The separatist Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC) has declared Cameroon’s upcoming parliamentary and municipal elections illegal, announcing a six-day “lockdown” in the country’s West in the lead up to the 9 February poll. Preparations for the vote have been met with fierce resistance by separatists, as the AGC – which, in 2017, declared an independent state in English-speaking Western Cameroon – pushes back against the authority of Paul Biya’s Francophone government in Yaoundé. In December, Voice of Africa reported that approximately forty candidates for office were abducted by militants, and earlier this month fighters claimed responsibility for burning down a government election office in Misaje.
Political parties such as the Social Democratic Front (SDF) opposition are now weighing up their participation in the elections, wary of backlash from militants. President Biya himself, meanwhile, announced further troop deployments to the region in his new year’s address, insisting that the elections would go ahead as planned. With Cameroon deeply divided, observers have lambasted the international community’s disinterest in the crisis. Last week, Hannibal Uwaifo, President of the African Bar Association, wrote to Boris Johnson to criticize Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth, as well as the UN, for “refus[ing] to speak decisively” on the issue even as the situation deteriorates.
Tensions over the elections will only compound the already-dire humanitarian conditions in Western Cameroon. ACAPS notes that 40% of health centres in the English-speaking region have closed, with a dearth of hospital beds and medical professionals contributing to the spread of diseases such as cholera. Last year, UNICEF said that more than 80% of schools in Western Cameroon had been shut at the behest of militias since 2017. Already, the UN estimates that the collapse of essential services has led to the internal displacement of nearly 700,000 people, with a further 50,000 refugees fleeing across the border into Nigeria. The election “lockdown” announced by the AGC will force remaining schools, markets and businesses to close, and a round-the-clock curfew will be imposed. In addition, the Biya government’s provocative promise of a heightened military presence in the coming weeks is unlikely to safeguard the electoral process, and may instead serve to further inflame the situation.
The crisis is the latest – and most violent – expression of longstanding grievances held by Western Cameroon’s English-speaking population. The region, previously a separate British colony, was united with French Cameroon as an independent state following a closely fought referendum in 1961. In 1972, another contentious referendum abolished the country’s federal system – which had preserved some of the West’s independence – and replaced it with a unitary state with a powerful central government. The trajectory toward Francophone dominance has continued under President Biya, and regional autonomy has been further eroded in the nearly forty years that have passed since he came to power. Strikes and protests against further centralization began in 2016, catalyzing a series of violent clashes and ultimately leading to the AGC’s declaration of independence the following year.
The failures of a summit called by the Cameroonian government last year are instructive in assessing what must change in order to achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Though President Biya’s ‘Major National Dialogue’ involved multiparty meetings, it sidelined the leaders of the separatist movements themselves, many of whom boycotted the event, and some of whom were in jail. Moreover, the lack of international oversight – a precondition for the participation of several separatist groups – undermined the legitimacy of the talks and enabled the Biya government to persist unchecked with their focus on military force in responding to the crisis. Meaningful attempts by the international community to alleviate the crisis are a necessity, especially in the cases of Britain and France – the countries whose cartographical choices helped land Cameroon in this situation. Without that involvement, and as long as the Biya government and the separatist groups refuse to engage in a meaningful dialogue, the dreadful material costs of the violence will continue to be borne by the people of Cameroon.