Cameroon will head to the polls on February 9 for legislative elections. Even though the current social and political situation in the country is usually presented through the lens of an anglo‑francophone cleavage, the absence of young people’s trust in the government also plays a crucial role. In the Central-African country, more than 60% of the population is younger than 25 years. The lack of opportunities has resulted in an upheaval in two anglophone regions that has already been going on for the last three years. The launch of a “National Dialogue” and the holding of elections were intended to be important steps to mitigate the tensions. The National Dialogue Congress took place at the beginning of October 2019 in Yaoundé and brought significant results. The goal of the conference was to find a suitable solution for the current crisis in the country, where some English-speaking communities have felt marginalized.
The contemporary cohabitation of two law systems, cultures and languages, has its roots in 1961, when the former Southern British Cameroon joined the Republic of Cameroon and created the Federal Republic, which persisted until 1972, when Cameroon became a unitary state. In 1984, its official name was changed to the Republic of Cameroon. According to the government, the change of name was a way to promote unity and the indivisibility of the country. However, certain English-speaking Cameroonians have used the act as a pretext for demanding self-determination, using the argument that the Republic of Cameroon had been the post-colonial name of the francophone part, before the former Southern British Cameroon joined the Federation. Therefore, it is no surprise that one of the significant tasks for the Congress was the debate concerning the name of the country.
The beginning of ongoing turmoil dates to October 2016, when the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) initiated a strike against the appointment of francophone judges and public notaries in the anglophone regions, which was perceived as a potential threat to the common law system, guaranteed in those regions. The government also tried to harmonize the French and English educational system, which perceives Cameroon as a bijural, bicultural and bilingual country. The strike by lawyers and teachers was supported by protests in certain cities in the anglophone regions. As a response, the government decided to deploy security forces into the southwest and northwest regions to calm the situation down. The CACSC was invited to a dialogue headed by Prime Minister Philemon Yang, who comes from the northwest anglophone region. However, the CACSC did not accept the government’s proposal.
The tensions between the protesters and security forces intensified in January 2017 and consequently resulted in a ban of the CACSC and a detention of its leaders. The situation was fuelled by the social media, which displayed the brutality of the governmental security forces. The government reacted with a series of internet shutdowns. The first shutdown lasted 93 days from January to April 2017. The second one was launched in October 2017 after renewed protests, with the aim of creating an obstacle to communication between the diaspora and the separatist armed groups in the country.
The self-proclamation of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia by a part of the diaspora in October 2017 further escalated the situation. The narrative of Ambazonian separatists has been focused on the claim that the Cameroonian army is an occupying force on the Ambazonian territory. Certain Ambazonian armed groups – Amba Boys – started using weapons against the government forces, portraying themselves as “freedom fighters”. However, their attacks later targeted governmental servants and buildings in general, teachers and schools included. Human Rights Watch estimated that between 5 and 20 groups operated in the two anglophone regions. Meanwhile, the diaspora started taking certain steps to promote various elements of statehood, for instance creating its own flag or setting up a virtual currency called Ambacoin. Even though the separatists have received attention in the global media, not a single member of the international community has recognized the Federal Republic of Ambazonia.
In a report released in July 2018, Human Rights Watch accused both the Cameroonian security forces and the separatist fighters of serious violations of civilians’ human rights in both anglophone regions. At the same time, the BBC broadcast videos of soldiers in black uniforms of the government’s BIR (Rapid Intervention Battalion) burning down whole villages, despite the government denying the involvement of its soldiers. International Crisis Group reported in May 2019 that there were around 1,850 people killed and 530,000 internally displaced.
The government is currently aware of the dismal situation in the anglophone regions. The February 9 legislative elections are one of the results of the “National Dialogue” aiming to improve the situation. However, the regular opposition candidates, such as those from the Social Democratic Front (SDF), did not feel safe enough to run in the elections. This is because several of the SDF’s militants (French term for active party members) were under attack by the separatist fighters. Historically, support for the SDF came from the anglophone regions. However, with the ongoing crisis, the SDF’s candidates are not perceived as radical enough for the separatists.
Certain steps to improve the situation from the economic perspective were introduced even before the “National Dialogue”. One of them was the Prime Minister’s decree which proclaimed the two anglophone regions and the extreme north afflicted by Boko Haram as “zones économiques sinistrées”, which means that businesses and taxpayers from the affected regions are exempt from taxes for the next three years. However, the question is whether this act will be sufficient, because the expected economic loss, caused by the ongoing three-year conflict, has reached, according to the GICAM (Groupement inter-patronal du Cameroun), the amount of 269 billion FCFA (approximately 410 million EUR).
In the current scenario, where radical elements’ only aim is to secede, a rapid improvement of the situation in the short term seems unlikely.