have deep roots in the country’s colonial past, but they are not impossible to overcome. Biya’s 37-year rule and his increasing authoritarianism have exacerbated all these crises. If he does not reconsider and start an open dialogue with all aggrieved groups, he risks dragging the whole country into a deadly civil conflict.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.