Ethno-Political Tensions in Cameroon: Reasons and scenarios 0

Political rivalry in Cameroon has taken a worrying direction, as supporters of incumbent Paul Biya trade ethnic slurs with backers of his main political rival Maurice Kamto. The situation is threatening national stability by separatist insurgency in the Anglophone regions.

Cameroon’s opposition leader Maurice Kamto continues to dispute the 2018 presidential election results, while his supporters and President Paul Biya’s exchange invective that often descends into ethnic slurs. The dispute uses online trolling campaign that is leading to violence. Maurice Kamto continues to challenge the vote’s outcome, while President Paul Biya shows no sign of wanting to relinquish power after 38 years in office.

Biya is supported by Bulu ethnic group, indigenous to the Francophone South region, and the Beti of the Francophone Centre with whom the Bulu identify. Kamto is supported by Bamileke, indigenous to the Francophone West.

The day after 2voting in 2018, Kamto declared himself winner, pre-empting the official result. Two weeks later, on October 22, 2018, the Constitutional Council, the only body with a legal mandate to announce results, proclaimed Biya winner with an overwhelming 71 per cent of the vote, with Kamto coming in second with only 14 per cent. Kamto himself seemed to reinforce an ethnic interpretation by suggesting he was denied victory in 2018 because of his ethnicity.

Reasons and scenarios of Ethno-Political Tensions in Cameroon

Prior to announcing the results, the Constitutional Council heard and dismissed petitions in which two opposition candidates, Kamto and the SDF’s Joshua Osih, pleaded for an annulment on grounds of violence in the Anglophone regions, widespread fraud and incorrect tallies. Most non-partisan observers thought it likely that Biya had won more votes than any of his rivals, even if the president’s numbers were inflated, and foreign governments recognized his victory. However, the head of the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference, Bishop Samuel Kleda, expressed doubt about the president’s wide victory margin. The Catholic Church has five archdioceses in Cameroon— four French and one mostly English-speaking.

Kamto, being a part of Cameroon’s Francophone majority, criticizes the government for holding elections in which few Anglophones could vote due to violence and a separatist-led boycott. He accuses Biya of mishandling the Anglophone crisis by prioritizing force over dialogue.

In 1992, Maurice Kamto supported what was then Cameroon’s leading opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), when it put forward John Fru Ndi for president. By 2004, he had joined Biya’s government as junior minister of justice. However, he resigned in 2011, complaining of deteriorating rule of law and development failures. In 2012 he founded the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) that has become the government’s leading adversary, at least in Francophone areas.

Reasons and scenarios of Ethno-Political Tensions in Cameroon

Before German colonization, Bamileke territory comprised the present-day West and North-West Regions of Cameroon. Under German colonial rule, which lasted until 1916, this part of Cameroon was referred to as the “Grasslands”. When the French and British colonial masters took over the German colonial positions in Cameroon after Germany’s defeat in World War I (1914–1919), they divided the Grasslands into two parts, one of which was under French direct rule, while the other was under British indirect rule. When Cameroon became independent in 1960, the term “Bamileke” gradually came to be applied only to the people of the North-West, whereas people of the South-West (another province under British colonial rule) became known as the “Anglo-phones” because they were colonized by the British and, therefore, adopted the English language. In particular, the native populations have labeled the Bamileke “strangers,” “invaders,” and “land hunters”. Among the various newcomers, the Bamileke have distinguished themselves by virtue of their leading role in economic life, especially in retail trade and in the budding informal sector.

The politicization of ethnicity is driving polarization, with hostility on the rise between, on the one hand, Bulu and Beti, perceived by numerous Cameroonians as close to Biya and prevalent in the South and Centre regions, and on the other, Kamto’s Bamileke, a community indigenous to the Francophone West but also with a heavy presence in cities across the country.

The Beti ethnic group belongs to the Bantu cultural area in Central Africa. The name “Beti” is a generic term referring to people from several tribes including the Ewondo, Mbane (or Bane), Eton, Manguisa, Mvele and Bulu. The Beti people come from the central and southern Regions of Cameroon, which correspond to the equatorial forest areas. Historically, the term “Beti” originated within the Ewondo tribal group. The Beti people define themselves as lords or respectable people, in short, as gentlemen (nti) as opposed to slaves (halo). German colonial administration played an important role in extending and adopting the Ewondo language as a means of communication for all the people of the region. This strategy of rallying a large number of tribal groups around one politico-ethnic pole under the Beti name is definitely inflated today by the political usage of this name and by its imaginary construction as an “ethnic complex” with a mixed sociological composition. Beti name thus serves as an umbrella term for a wide array of ethnic groups from the Southern Forest Area. In the 1970s, the Beti umbrella name came to be applied not only to the Ewondo and the Eton, whose homelands are in the vicinity of Yaounde, but also to groups such as the Bulu, the Manguissa, the Fang and the Mvele.

The present-day situation of conflict between the Bamileke and Beti is not the result of their cultural differences, nor due to any natural predisposition to exclude each other, but because they live within an environment where the resources necessary for survival are scarce. Hence, the competition for resources such as land and control of economic or political power in the city seems to have cleared a path for feelings of hatred and jealousy and, over time, reinforced these attitudes, eventually leading to ethnic exclusion and antagonism. It is this context that has led to the development of discourses and stereotypes that serve the purpose of rationalizing certain socio-political behaviors present in people’s daily scramble for scarce resources.

Ideological stereotypes and discourses accelerating the antagonism between Bamileke and Beti have been constructed and reconstructed by socio-political actors to serve their own political and economic ambitions. Actors who belong to the political, administrative, intellectual, economic and religious elites use elements of the social and cultural repertoires of each of the major ethnic groups to construct stereotypes, which are then used to separate and distinguish the various groups. However, beyond the official ethnic divide depicted by politicians, peaceful indigenous mechanisms for avoiding tensions or reducing their intensity have been developed by members of distinct or officially opposed ethnic groupings. These mechanisms include interethnic marriages and interethnic friendship between members of different groups who interact within a common neighborhood or workplace.

Unable to freely express themselves in media dominated by Biya’s administration and its allies for decades, government opponents, independent journalists and bloggers have leapt into the new social media space to get their messages across to Cameroon’s domestic and diaspora audiences.

Activists of all political camps use it to propagate misinformation, widen ethnic divides and even incite violence. As the result, inflammatory content online pitting Bulu and Beti against Bamileke has stoked tensions. MPs from the South – largely Biya loyalists – accuse emigres from the West, who are generally regarded as Kamto supporters, of tribalism.

In response, the government and its supporters have also upped their presence online. They have also opened it up for bigots and hate-speaking. Thus, both pro-government and anti-government activists now use social media to spread inflammatory discourse, propaganda and misinformation.

So, social media companies, notably Facebook, have a major role in rising tensions, by placing toxic ethnic content and fueling ethnic tensions in Cameroon.

Government supporters, in part using their control of public and some private media, consistently underline the MRC leader’s Bamileke origin, insinuating that his party has an inherent ethnic bias. However, MRC’s leadership does not show that any of ethnic group dominates the party. Many rich Bamileke are a key source of funds and support for the ruling party, likely fearing that doing otherwise might jeopardize their business interests.

In the South, an area long dominated by the ruling party, mounting ethnic tension appears to have contributed to riots in 2019 by groups of indigenous Bulu targeting Bamoun and Bamileke, who originate in the West.

Causes of the conflict

In trying to consolidate post-colonial national unity, Cameroon evolved through a series of revolutionary political stages which spanned across the federal and unitary system. In 1972, a constitutional referendum replaced the federal system with the unitary system. West Cameroon, which had federated in 1961 as an equal state, eventually ceased to existthus giving rise to an Anglophone political consciousness – the feeling of being exploited by the Francophone- dominated state. Cameroon also went through several changes under the incumbent president, who came to power in 1982. These included a change of name from the United Republic of Cameroon to the Republic of Cameroon (exact appellation of former French Cameroon when it got its independence), a change of national flag from two-star design (symbol of the coming together of Francophone and Anglophone parts) to a single star, and the adoption of a new constitution in 1996 that transformed Cameroon into a decentralized unitary state. These changes are the reasons why many protesting Anglophones feel that their cultural and historical uniqueness was trounced in the union.

Reasons and scenarios of Ethno-Political Tensions in Cameroon

Today there are three main types of movements in modern Cameroon:

  • federalists who demanding a return to federalism;
  •  separatists who are fighting for secession;
  • unionists who are standing against any change to the form of the state.

This continued contestation of state structures threatens peace and stability in Cameroon as evidenced by the ongoing Anglophone crisis and highly polarized political climate.

Overtime, Anglophones in the South West and North West regions, who make up only about 20% of Cameroon’s 25.88 million population, have felt marginalized by the Francophone-dominated government in the political, economic and socio-cultural spheresAnglophones accuse the government of marginalizing the two English-speaking regions over Cameroon’s other eight administrative regions. Politically, some argue that there is an under-representation of the Anglophone minority in key government positions as well as other government services. Out of the 67 members of government, only 3 Anglophones occupy high-level cabinet positions.

There has also been significant economic disparity when it comes to allocation of investment projects by the State to the two English-speaking regions, compared to the other eight French-speaking regions. The French- speaking South region was allocated far more resources (over 570 projects with over $225 million) than the two English-speaking North West region (more than 500 projects with over $76 million) and South West region (over 500 projects with over $77 million) as in 2017.

Social disparities equally exist due to the centralization of power, with decision making centers in Yaoundé, far from Anglophone regions. Policies in the education and judicial systems also created a fertile ground for the emergence and violent radicalization of those with grievances. There were 1,265 French- speaking magistrates and only 227 English-speaking magistrates in 2016 and out of 514 judicial officers, 499 were Francophone and 15 Anglophone. The current Anglophone crisis is, therefore, a manifestation of frustration arising from both real and perceived discrimination and marginalization of the English-speaking minority.

The escalation of violence in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon brought to light several non-state armed separatist groups. These secessionist groups are determined to see the North West and South West regions of Cameroon completely separated from the rest of the country and form its own state referred to as “Ambazonia.” They have sustained their claims by relying on the logistical and ideological support of Cameroonians from the diaspora who played and continue to play an influential role in the emergence, escalation and maintenance of the current Anglophone crisis.

The Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF) which emerged in 2017, is one of the most prominent and active secessionist militant groups in the two Anglophone regions of Cameroon. It is the official military wing of the Ambazonian separatist movement and the military force of the self-declared Ambazonia, with an estimated 200-500 militants under its command.

The Southern Cameroons Defense Forces (SOCADEF) is also one of several militant groups participating in a conflict that has, in the last few years, rapidly grown in intensity. With a presence in the South-West region’s administrative division of Meme, SOCADEF was founded in 2017 to secure secession for the Anglophones and has an estimated 400 members. It is the armed wing of the African People’s Liberation Movement (APLM), an Ambazonian separatist movement, and has carried out several attacks with home-made bombs against security forces.

The Ambazonia Self-Defence Council (ASDC) incorporates smaller militias like the Ambazonia restoration army (few dozen est. members) and other larger ones such as the Manyu Tigers (500 est. members), Red Dragons (400 est. members) and Seven Karta (200 est. members).

Several other separatist groups and recent self-defense groups such as the Vipers (few dozen est. members), the swords of Ambazonia and Ambaland Quifor (200 est. members each) are also engaged in the conflict. Although they operate in different locations across the North West and South West regions, ADF and SOCADEF have claimed responsibility for most of the attacks in the Anglophone regions.

Terrorism factor

The hub of Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks has always been in Nigeria’s Northeastern Borno State. The Islamist group, however, extended its operations into Cameroon since 2013. The spillover has led to multiple displacements, suicide attacks, bombings, kidnappings, targeted killings and village destructions in Cameroon’s Far North region.

The presence of local Fulani civilians alongside with government security forces in conflict areas is particularly worrying. The mainly pastoralist Fulani community – known locally as Mbororos – began arriving from neighbouring Nigeria at least a century ago. The traditionally nomadic community started settling in the highlands of Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions and has since suffered marginalisation and oppression, struggling to obtain citizenship and land ownership rights.

For decades, cattle-grazing Mbororos have clashed with local communities, who are primarily engaged in sedentary agriculture, but tensions have worsened with conflict and reports of rebels seizing Mbororo cattle, demanding political allegiance, and forcing some pastoralists to flee.

The government, which views the farming communities in the region as pro-separarist, has exploited this local conflict, promising the Mbororo land in return for their support, one local opposition politician told TNH, asking for anonymity to speak freely. The Mbororo have a reputation for violent retaliation and community defense.

Conflict Development Scenarios

The Most Likely Scenario

Although international and regional laws, as well as the Cameroon constitution, guarantee the right to self-determination, the prospects of a negotiated secession are slim, given the government’s stance against federalism or secession. The most likely scenario could, therefore, be the violent repression of the separatist groups and the continuation of the unitary system with some level of decentralization. This scenario is likely to occur given that the president signed Decree No 2018/191 of March 2, 2018, creating the Ministry of Decentralization and Local Development.  Important reforms are also underway to accelerate decentralization and implement recommendations from the Major National Dialogue.

A year ago, the parliament of Cameroon adopted Law No. 2019/019 on the Promotion of Official Languages in Cameroon. The law guarantees the equality of English and French in all sectors of administrative, economic, social and political activity and it has been enacted by the Head of State.

It is, therefore, probable that compromises will be reached on the effective implementation of constitutional provisions for decentralization in Cameroon and this would likely preserve national stability by guaranteeing more inclusive decision-making. Similarly, the Cameroon government will continue its campaign against Boko Haram although this may not lead to the total defeat of the Islamist group. The group remains a major threat to security as it continues to demonstrate its ability to carry out significant terrorist attacks in Cameroon’s Far North region and across countries of the Lake Chad basin.

The Best-Case Scenario

The best scenario for the Anglophone crisis will be a return to the original federal system which was abolished during the incumbency of the country’s first president. This will be the best way to express the government’s commitment towards resolving the Anglophone crisis and ensuring sustainable peace. Similarly, the current campaign against Boko Haram may lead to the decimation and total defeat of the terrorist group in Cameroon’s Far North region and other neighboring countries affected by Boko Haram. If this scenario occurs, it will prevent the escalation of Boko Haram’s operations in other regions of the country that are not directly affected by the group’s terrorist attacks.

The Worst-Case Scenario

The worst-case scenario would be for the Anglophone crisis to escalate into a protracted civil war and/or eventually lead to secession of the Anglophone regions from the rest of the country. Although the separatist agenda asserts that secession offers the best solution to the ongoing Anglophone problem, it is an option to be avoided. This scenario, should it occur, could have negative geopolitical implications for the region. It may inspire a renewed Biafra separatist insurgency or lead to further disintegration as the North West and South West regions do not have a cohesive political agenda. It would also lead to the annihilation of the country’s linguistic diversity and national unity. This is not only a major political objective of the Cameroonian government, but also strength and enriching feature of the country’s identity. In the case of Boko Haram, the worst-case scenario would be the extension
of the Islamist group’s operations to other regions of Cameroon. This would further destabilize the country and deepen the on-going humanitarian crisis.

Political strains may be turning ethnic to some degree, as the Kamto-Biya divide sets a pro-Kamto West, inhabited mostly by Bamileke, apart from a pro-Biya Centre-South, dominated by Beti and Bulu. Ethnic discord has even seeped into the Catholic Church, which suffers disputes along these same lines. A new government policy requiring city mayors to be selected from the region’s indigenous population may make things worse. The new policy sowed resentment, especially among Bamileke, many of whom have migrated from the western highlands to major towns and cities in the central, southern and coastal areas. They see the new policy as a ploy to deny them political agency in the cities where they have settled and where migrant ethnic groups would otherwise likely dominate councils.

Culled from Institute For Global Threats and Democracies Studies