Paul Biya’s Cold Attempt to Thaw the Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon

  • Since 2017, separatist militias operating within Cameroon’s English-speaking regions have been engaging in conflict with government forces
  • The Cameroonian government recently rebuffed Canada’s claim that it had been designated to mediate the peace process.
  • This conflict represents one of the most formidable challenges during President Paul Biya’s 40-year tenure
Paul Biya
Amanda Lucidon / White House (public domain per 17 U.S.C. § 101 and § 105 and the Department Copyright Information)

Why is Paul Biya’s heat level Cold?

Answer: As tensions in Cameroon continue to escalate, President Biya faces mounting pressure to find a solution to the separatist crisis.

Cameroonian President Biya, the world’s oldest leader, celebrated his 90th birthday on February 13th amidst growing tensions in the country’s Anglophone region. Biya’s milestone birthday coincided with a marked rise in violence in the ongoing separatist insurgency. Despite criticism of his administration, Biya has repeatedly defended his record, insisting that his government has made efforts to restore peace to the minority English-speaking regions where separatists seek to establish their own state. However, he has failed to contain the insurgency, which has become the most significant organised opposition group he has faced during his four-decade-long rule.

Since a 1961 plebiscite that united the Southern Cameroons (now North West and South West regions), then a British colony, with the rest of Cameroon, a former French colony, secessionist agitation has been simmering. In 2016, lawyers and teachers in the Anglophone regions launched peaceful protests, citing political and economic marginalisation by the Francophone central government. However, the government’s use of force against the demonstrators triggered violence, leading to unrest. 

Following the crackdown, separatists in the Anglophone territories launched a guerrilla campaign and proclaimed independence – naming their new nation “Ambazonia”. The government of Cameroon declared war on the separatists and sent its army into the Anglophone regions in November 2017, with increased violence unfolding year after year since. In February 2022, the International Crisis Group released a report indicating that the ongoing conflict has resulted in the deaths of at least 6,000 individuals, with displacement affecting over 765,000 people. Various human rights organizations have leveled accusations against both government troops and armed separatists, accusing them of egregious violations such as burning homes and villages, torture, mass killings, and illegal detentions. 

Who is changing Biya’s heat level? 

Answer: Biya’s refusal to accept Canada’s offer of mediation has put the crisis on the international spotlight,  prompting questions about his ability to effectively manage the situation.

In response to Biya’s declaration in his New Year’s speech that the Cameroonian military was quelling the Ambazonian insurgency, separatists implemented local lockdowns and the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) reported they had extended their territorial hold. Following this, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs announced on January 21st that it would lead  a new peace process to help resolve the separatist conflict with their mediation. The agreement was supposedly signed by the Cameroonian government and several separatist groups. Canada aimed to reach a comprehensive and peaceful resolution between both parties. The US Embassy in Yaounde had expressed its support for Canada’s announcement, a promising sign that a lasting resolution to the conflict may be within reach.

However, no meditation or talks actually took place. On January 23, the Communication Minister of Cameroon, René Sadi, issued a statement denying that the government of Cameroon had agreed to any peace mediator, contradicting Canada’s announcement that it had been assigned as facilitator.  This turn of events is likely to cast doubt on the prospects of resolving the conflict, making it difficult to move forward with a peace process. Following this, violence escalated. Separatists carried out a series of attacks during early February using improvised explosive devices (IEDs). An important rebel general was killed and attacks on civilians and military objectives followed as retaliation. An estimate of 30 separatists and 38 soldiers were killed during the clashes. 

This blunder indicates a trend of failed peace efforts. In June 2019 the Swiss government offered to mediate the crisis. The Cameroonian government agreed to participate but there was a lack of active engagement from the start. A few months later, President Biya’s government proposed the “Grand National Dialogue,” which excluded separatists and moderate English-speaking political groups. Although not formally invited, separatists still rejected the dialogue as it lacked international mediation and did not intend to discuss changing the political status of the Anglophone region or calling for a ceasefire. In 2022, Biya’s administration formally rejected Swiss mediation and decided to continue military operations against the militant separatists. Both Swiss mediation and the Grand National Dialogue appear to have been used as a smokescreen by Biya to give the appearance of progress. The government’s failure to compromise and hold a dialogue involving all parties has led to the further degradation of an already protracted conflict.

What is driving Biya?

Answer: The fear of democracy spreading beyond Anglophone regions is driving Biya’s iron-fisted governance style

Paul Biya’s ascent to the presidency of Cameroon was marked by his long tenure in various government positions, including a seven-year stint as Prime Minister. In 1982, he was appointed to the presidency following the resignation of his predecessor, Ahmadou Ahidjo. After initial popular support and political consolidation during the 1980s and democratic reforms in the 1990s, the economic progress he had promised began stalling  Opposition voices, critical of the government’s handling of economic and political affairs, were increasingly silenced and met with violence.

Decades later, President Biya has maintained a firm grip on power in Cameroon through his authoritarian style and strategic alliances with key loyalists. Despite widespread allegations of fraud and low turnout, Biya secured a seventh consecutive term in office during the 2018 elections. However, the Anglophone crisis has worsened the country’s international reputation, with one of the consequences being the loss of Cameroon’s eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act in 2020, a trade facilitation agreement that has been in place for over three decades between the US and African nations. 

Despite President Biya’s repeated statements that he is willing to engage in dialogue, the government has failed to present a genuine and practical solution to the crisis. Overall, Biya’s actions are hampered by fears of an increased autonomy for Anglophones fueling demands for democratic reforms and human rights across the country. Labelling all separatists as “terrorists” and suppressing peaceful demonstrations has only served to empower radical factions and increase the risk of a prolonged civil war.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The conflict has devastated the civilian population, emphasising the urgent need to prevent extremist groups from recruiting disaffected youth and causing regional instability

The Anglophone Crisis has had a devastating impact on the civilian population, with many forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in other regions or neighbouring countries, mainly Nigeria. A research article published last year sheds light on the dire economic situation in the Anglophone region. The Cameroon Development Corporation, the second-largest employer in the country, reported a net loss of $55.3 million in 2018 and reduced its operational capacity to a mere 26%. The crisis has resulted in the loss of jobs in the regions, particularly in the formal economy, with over 30,000 people officially rendered jobless. In some cities, unemployment rates have skyrocketed to a staggering 70%. 

The significance of the economic impact of the crisis cannot be overstated, especially in light of a recent report by the UNDP. The report identifies the lack of economic opportunities as a key factor driving violent extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa, outweighing religious ideology as a motivating factor. This underscores the urgent need to address the economic consequences of the crisis, as unemployment, poverty, and inequality create an environment in which extremist groups can recruit disaffected youth. The report also highlights the disturbing rise of violent extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa, which accounted for almost half of all global terrorism-related deaths in 2021.

One of the most significant implications of the ongoing conflict is its potential to further destabilise the Central African subregion, of which Cameroon is essential for maintaining stability. The Cameroonian government already has to spend many resources countering Boko Haram, who are active in the north of the country. Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group, first emerged in Nigeria in 2009. However, the number of attacks carried out by Boko Haram against civilians in Cameroon during 2020 was higher than in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad combined. During late 2019, an increase in battles between terrorists and the Nigerian military across the border forced the militants into Cameroon. Just as Boko Haram’s activities spilled over into neighbouring countries, if the Anglophone conflict gets out of hand it could further exacerbate an already volatile situation in the region. 

Alexander Benady

Research and Analysis Fellow