Introducing the Conflicts
For the past 8 years, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger have been battling with the effects of what began as a poorly handled minor disagreement. The disagreement mutated into the one bloodiest conflicts in the modern history of these 4 countries: the Boko Haram conflict. Just as Cameroon was preparing to celebrate the victory of its armed forces, causing a lull in Boko Haram group activities in its territory, another neglected disagreement emerged. It too mutated into a major conflict and is known as the Anglophone Problem in Cameroon.
The Boko Haram conflict stemmed from a mere disagreement over the manner of worship between a group of youths who used to worship at the Al-Hajj Muhammadu Ndimi Mosque in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, Nigeria, and other mainstream Muslims. The former supported a harsher application of Qur’anic Laws and a lifestyle of piety, void of profanity. However, the group’s ideology found fertile ground amongst the Almajiris, a group of dispossessed youths in northeast Nigeria, who had nothing to lose in open warfare. The Anglophone Problem in Cameroon began from a 1961 violation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Cameroon, which prohibits any change to the form of the state. In that year, former President Ahmadou Ahidjo moved the country from a federal system to a unitary system. Under the new system, President Ahidjo was the sole custodian of all state powers and was therefore in firm control of the crude oil reserves that had just been discovered in Anglophone Cameroon. Without constitutional protection, the English-speaking minority was subject to state-sponsored marginalization, and erosion of their culture and legal system by successive francophone regimes. After decades of complaints about the government’s intransigence, Anglophones have protested with a full stop of daily activities in schools, businesses, and even law courts. The government has responded with brute force towards unarmed demonstrators, killing some and arresting hundreds. The state has shut down internet services in Anglophone Cameroon and suspect Anglophones are subject to extrajudicial punishment.
The Use of Violence and Conflict Escalation
Boko Haram got its official status in 2002 when it was still a small group of men with hardline beliefs. However, it soon embraced violence as the only way of selling its ideology. Prior to this, the Maiduguri State Security Services (SSS) sent no less than 11 reports to the Nigerian federal government about the rise of Boko Haram and its eminent threat to national security. However, the government was more occupied with other major political issues at the time and took little action on the numerous communiqués. When Boko Haram finally adopted force as its formula, the government responded in kind with brute force. This approach caused multiple human rights abuses, causing domestic and international actors to condone government actions. Despite this reproach, the government executed the group’s leader, Muhammed Yusuf, as a means of reducing Boko Haram’s power. Instead, it galvanized the group into action and more people approved of its violent means as a form of revenge for the government’s extrajudicial killings. What began as a demand for the application of Shariah Law in northeastern Nigeria mutated into the creation of an Islamic Caliphate spanning 4 countries. Unemployment, poverty, and underdevelopment, coupled with the Nigerian government’s failure to address the issue at its inception allowed the conflict to progress. Furthermore, Boko Harma has sought international alliances with other well-established Jihadi movements, like Al-Shabab and the Islamic State (IS).
In the case of the Anglophone Problem, the government of Cameroon has also intensified its use of force. The government has reportedly broken into private homes to abduct individuals and take them to unknown destinations without a fair trial. Genocidal language has also been employed to divide the Anglophone community. These actions have pushed Anglophones to unite and hardened their views on the present situation. Cameroon’s Human Right Commission, the United Nations and other international bodies like Amnesty International and Pretoria Human Rights Center have criticized the government’s highhandedness in the management of the conflict and have called for dialogue, which the government has muted. At the current impasse, every move made by the government hardens the position of Anglophones. What began as trade union demands have become purely political demands for the restoration of the State of Southern Cameroon. The main Anglophone pressure group leading the strike action, the Consortium of Anglophone Civil Society, has also moved its position from a two-state federation to the total independence of Southern Cameroon. Moreover, this group enjoys wide support from English speaking Cameroonians at home and abroad. Calls for ghost town strikes by the Consortium easily cripple the entire Anglophone Cameroon, as both government offices and private hubs in towns and villages are shut down.
Moving Out of the Impasse
Scholars of conflict studies tend to agree that when conflict resolution is delayed, the conflict becomes protracted and more complicated in the future. When a conflict is not handled properly at its incipient stage it grows into multiple infectious diseases with complicated outcomes.
When the SSS was making its appeal to the federal government in Nigeria to intervene in the Boko Haram case at its incipient stage, the government waived the appeal. Boko Haram and its then leader, Muhammed Yusuf became prey to politicians who used the group for their own political gains at the time. As Boko Haram became politically powerful and influential, it incorporated political demands in its list of demands. In 2009 its use of force and the execution of Yusuf hardened the group’s members and altered its demands once again. Boko Haram began fighting for the revenge of its slain members as well as propagating the creation of Caliphate under a strict version of the Sharia Law. In the course of time the Nigerian government’s response became more forceful. The government named the group “extremist and its members “terrorists”, which partially pushed the group to behave as real terrorists. Henceforth, the group adopted tactics such as suicide attacks that had only been seen with more established groups like Al-Qaeda. It spread into other territories such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger to meet the aspirations of its new members. Armed robbers and kidnappers have also joined its ranks. Today, it is a threat to peace and security beyond northeastern Nigeria in places like the Lake Chad region.
The government of Cameroon could have learned from the Boko Haram experience. When Anglophone lawyers and teachers stopped working in October, the government could have engaged Anglophone protestors. Instead, it used traditional tactics of force to create fear and stifle any resistance. After the humiliation suffered by disgruntled lawyers and teachers, the strike action gained the support of people who were not part of these professions and the Anglophone resistance grew. Members of unions called for frank dialogue, but the government imposed its might on Anglophone representatives. These representatives were labelled “extremists”, leading to an alienated population and the birth of hardliners. The President of Cameroon used his end-of-year speech to send a message to youth, echoing the term “extremist”, and ultimately sabotaging his aims by creating an uproar.
Mass arrests, torture and killings have caused the Consortium to shift its demands: from federalism to independence.
Two things should be noted. First, the government arrested Consortium leaders, which it had previously been talking to and banned group activities. Secondly, the consistently harsh and violent language used towards Anglophones has further alienated them, causing them to believe that they cannot join forces any longer with Francophones, hence the need to part ways via independence.
Both Boko Haram and the Anglophone Problem in Cameroon are not sudden uprisings. Their roots date back many decades ago. Boko Haram can be traced back to the Maitatsine uprisings in the 1980s in northern Nigeria which were not well-managed, but suppressed violently, only postponing its re-occurrence. The Anglophone Problem goes back to the 1961 negotiations that brought Anglophone Cameroon and Francophone Cameroon together. Until these roots are touched, any solution would merely be a political smoke screen and would not lead to lasting peace.
The more these governments play for time with the belief that it will thwart uprisings, the more the situation becomes complicated with many more groups and persons getting involved. In essence, time allows a conflict to escalate. Boko Haram moved from a purely religious background backed by socioeconomic factors to a political discourse with little to nothing to do with religion. The current Anglophone uprising was purely a union affair, but most of its current leaders are not part of these the law or teaching professions. Both the Cameroon and Nigerian government have to firstly admit their mistakes and examine the root causes. Even though he was white, Frederik De Klerk will forever be credited as the man who changed the history of South Africa. In the face of all opposition, he decided to release Mandela in 1990 and open negotiations. Violence has never been the answer; if it was, the South African elite military would have crushed anti-apartheid agents in 1990. The current leadership of Nigeria and Cameroon can also write their names in the history by following De Klerk’s example.