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Understanding Cameroon’s Crisis of Governance

Cameroon's two-year-old national crisis threatens the country's very foundations, says scholar Christopher Fomunyoh. In this video, Fomunyoh discusses the nature and causes of the grievances that brought this crisis to a head, as well as recommendations for addressing them.


Thank you very much, General Puta, for those very kind words of introduction. It’s a real pleasure to be here and I’m very pleased to see all of you. Welcome to Washington. I understand you have already been here for a week and you are into your second week. Let me also say that one of the things that I’m most proud about in terms of my CV is my affiliation with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. I’ve been an adjunct faculty here since the creation of the Center in 1999 and I’m really pleased with the impact that these relationships built with senior officers and senior civilian leaders from the continent has meant for civil-military relations, security sector reform, and all of the issues that you all deal with on a daily basis.

Let me also say, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am from Cameroon and so this is a topic that’s dear to my heart. But I am here because I believe in the values of ACSS [Africa Center for Strategic Studies], in the principles of intellectual discourse, intellectual honesty, and excellence and not to espouse the point of view of one side or the other, but just to share with you the facts as I know them to stimulate conversations. And so my opinions are just mine and mine alone to help us have a good interaction.

I also understand that last week, you all spent time on the big trends, the thematic issues. And this week we’ll be using a number of case studies to kind of hammer—you know, hammer on some of the issues that you would want to reinforce. So we’re using those case studies to tease out issues pertaining to human security, to accountability, to legitimacy and good governance and to the issues that we need to be able to master to help consolidate democratic governance and transparency and accountability on our continent.

I was instructed to discuss three issues with regards to the Cameroonian crisis: First an overview of the crisis, secondly the role of regional and continental bodies in helping resolve the crisis, and three in the conflict patterns and the way forward in terms of recommendations

Overview of the Crisis

So let me say that it’s kind of strange to be talking about Cameroon and crisis because a year ago, or two years ago, no one would have thought that Cameroon would be in the news in the way in which it’s being portrayed today. But the truth about it is that Cameroon is still now dealing with what I have always called a national crisis even from the beginning and a crisis which risks undermining the very foundation on which this country is built.

There have been two tracks to the origin of this crisis. In October of last year [2016], it began as a series of grievances from various sectors, notably teachers and lawyers in anglophone Cameroon who complained about the educational system and the fact that the Anglo-Saxon educational system was being watered down because non-anglophone teachers were being posted in schools to teach kids in English.

I am expecting that you all already know that Cameroon is a bi-cultural country. It’s a bilingual country, and that one part of the country is English-speaking and the other part of it is French-speaking. The English-speaking Cameroon is approximately 20% of the population and French-speaking Cameroon is about 80% of the population. That the English-speaking part of the country at one time in the colonial era before independence was governed as part of eastern Nigeria and later on through a plebiscite voted to reunite with the—from our French-speaking side to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon and I will come back to that later on.

But this crisis in October of 2016 began by way of corporate grievances. The lawyers—anglophone lawyers—further the English legal system, the common law system was being undermined and overwhelmed by the civil law system which is dominated by French-speaking juries, lawyers, and magistrates. However, I think in the course of the last year, because of the manner in which this crisis has been managed, we now have a confluence of grievances and the initial grievances of teachers and lawyers have now morphed into political grievances that are calling into question the very existence of the nation state.

History of Anglophone Marginalization in Cameroon

If you read the articles on Cameroon, you’ll probably come across a lot of talk about marginalization and anglophones feeling marginalized or the anglophone minority feeling marginalized, which is something that comes up a lot in countries that have to deal with minority populations. However, in the specific case of Cameroon, there are a few pointers—a few indicators—that can help you understand the notion of marginalization in Cameroon.

First that Cameroon, as many African territories prior to independence, was just a territory that wasn’t identified with a particular nation state. That after the first World War in 1919 when the Germans lost Cameroon which was one of the four colonies the Germans had on the Continent (the other three being Tanzania, Togo, and Namibia, or Southwest Africa at the time)—after the first World War, Cameroon was petitioned—sorry—partitioned with English Cameroon being governed out of Eastern Nigeria as I said, and French Cameroon being considered as part of French Equatorial Africa. Then on the 1st of January 1960, the French-speaking part of Cameroon that was being governed by the French as part of French Equatorial Africa got its independence on 1st of January 1960, and then later on October 1, 1961, when Nigeria was getting its independence, the English-speaking part of Cameroon, which at the time was called Southern Cameroons, was given the possibility to elect to either become independent as part of Nigeria or to rejoin the French-speaking part of Cameroon which had already obtained its independence on the first of January 1960.

It was a competitive electoral process, and the majority of anglophone Cameroonians within Southern Cameroons elected to join the French Cameroon which by that time had already obtained its independence as the Republic of Cameroon. And through that plebiscite decision, as the two parts of Cameroon came together, they agreed to form what would was called the Federal Republic of Cameroon, having gone through talks between the two parts in Foumban to come up with the Federal Republic of Cameroon in 1961 with a constitution that said that the cultural identities of both sides would be respected and the federal nature of the country will never be changed in future constitutions.

In 1972, eleven years later, there was a political transformation in the country where the constitution was changed and the country moved from being the Federal Republic of Cameroon to become the United Republic of Cameroon. In many ways, the United Republic of Cameroon still maintained some of the attributes of the federal structure, for example, that the national flag of Cameroon still had two stars which represented the two cultures, anglophone and francophone.

And then twelve years later, the United Republic of Cameroon was changed through another process into the Republic of Cameroon with just one star and because of these incidents, a number of anglophone Cameroonians began to feel that their identity was being lost or wiped out in that process.

Fast forward to today’s situation: a number of things also happened. In 1975–first of all, in 1961, at the emergence of the Federal Republic of Cameroon, there was an understanding that if the President of the country was from one side of the country, then the Vice President would be from the other side of the country. So there was a President who was from francophone Cameroon and a Vice President from Anglophone Cameroon. Then when the country was changed from a federal republic into a united republic in 1972, the position of Vice President was abolished, but the Speaker of the National Assembly became the number two position in the country and that position was given to an anglophone.

Then in 1975, the position of the Prime Minister was created under the rubric of the United Republic of Cameroon and the Prime Minister at the time, served from 1975 to 1982. Prior to 1982, there were a number of changes within the ruling party at the time–that was the time of the one-party days—and also within the protocol of the state such that the Speaker of the National Assembly no longer became the immediate potential successor to the Head of State, and rather, that possibility was given to the Prime Minister who happened to be from francophone Cameroon.

In 1992, Cameroon went through the first multi-party elections, competitive elections, which were won by the incumbent president at the time, President Paul Biya, which was controversial because the candidate who came in second claimed that he had won the election and it just so happened that that candidate was an anglophone Cameroonian.

Later on, in the last few years, the institutions of the country were modified, and a second legislative body, was created. And the leadership of the Senate happened to have been elected and the person elected was a francophone Cameroonian.

So what has transpired from 1961, is that many anglophones now see a country in which the most highly placed anglophone in Cameroon today is fifth in line of protocol after the Head of State, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Chairman of the Economic and Social Council and then the Prime Minister. The current Prime Minister of Cameroon is an anglophone.

This is kind of significant, because it provides you with some background as to why some Cameroonians may now feel marginalized given that setup. In December of 2016, after the crisis had begun, I provided an interview in which I said: for me, it was more a crisis of governance than a crisis of identity. Since December of 2016, adversely, the crisis has been exacerbated by the demonstrations—massive demonstrations that have taken place—in the northwest and southwest regions of the country, violations of human rights and people that have been killed in the process of those demonstrations and calls for secession by some anglophones who no longer identify with the country as it currently stands.

The Role of Regional and Continental Bodies

Now what are the prospects for regional and continental bodies to play a role? I think that I wouldn’t be as optimistic as some would expect in terms of the role that international and even regional bodies can play because when you look at the African continent, you have to agree that some of our sub-regional entities are doing much better than others: that SADC [Southern African Development Community] has done pretty well in keeping its house in order; that IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] has been making an effort to try to tackle some of the issues that we’ve seen in the Horn of Africa; that ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] is doing extremely well—in fact I would rate ECOWAS as one of the best performing, if not the best performing sub-regional entity in terms of its protocols and governance, accountability and transparency, in terms of peer pressure and peer review and peer support with other African Leaders coming to the rescue when things are not going well in any one of the other West African countries.

But the unfortunate thing that I see in the Central Africa sub-region, in the sub-region of ECCAS [Economic Community of Central African States] is that the sub-regional organization is not as influential as one would have hoped. And there may be some structural explanations to this as well, because when you see in the sub-regional organizations that are doing well, there’s a lead country. You know, when you talk about SADC, South Africa obviously plays the lead role and as South Africa goes, so goes the rest of SADC. When you talk about West Africa, of course, Nigeria plays a lead role, and as goes Nigeria, so goes the rest of ECOWAS and then you also have other countries within ECOWAS—Ghana, Senegal—that are very strong on these issues of governance and accountability.

Unfortunately, in the Central Africa sub-region, Cameroon is the country that should be the lead country, and when Cameroon is not doing well, it’s extremely difficult to expect that the Central African Republic that’s dealing with its own crises or Gabon or Equatorial Guinea or Congo-Brazzaville could really weigh in in helping to solve the crisis in Cameroon. So invariably, at some point, I am convinced that Cameroonians are going to have to find a way to sit down and have to tackle these issues head on.

I also feel that they presently—it’s a lot of confusion about the nature of the crisis, about the root crisis of the crisis, about the severity of the depth of grievances that people now hold that if a proper diagnosis is not done, the crisis may not be resolved in the short term—that we may have some peace, we may have a period where things seem to look normal, but invariably, the depth of hurt that people feel in part of the country is such that, at some point, the crisis is going to resurface.

Conflict Patterns

Unfortunately, and this is my last point about some of the challenges that lie ahead, the overall political trends are not necessarily the most favorable for the peaceful resolution of this crisis.

The timing of this crisis couldn’t have been any worse in my view because Cameroon is about to roll into an election year in 2018 when we’ll have local elections, legislative elections, and presidential elections that as we all know—that you all know and many other countries have gone through this process—when a country is going through elections, even under normal circumstances, it’s a very challenging period because it’s a time when the entire country is mobilized. It’s a time when political parties and political candidates are making all kinds of promises and declarations. It’s a time when the security services have to guarantee the security of every citizen that’s participating in the political rallies or in the political events or that holds different viewpoints and generally, it’s a very challenging moment for most countries.

And so if you superimpose on that challenge which comes naturally with every election the crisis with which Cameroon currently is going through, that has now morphed into a crisis of identity for many Cameroonians, you can only begin to imagine how difficult it’s going to be to resolve this crisis in the short term.

Different Approaches to the Crisis

When I step back a little bit and I look at the demographics of the country or the social inclinations or alignments within the country, what I see from my standpoint is a very diverse tapestry. Within the anglophone community in Cameroon, you now have at least three or four lines of thought.

There is at least on the one hand a group of anglophone Cameroonians who want to go back to what Cameroon was before 1960—who want to opt out of Cameroon as we see today who are advocating for secession. There’s a second group of Cameroonians who are saying we can go back to 1961 where we were as a federal republic and they are advocating for federation. There’s a third group of Cameroonians—anglophone Cameroonians—who don’t want secession, who don’t want federalism, but who want decentralization because that is what is currently written into the Constitution that was adopted in 1996. And I would say there’s even a fourth category of anglophone Cameroonians who feel that the status quo is fine and that these grievances are marginal and should be dealt with as administrative and legal issues. So you have four different viewpoints within the anglophone community in Cameroon.

At the same time, within the majority francophone community, you have what I would see as three very divergent viewpoints. One, there are francophones who are as vocal about this crisis as many of the anglophones are, who are extremely critical of the way in which this country has been managed in the past four or five decades and who want to see a lot of those grievances dealt with to give a sense of recognition to anglophone Cameroonians that they do belong. A number of them are very vocal on social media and on various other public fora. There’s a second group of francophones who identify with the anglophone issues but who also say that the other eight regions of the country face similar challenges in terms of lack of infrastructure, in terms of lack of employment opportunities for young Cameroonians and that the issues ought to be dealt with at the national level within the current framework of the nation state with its decentralized ten regions. And then there’s a third group of francophones who have said, as the government said a year ago, that there is no anglophone issue in Cameroon and that there is just a number of stubborn, young people who should be dealt with by the Rule of Law applied in the very brutal sense of locking them up if they don’t respect the law.

And so this is creating a very confusing environment. And this is why in many of my outings, I have recommended that the government engage in a dialogue that will bring everybody into the same room so Cameroonians can even listen first to each other, figure out what their differences are and then figure out the way forward.

“How Do We Get out of This?” Five Recommendations

“How do we get out of this?” I would have five recommendations in how I think Cameroon could come out of this.

First of all is to acknowledge that this is a national crisis for the country and that extraordinary steps will need to be taken to resolve this crisis.

Secondly, that there would need to be a national dialogue on the anglophone crisis in Cameroon—a national dialogue that brings to the table all of the possible actors, including actors who have not been part of the governance process thus far.

Thirdly, that after the national dialogue on the anglophone crisis in Cameroon, there should be other conversations about the governance issues that plague the rest of the country or other parts of the country.

Fourthly, that there would have to be a holistic approach in investing in issues of governance, human security, legitimacy and the relationships between the state and citizens that you would almost have to organize a national campaign—what I would consider a national campaign—on civic education and civic responsibility to try to re-establish the bond that should exist between government and citizens, because in many circumstances, in many areas, you can say that bond is being broken as we speak.

And finally, I think this, the culmination of this national dialogue, of this national campaign, should lead to a new roadmap on the future of the country which would have to be sold to citizens to get their buy-in so they can feel empowered—not just to feel that they belong but also to take on the responsibility to contribute to the emergence of a new Cameroon in which every Cameroonian would feel a citizen in his full rights and have the ability to contribute to the consolidation of the nation states.

The conclusion that I would like to leave all of you with—it’s something that has gone through my mind as I’ve watched this crisis—is in knowing that, in a lot of our countries, we inherited institutions that were crafted for us by others, by the colonial masters for the most part, by our parents and grandparents. And for our parents and grandparents, the first generation of African leaders, they did their best under the circumstances, in most cases without a lot of formal education, in most cases without a lot of exposure to how the world functioned or even how those institutions could be run.

Today, five decades after independence, I think we are blessed as Africans, because we now have a generation of Africans that’s as worldly as leaders you would find anywhere else. All of you in this room have gone to the same military academies, to the same foreign service institutions as your colleagues in other parts of the world.

We now have Africans that know how the world functions and how institutions of governance ought to function. We should not miss an opportunity to ourselves build the Africa that we would like to see going forward. We cannot allow ourselves to become captive of institutions that we inherited if we have an opportunity to help build institutions that can consolidate democracy, peace, and security for all of our fellow citizens going forward.

Thank you very much for your time and attention and I’ll throw this out as opening remarks. I’ll be delighted to take your questions.