Ask most people what they know about Cameroon, and the best informed may mention the national soccer team. Otherwise, the small central African country rarely makes the headlines. Yet, it deserves the international community’s attention right now, before a trickle of refugees becomes a flood; and before the dozens of peaceful protesters shot dead by security services become hundreds or thousands.
Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur should have taught us that if the world looks the other way, rather than applying diplomatic pressure on autocratic leaders, we pay a high price for peacekeeping operations and reconstruction, once the killing ends. Purely on economic grounds, prompt action makes sense. Morally, preventing ethnic cleansing and massive human rights abuses with early diplomatic intervention is also clearly the right thing to do.
In Cameroon, the grievances of the English-speaking minority, long side lined by the French-speaking majority, have boiled over. After decades of discrimination, Anglophones are calling for a fair share of economic and political power. However, the Francophone government of President Paul Biya, Cameroon’s ruler since 1982, has responded with disproportionate ferocity. Shooting church-goers as they emerge from mass, and firing at unarmed civilians from helicopters, is a sure way of inciting further unrest.
What began as a peaceful strike by lawyers and teachers for better working conditions soon became a grassroots campaign for a federal, less centralized government, giving English-speakers equal rights. But the protesters have become polarized by President Biya’s heavy-handed response. People who would have settled for a more devolved form of power are now demanding secession and the formation of an independent country called Ambazonia. Twenty thousand Anglophones have fled to neighboring Nigeria in fear of what is to come. The deaths of several gendarmes, in addition to explosions on November 12, are signs that Anglophone grievance may become increasingly violent.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission does not have a good track record on standing up against the corrupt ruling elite of developing nations. However, even they have been moved to call on the Cameroon government to ensure the equal treatment of the English-speaking minority, guaranteeing its rights of expression and assembly. The Commission urged officials to carry out an impartial investigation of “the excessive use of force by Cameroon police officers,” resulting in deaths and injuries during protests at the beginning of October.
Anglophone frustration exploded a year ago when lawyers protested that new laws were not translated from French into English; courts in Anglophone areas were forced to conduct their business in French; and they had Francophone judges who could not or would not speak English foisted upon them. The lawyers were soon joined by teachers and others from civil society. There was anger that Francophone teachers with little or no English skills were teaching Anglophone children in French.
Once a week, schools and shops close down now, creating so-called Ghost Towns. There are suggestions that some Anglophone citizens feel intimidated into cooperating with the Ghost Town protests by the more militant Anglophone activists who are pushing for separation.
Representing the more moderate Anglophone voices are the Roman Catholic bishops of Bamenda, and the moderators of Presbyterian and Baptist churches. They are calling on the government to engage in genuine dialog and to investigate attacks on civilians. The bishops warn that a volatile situation may deteriorate further. Observers believe the churches are well-placed to host any dialog which would need to include grassroots representatives if it is to be perceived as legitimate. However, until there is a unified and coherent Anglophone position, it is feared President Biya will divide and rule.
The government has disrupted civil society by suspending the internet in the Anglophone areas intermittently, and enforcing a curfew regularly. Moreover, the Francophone authorities designate activists as terrorists, akin to the Islamist Boko Haram jihadists present in west and central Africa. President Biya, said to be in denial about Anglophone grievances, ordered the arrest of journalists and opposition figures, and the reported torture of dozens of activists. According to the International Crisis Group, 40 people were killed, hundreds imprisoned, and many more are missing or unaccounted for .
Despite all this, the international community is reluctant to criticise Biya’s government because Cameroon’s armed forces are fighting the West’s war against militant Islamism. Its soldiers are engaged in a battle against Boko Haram in the Far North region of the country, where 2,000 Cameroon civilians and soldiers have been killed. The country also hosts 348,000 refugees fleeing sectarian conflict in the neighboring Central African Republic.
The United Kingdom has colonial ties with the Anglophone region, and left behind its legal and education system, as well as “Anglo-Saxon values,” according to local people. However, when pressed in Parliament, British ministers blandly encourage dialog. They urge all sides to be peaceful, as if there is an equivalence between the unarmed civilians being shot from helicopters, and the security services doing the killing.
It is not too late to apply diplomatic pressure on President Biya’s government, but it requires the international community to think one or two steps ahead, learning the lessons of past atrocities.
Rebecca Tinsley’s novel about Africa, “When the Stars Fall to Earth” is available on Amazon.