By Webster Zambara
The recent election in Cameroon in which the long-serving octogenarian Paul Biya retained the presidency to extend his 36-year reign (by another 7 years) were marred by allegations of massive fraud, intimidation and low voter turnout. Nationally, only 54% of registered voters turned up. And in the volatile Anglophone region a paltry 10% cast their vote as most simply boycotted, or were forced to do so by the increasingly violent militias who have taken up arms to secede, while others demand a change of governance structure. The main opposition political formations have rejected the results of the ‘sham’ election and are challenging Biya’s legitimacy.
If the current situation in the Anglophone region is anything to by, Biya’s new term is rather extra-ordinary, and will require substantive shifts and political brinkmanship to bring back the country from the precipice. But how does a country with such huge economic potential, itself a security pillar of stability in the rest of Central Africa risk to become another basket case, lengthening the list of the sad story of Africa? A quick historical voyage is necessary for the uninitiated.
As the world recently commemorated the centenary of the end of the First World War in France on 11 November, Cameroon is one of the spoils of war for the victorious Allied Powers. The defeat of Germany in 1918, being geographical home of the crime of colonialism when Otto von Bismarck hosted the 1884-5 Berlin West Africa Conference where European potentates carved up Africa amongst themselves, further divided Cameroon into French and British territories under the mandate of the League of Nations. The French took over the eastern half of the country that was formerly German territory, while the British were rewarded the land along border of their colony Nigeria, comprising Northern and Southern Cameroon as well as the Ambas Bay Protectorate. When the Leagues of Nations died a natural death with the outbreak of World War 2, it was succeeded by the United Nations (UN) in 1945 which took over the mandated territories under its Trusteeship Council.
When the winds of change blew across Nigeria and Cameroon bringing independence from colonialism, South Cameroons debated whether to become part of either of the two or total independence of their own. A disputed UN organized plebiscite of 1961 gave only two options that resulted in this region becoming a federal state of Cameroon. This was followed by unilateral referendum in 1972 that replaced a federal state with a unitary state in which the largely Anglophone Southern Cameroons lost their autonomous status to become the Northwest and Southwest regions of today’s Republic of Cameroon. This fate was sealed when the country’s name changed from the ‘United Republic of Cameroon’ in 1975 to its present, while the flag was altered to remove the second golden star that was seen as representative of the ‘federal system’. This loss of identity and glaring exclusion renewed exigence for secession, thus calls for a new autonomous state called Ambazonia gradually became louder.
The current wave of violence pitting ‘separatists’ against the government security apparatus is a culmination of deep seated discontent sparked by striking lawyers in October 2016 who were later joined be teachers. These professionals challenged the use of French language to do official business in regions that largely speak English when the constitution treats them as equal. Their cause has huge support from the region’s Diaspora community, especially those based in the United States. The paradox of it all is witnessing a great African country going to war for the use of colonial languages in the 21st Century!
While this conflict has not grown to attract regional and global attention and intervention, the threats of escalation are growing with more youth being radicalized and joining the rag-tag guerilla fighters. Yet so much violence has already been experienced resulting in scores of deaths and injuries. More than 40 thousand refugees have crossed into Nigeria while over 160 thousand have become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) surviving on food aid from humanitarian organizations. Mondays have been declared curfew days with no travelling or schooling. Basic service delivery systems have broken down, and life is no longer normal. Sadly, and as expected when violence breaks out women, children and other vulnerable groups are the main victims. Several cases of arson, rape, sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence have allegedly been reported.
The biggest risk of this conflict is further destabilization of a region already failing to contain the Boko Haram insurgency in the north of Cameroon that has affected the whole Lake Chad basin including Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Mali. To the east, Cameroon shares a long border with the Central African Republic that is also still very fragile as a result of the Seleka rebel groups since 2013.
With the security situation deteriorating fast, a group of courageous women has emerged. Under the banner of Southwest and Northwest Women’s Task Force (SNWOT), individual women and their counterparts in civil society are mobilizing and campaigning for the end of the Anglophone crisis. They are demanding a ceasefire and meaningful participation to finding sustainable peace to the violent conflict. In a very patriarchal society, their task is not easy. Besides holding press conferences and marches, recently they successfully mobilized thousands of women to participate in two lamentation exercises. This is a cultural practice to show extreme displeasure by publicly wailing to draw the attention of local elders, particularly men, forcing them to take appropriate action. They are also active on social media, and they keep updating and supporting each other through WhatsApp messages. Their #HearMeToo campaign of this year’s 16 Days Campaign to end violence against women and children started much earlier. It is their daily routine. And they need everyone’s support, now!
Dr. Webster Zambara is a senior project leader of Peacebuilding Initiatives at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). He recently spent 8 days building capacity of women mediators in Cameroon at the invitation of United Nations Women (UNWomen)