Paul Biya’s Cameroon is plausibly on the brink. Rather than address issues of equity raised by Anglophone lawyers and teachers in 2016, the country’s gerontocracy, led by 85 year-old Paul Biya, initially denied the existence of an “Anglophone” problem. Instead, the government opted to brutalize striking teachers and lawyers, end its ongoing dialogue with the disaffected West Cameroonians, and arbitrarily detain some of those leaders and charge them with terrorism.
At the root of the conflict is the Biya government’s refusal to acknowledge the complicated history that unites the Cameroons. In its twentieth edition of May 2002, Paris based monthly L’Autre Afrique ran a feature titled “Le Malaise Anglophone.” The article noted that the trouble between the two Cameroons began in 1966, when under the guise of national unity, Cameroon’s first president Ahmadou Ahidjo disbanded all political parties and created the Cameroon National Union (CNU). Then in 1972, President Ahidjo held a referendum (in violation of article 47 of the Federal constitution, which stipulated that any changes to the federal structure had to be approved by both parliaments). Towing the CNU party line, his wish of a unitary state was granted, thereby erasing any notions of an autonomous West Cameroon.
My late father, Nyo Wakai, a former state attorney for the Southern Cameroons, founding member of the Social Democratic Front (SDF, the country’s biggest opposition party), and Supreme Court judge in La Republique du Cameroun was quoted in the article saying: “Our problems began the day a hyper-centralized system was put in place.” As someone who was once an insider and later a pariah, my father would probably be saddened, but not surprised, at the grim turn of events.
The current conflict has already cost the lives of scores of civilians, insurgents and soldiers, and further weakened the Biya government’s hold on the nation that he has ruled for the past thirty-six years. According to a recent UNHCR report, an estimated 20,000 people have already fled to neighboring Nigeria. Meanwhile, local NGOs and human rights groups estimate that almost 160,000 people have been displaced internally. The violence is only escalating, and this being an election year, it is hard to think that the discord, psychosis and uncertainty taking hold in the English speaking regions were not part of the regime’s plan all along. Why else would any sane government think that the could get away with killing unarmed civilians, blocking the internet, burning entire villages to the ground, and extorting money from already traumatized urban populations?
Unfortunately for Paul Biya’s gerontocracy, the young men and women of English speaking Cameroon, who constitute the insurgency, no longer trust the decrees proclaiming the nation’s unity being trumpeted from the hallways of power in far away Yaoundé. They do not trust the regime’s empty slogans that assert the country’s cultural diversity when in practice they have seen their parents dream of a truly equitable nation squandered. These young men and women have no reason to trust the same old men who have been in power since their birth, and whose misrule is responsible for their misery.
Cameroon is on the brink because for the past two years, enough of these young men and women of the former West Cameroon have seen their peers and relatives brutalized, arrested and murdered during peaceful protests, and are now fighting back. And unlike the gerontocracy at the helm, these young people, driven by the mantra of “no justice no peace” have nothing to lose.
These youth are armed with disposable SIM cards, gadgets and guns.
Cameroon is on the brink because those young men and women fighting the central government know that those in power are not the nationalists they claim to be. They know that the only way those callous old men inherited the nation, was through their willingness to collaborate with the departing French against the Marxist-Nationalists.
These youth have chosen death over a life of perpetual misery in Françafrique.
Cameroon is on the brink because the “International Community” of which France is a part of, has shut its eyes and ears to their agony. Unmoved by the theater of international diplomacy, they are taking matters in their own hands and have no faith in the AU or UN.
These youth are angry and cavalier.
Cameroon is on the brink because fear is abound. So far, the violence meted out by the central government against Anglophone insurgents vying for the separate state of Ambazonia has only fueled more violence. Armed groups like the Ambazonia Defense Forces, Lebialem Red Dragons, Banso Resistance Army and others are sprouting like wild mushrooms in the rural fringes of the English-speaking regions.
If President Biya wishes to avoid the fate of Marshall Mobutu (who was driven from power by rebel leader Joseph Kabila, backed by neighbors Uganda and Rwanda, resulting in the closest thing there has been to a continent wide war); or the outcome in the Ivory Coast after the succession of Félix Houphouët-Boigny (who’s toxic nativism spurred a coup d’etat, which later led to a costly civil war that almost divided the country into two halves), then he must heed listen to the appeals for dialogue.
During a recent public listening session convened by the National Commission on the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism—the government’s idea of a solution to the crisis—Paulinus Toh Jua, a former opposition MP of the SDF and the son of Augustine Ngom Jua (penultimate prime minister of West Cameroon and early vocal opponent of a centralized system), noted that the problem facing Cameroon wasn’t bilingualism or multiculturalism, but rather the state’s idea of togetherness: “The problem is one of recognition; the Anglophone problem is what we have before us. Can you address it as the Anglophone problem?” The former MP also pointed out that despite the multiple calls for dialogue, which he endorses, he did not think the commission was in a position to address the fundamental issues facing Cameroon because neither parties in attendance at the day’s events were representative of the two parties—the Anglophones and the government of Cameroon.
“The Francophone and the Anglophone do not have any problem,” he said; “if there is a problem, and we want dialogue, are you and those of here capable of talking and bringing about a peaceful solution to this problem? If we cannot bring about bring about a peaceful solution to this problem, we should be honest.”
The former MP then suggested that the mostly Anglophone leadership resign if the commission did not possess the power to find a lasting solution to the crisis: “We are calling on you to give peace a chance; call that inclusive dialogue that includes all of our brothers and sisters who are in the diaspora with any preconceived ideas of what; if we cannot do this, we are in for a lot of problems.”
Cameroon is on the brink because the crisis has fostered hate like no other time before.