Cameroon is an example of an increasing number of countries confronting both separatist rebellions and jihadist-armed groups. Two characteristics are nevertheless remarkable in the Cameroonian case. First, the fact that unlike some countries facing similar crises, no confusion is possible between the two insurgent fronts (in terms of territory, social base, resources mobilization channels, tactical interests and even repertoire of violent action). One deploys under the Boko Haram flag and is located in the northern margins of the country, where hostilities really began in 2014. The other, raging since 2017, is linked to secessionist demands within the anglophone minority in the western regions. The two fronts are in no way linked, except by the fact that it is the same state and the same regime that are challenged on both sides by armed rebellions. Second, in light of the security dogma « no dialogue with terrorist or armed group » Cameroon has adopted only strict anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency responses so far in the face of these popular insurrections. This security vision is simplistic and unilateral, as it tends to obscure the obvious political motivations for ongoing mobilizations.
The humanitarian data give an idea of the scale of the victims and the atrocities incriminating all the camps. In less than three years of generally low-intensity clashes, the death toll in the Anglophone west nears 3.000, with more than half a million internally displaced persons and refugees. Hundreds of villages have been burned down and destroyed by the army and many schools have suffered attacks from the secessionists. In the Far North, the numbers are just as large and even more suspected of inaccuracies. In January 2020, the number of displaced persons was around 297.000.
In the Far North region, the insecurity began to take shape in 2013. The narrative that dominates today to explain the Boko Haram-linked insurgency in the region is based on the theory of a breakout of violence internal to Nigeria that has simply spilled over into Cameroonian territory, due to a lack of well-secured borders or because of the state of backwardness or poverty attributed to these populations. Some other narratives focused especially on forced recruitment, while others put emphasis more on voluntary forms of engagement. However, the anti-terrorist policies deployed by the government in the region – Cameroon adopted its own anti-terrorist law in December 2014 – have succeeded in transforming a combination of external dynamics – an armed insurgency originally located in Northern Nigeria – and local grievances into an internal security concern.
The first signals began with the kidnapping of French tourists in February 2013, followed by first isolated clashes with the national security forces that intensified in 2014. However, various frustrations among local communities had accumulated there before, without receiving the slightest echo in the rest of the country. As an example, between 2011 and 2012, in local sub-divisions like Mozogo and Mayo Moskota, farmers who balked at the price imposed by the national cotton company became the target of various repression measures and some had to find refuge on the other side of the border. The abuses of the army triggered an escalation of confrontations and some young people without initial ties with Islam joined the Boko Haram insurgency. There was fertile ground for oppressed communities to recognize themselves in the jihadist propaganda and find it legitimate to take refuge under its banner or even passively consent to its action. In these areas with strong ethnic and religious heterogeneity, the army relied on ethnic militias to confront the insurgents. Some were explicitly Christian, and others recruted both Muslims and Christians and just excluded ethnic groups suspected of cooperating with the insurgents. This counter-insurgency strategy has been the source of ethnic- or religion-based attacks or reprisals hardening community divisions. The insurgents’ propaganda claimed the return to a re-enchanted past through the restoration of the historical heritage of the Caliphate. Salafi-jihadist actors raised the fundamental issues of disfunctional justice, deemed corrupt and inaccessible to local communities, lack of redistribution of wealth, perverted religious institutions. All these dynamics explained the choice of violence by ordinary people or their metamorphosis into "extremists".
The same structure of conflict can be observed by looking at the relationship of insurgent groups in the anglophone regions to the Cameroonian state. In this part of the old "Kamerun", the English colonial influence left in legacy an administrative language, institutional traditions, an economic model different from those inherited by the rest of the country, under French influence from March 1916. The reintegration of the two territories into a new single state was not done on the basis of a principle of reinventing the two legacies in a new national project. The model chosen instead was rooted in the cohabitation of the two systems within a political federation. The country was gradually characterized by a process of minorization of the anglophone regions under the assimilating power of the francophone institutional model, instead founded on authoritarian bases and corresponding to the politically and socially dominant part of the new state. This shift generated tensions within the angophone elite. Some looked at it as an opportunity to get positions within the state by integrating the centralist system. Others, who continued to back the « federal consensus », were marginalized before trying to return to the forefront in the 1990s, in a context of political pluralism.
A separatist perspective emerged starting from 1985 but was considered an expression of a minority within the anglophone regions. However, this trend has come back in force, benefiting from the waves of radicalization sparked by the violent repression of civil society organizations and movements between September and November 2016. Claims linked to what these organizations considered a sneaky dynamic of dismantling or increasingly accentuating marginalization of essential parts of the anglophone legacy: its educational system and its judicial system based on Common Law, were progressively undermined by the appointement of francophone judges or teachers in the anglophone regions.
The political and social divide at the root of the crisis is first internal to the élites, before taking on a dimension of opposition between sulbaltern young people with modest status – former soldiers, students, young urban unemployed, farmers, villagers – and the state. Confronted with this radicalization, the clientelist system of administrative élites, traditional leaders or elected and political and religious authorities on which the regime has always relied to control society has proven to be ineffective and an extremely weak social anchor.
What is eloquently revealed by today's anglophone crisis, that equally sheds light on what happens in the far north of Cameroon, is the inability to pose the problem in terms of the reinvention of a political body to imagine a new political community and face the challenges lying ahead for the state.