Should we worry about genocide in Cameroon?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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Cameroon has been making headlines as another hotspot of instability in Africa. This time, the conflict is along linguistic and cultural lines, between the Francophone majority in the country, who comprise over 80 percent of the population and dominate politics, administration, education, professions and the military, and the Anglophone minority in the western provinces of Cameroon, who make up little more than 15 percent of the population.

The current conflict began two years ago as a protest by middle-class professionals, predominantly lawyers and educators, against the policies of the Francophone central government, perceived to be further marginalizing English speakers and English-speaking areas. The government of Paul Biya, which has been in power since 1982, believed those initial protests were a challenge to the authority of his regime, and responded with a severe crackdown. This, in turn, led to a full-fledged, generalized secessionist movement among the English speakers in the west.

So far, this is in line with the course of post-colonial African politics. But emerging information from within the country is increasingly setting alarm bells ringing, and the international community needs to monitor the situation very closely.

Initial reports of extrajudicial killings of women and children carried out by the central government army personnel are starting to look like systematic campaigns of violence against civilians, with thousands already dead. Entire villages have been evacuated, as some 500,000 people, well over ten percent of the Anglophone population, have been displaced from their homes as a result of indiscriminate state aggression. And attitudes are only hardening on both sides.

Rwanda’s voices are also echoing in response to these international developments. The situation in Cameroon only started making news after an American citizen was caught in the crossfire and killed. This is despite the fact that the United States has been aware that a good proportion of the documented atrocities seem to have been committed by the Rapid Intervention Battalion, an elite military unit that the US trained to fight Boko Haram in the north of Cameroon.

Initial reports of extrajudicial killings of women and children carried out by the central government army personnel are starting to look like systematic campaigns of violence against civilians

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

France, the former colonial power, is taking a stand of willful ignorance that is eerily similar to its attitude toward Rwanda in the months leading to that genocide. And nobody else wants to go anywhere near Cameroon, since none of the major international players have strategic interests in the area – and certainly no interests tied to the Anglophone minority.

The Western press is also taking a rather strange stance on this conflict, which they often term a “near-civil war”. But a civil war implies that there is some kind of equivalence of power between the two parties, as if there was any doubt about which side might prevail.

This is simply not the case here. No amount of hardened “secessionist insurgents” is going to pose a real threat to the Francophone government, or indeed the Francophone regions. Short of the two sides coming together to agree on some kind of compromise – and at this stage neither is contemplating such a thing – there are exactly two possible outcomes: Either the Biya government decides to just cut the two Anglophone regions loose and carry on with the Francophonie, or it decides to drown the two provinces in blood.

The decision over what happens next rests entirely with the Biya government. So far, there are no international power players interested in pressuring the government in one direction or the other. And at every given opportunity, the government has chosen to escalate the matter.

We may not be talking about genocide this week, but it is squarely pointing in that direction. There is nothing to suggest that the internal dynamics of the crisis, or the conduct of the Biya government, will divert the course of events, or that it will slow down.

Perhaps the best hope for Cameroon at this moment in history is, in fact, the US. The US has some leverage over Cameroon’s government and has already cut some military assistance to the Biya government over the escalating humanitarian crisis. But can we have any faith that the Trump administration will initiate a sufficiently robust policy response to a developing humanitarian crisis? That would be out of character for the administration. And as long as that remains the case, Cameroon’s most likely outcome, tragically, looks like Rwanda.

Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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