International Crisis Group calls on the AU to put Southern Cameroons war on its 2024 agenda 0

The Anglophone conflict in Cameroon is entering its eighth year with no resolution in sight. Insurgents in the North West and South West – the country’s two Anglophone regions – are still attacking government soldiers but increasingly one another as well. Civilians bear the brunt of the fighting. Killings, abductions and sexual violence are almost an everyday occurrence, while almost half the area’s schools have stopped functioning. Pro-government militias have sprung up in the Anglophone regions, spreading more chaos. Meanwhile, in the capital Yaoundé, observers worry about the country’s future. President Paul Biya, who turns 91 in February, appears to have left daily affairs to a handful of loyalists in government. As Cameroonians turn their attention to the post-Biya era, many fear a power vacuum amid the jostling over the presidential succession. The AU should put the Anglophone crisis on its peace and security agenda, throwing its weight behind efforts to reach a settlement, before political intrigue in Yaoundé makes negotiations even more difficult.

The Anglophone crisis is rooted in longstanding grievances about the dominance of Cameroon’s mostly Francophone governing apparatus. The conflict was set off by protests by lawyers, teachers and students in 2016, who pushed back against the encroachment of the Francophone legal and educational systems on their regions. On 1 October 2017, secessionists proclaimed an independent Federal Republic of Ambazonia, as they called the North West and South West regions, which had been known during the colonial era as the British Southern Cameroons. Yaoundé responded with a heavy-handed crackdown, arresting hundreds of protesters and others suspected of sympathising with the secessionists.

These events motivated Anglophone activists to form militias. Today, a loose network of armed groups operates in the area, forcing locals to comply with school boycotts and lockdowns via the barrel of a gun. Yaoundé is trying to quell the insurgency by military means, but the army has proven unable to stop the attacks. Hundreds of thousands have fled the violence, with many crammed into makeshift housing in Francophone Cameroon.

As infighting among militias worsens, Anglophone groups are seeking outside allies. In November 2023, one such militia, the Ambazonia Governing Council, signed an agreement with a separatist group in eastern Nigeria, the Independent People’s Organisation of Biafra. Signed in Finland, the alliance could see the two movements sharing safe havens in parts of eastern and south-western Cameroon under their control, threatening regional stability.

The Cameroonian government’s attempts to mollify separatist Anglophone groups have thus far struggled to gain traction. In 2018, Yaoundé launched a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration program to coax militants away from the insurgency, but to date this initiative has had little success.58 In 2019, the government granted the two regions special status under Cameroon’s decentralisation law, devolving some powers to regional authorities.59 Though this measure could be a good starting point for broader political talks, separatists say the reforms do not sufficiently address their concerns.60Mediation has largely stalled, meanwhile. Most efforts to orchestrate talks between the government and armed Anglophone groups, including a Swiss initiative, quickly petered out. A more recent effort led by Canada showed promise when Yaoundé committed to engaging in late 2022. Yet the government withdrew after months of secret pre-talks, saying it did not want foreigners facilitating dialogue about what it considers a domestic problem.

While AU-led efforts might be productive, particularly in urging a reinvigoration of stalled diplomacy, Yaoundé does not want the AU’s involvement and has managed to fend it off for years. Its attitude does not sit well with many AU Commission officials and member state representatives. Some see the PSC’s inattention to the Anglophone conflict as misguided, given the council’s peace and security mandate. Indeed, Crisis Group has previously recommended that the PSC table Cameroon as part of a strategy of public pressure aimed at pushing the parties toward talks.

The 2024 summit will bring another chance for the AU to pay serious attention to Cameroon, with a very measured first step. As it does every year, the Political Affairs, Peace and Security Department will offer the AU Assembly an update about the state of peace and security throughout Africa. Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis is likely to be included in the report, as has been the case in prior years. The department routinely stresses the urgent need to address the crisis, as well as the importance of stability in Cameroon for Central Africa.63 This time around, the Assembly should not gloss over this part of the report, but rather use it to frame a meaningful discussion of Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict, and include the results in the summit outcome documents so that they can be used as a springboard for further diplomacy.64

The AU PSC should keep focus on the crisis, with the objective of creating new momentum for a diplomatic initiative. One way forward would be to table the Anglophone conflict as an agenda item for periodic PSC discussion. It should anticipate efforts by Yaoundé to discourage this debate, but PSC diplomats should not veer away from their mandated role of ensuring peace and security on the continent. Additionally, thematic PSC discussions about women, peace and security or the proliferation of small arms, which regularly come up on its agenda, present useful opportunities to address the situation in Cameroon.

In its expanded discussions, and in consultation with Cameroonian authorities, the PSC could explore avenues for starting an effective dialogue about the Anglophone regions. The Canada-led initiative, which showed significant promise in its early stages, but seems to have stalled, is at present the most viable diplomatic track. The PSC should urge Yaoundé to resume these talks. It could also consider the option of asking the AU Commission chairperson to name an envoy for Cameroon to facilitate the process. It should ask for regular updates from the Commission chairperson about the situation, thereby sending a useful signal to Commission staff to put time and resources into monitoring the conflict. Unless and until the situation changes, all these efforts should be undertaken with the overarching goal of rekindling talks that could improve the country’s image abroad and end a conflict that has gone on far too long.

Culled from The International Crisis Group