‘The Old Don’t Let Go’: 36 Years of Rocky ‘Stability’ in Paul Biya’s Cameroon
Cameroonian President Paul Biya is expected to coast to re-election on Oct. 7. But two ongoing conflicts have undermined what he has long pitched as his greatest strength: his ability to maintain peace in an otherwise unstable region. The coming years could be among the most challenging of his decades-long reign.
In the grainy cellphone footage, Cameroonian soldiers march two women down a sandy road.
One of the women wears a pink t-shirt, large silver earrings and a bright blue headwrap. Her head upright, she carries a baby on her back. The other woman has an outfit of green patterned cloth. She holds the hand of a young girl dressed in an oversized black t-shirt.
As they make their way down the road, a small crowd trails them. The soldiers taunt them, sometimes slapping them in the face. One of them tells the women, “Raise your head so we can see you.” Someone says, “BH, you are going to die.” “BH” stands for Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based militant group that, several years ago, infiltrated northern Cameroon, drawing the Cameroonian military into a campaign against it.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden.]
After steering the women off the road, the soldiers place blindfolds over their eyes. One soldier removes the black t-shirt from the young girl and wraps it around her head. The person who’s filming, likely a soldier, says, “Little one, this brings us pain, but your parents have put is in a…” He is interrupted by gunshots, and the four victims—the two women, the girl and the baby—fall to the ground. As the soldiers kick dust over their bodies, one of them notices that the girl is still alive. A soldier reloads his rifle and fires another shot. The footage ends.
Listen to Emmanuel Freudenthal discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. His audio starts at 20:42.
In an investigation published last week, the BBC concluded that these killings took place in March or April 2015 in a small village called Krawa Mafa. But the video only surfaced on social media this past July.
Cameroon’s government spokesman, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, immediately denounced it as “fake news,” only to backtrack a month later when he disclosed that seven soldiers had been arrested in connection with the incident.
Responding to the footage, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, who was finishing up his term as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, voiced concern that such scenes may well be fairly common in Cameroon. “I am deeply worried that these killings captured on camera may not be isolated cases,” he said. His worries were well-founded. Soon after, separate footage surfaced on social media showing soldiers in the northern town of Achigachiya summarily executing a dozen people who had been lined up against a wall.
Though that footage, too, has been dated to 2015, the peak of Cameroon’s fight against Boko Haram, it would be wrong to assume such arbitrary violence against civilians is a thing of the past.
Since 2016, Cameroon has also been grappling with an insurrection by its Anglophone minority in the west of the country. Unlike the fight against Boko Haram, the Anglophone conflict will bear heavily on the country’s politics and security for months, and likely years, to come.
Ahead of a presidential election to be held Oct. 7, these crises have undermined what the incumbent president, Paul Biya, has long framed as his greatest strength: his ability to maintain peace and order in an otherwise unstable region. This pledge is emphasized in his campaign manifesto, which declares that Biya will “continue to consolidate peace,” “safeguard national unity and the territory of our country,” and “ensure the defense and progress of our fatherland.”
There is little suspense regarding the outcome of the vote. Even the most critical analysts acknowledge that Biya, who is 85 and has been in power since 1982, is all but guaranteed to win another term.
The coming years could be among the most challenging of Biya’s decades-long reign.
Looking beyond election day, though, his next few years in office are shaping up to be among his most challenging—rivaled by only a few other periods in the country’s recent history. These include a coup attempt in 1984, the 1991 general strikes across the country, and protests against rising food prices in 2008 that left more than 100 people dead.
Biya at War
Cameroon’s army has been fighting against Boko Haram in the north for several years now, but this military campaign hasn’t been at the center of public debate. Rather, it’s the Anglophone crisis, which began in October 2016, that has resonated throughout the country.
There are two reasons for this. First, unlike Boko Haram, the Anglophone militant groups originated from within Cameroon. Second, the grievances of the separatists over a lack of development and opportunities are echoed by many citizens.
The Anglophone crisis is rooted in Cameroon’s complex history. After being colonized by the German Empire, Cameroon was split into French and British protectorates following World War I. The protectorates took on the colonizers’ respective languages in the areas of public administration and education, although today well over 200 languages are still spoken.
In 1961, half of English-speaking Cameroon voted to join neighboring Nigeria, while the other half voted to form a federation with French-speaking Cameroon.
Ever since then, Cameroon’s Anglophone population, who live in two regions and officially account for a sixth of the country’s total population, have felt marginalized by the government. They complain about a dearth of investment in their homeland, as well as policies that have derailed the promise of federalism while elevating French at the expense of English.
The current unrest kicked off in late 2016, when lawyers and teachers frustrated by the rising use of French in local courts and schools took to the streets. Their marches quickly gathered momentum, drawing a harsh response from the state. The police admitted to killing four civilians, reportedly in self-defense.
The rest of 2016 was quieter. But about a year later, on Oct. 1, 2017, Anglophone residents participated in a peaceful march in the main towns of Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions, the South West and the North West. Some of them declared the independence of a state they called Ambazonia, named after the Ambas Bay on the Atlantic coast. In response, security forces killed over 20 people and jailed hundreds, according to Amnesty International.
An Anglophone man named David recalls the crackdown vividly. He says he was marching with his family in support of independence when security forces started shooting, killing one of his brothers. As the family fled, David says, soldiers followed and attacked their village, forcing everyone to hide in the bush before fleeing across the border into Nigeria.
Rather than become a refugee, David, whose name has been changed for security reasons, decided to take up arms. “I must get revenge, because this is my country,” he says. He joined the Ambazonia Defense Forces, or ADF, a group that boasts 1,500 active fighters spread over 20 camps, according to Lucas Cho Ayaba, the head of the group’s political wing. Most of these fighters only have old hunting rifles, but they make up for their skimpy resources with dedication.
I met David in July when I embedded with the ADF in the grasslands of the South West region. It’s an extremely difficult area to access, both because the government has forbidden journalists from traveling there and because the transportation infrastructure is very poor, save for a few main roads. This remoteness makes it perfect for guerilla warfare; Cameroonian soldiers rarely venture far from the towns.
There are now about half a dozen Anglophone militias with links to Ambazonia’s two main political groups: the Ambazonia Governing Council, led by Cho Ayaba, and the Interim Government of Ambazonia, initially led by Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe and now by Samuel Ikome Sako. The government says these militias have killed over 120 security personnel, but the actual toll is likely higher. The separatist fighters have also kidnapped civil servants and traditional chiefs accused of collaborating with the government, sometimes torturing and killing them.
Cameroon, June 2018 (Photo by Emmanuel Freudenthal).
They have also pushed for a boycott of schools, which are seen as symbols of the state. Human rights groups have accused the militias of forcing officials to shut down schools, sometimes violently. According to Amnesty, a total of 42 schools have been attacked. The Ambazonia Governing Council has condemned this violence.
Yet it’s clear that the military’s conduct has been much more egregious. Over the past year, it has executed over 400 “ordinary people,” according to Amnesty, and burned at least 20 villages, according to Human Rights Watch and the BBC. Many more attacks on civilians have likely gone unreported.
An estimated 256,000 people have been displaced by the conflict. Among them is Charity Achu. She used to work as a hairdresser, operating her own salon in South West. Her life was upended when soldiers showed up at her village and started shooting. She fled along with her husband and four children, carrying the youngest, a baby, in her arms. They didn’t have time to take anything with them, just the clothes they had on their backs.
For five months, the family hid in the forest, where they struggled to find anything to eat. While there, she learned from other displaced people that the soldiers had killed three of her brothers.
Charity’s family walked through the forest until, eventually, they reached a village on the coast. “We arrived without anything,” she says. “We had to beg.” They were given some clothes and took a small boat to Nigeria. In so doing, they joined a refugee population that the United Nations says is now greater than 21,000.
The exodus appears to have intensified in the weeks leading up to the election. Even civilians who have not been directly affected by the conflict are fleeing the Anglophone regions to seek refuge with family and friends in Douala, Yaounde or across the border in Nigeria. A number of civil servants have also abandoned their posts, fearing being kidnapped or killed.
Among Biya’s challengers, there’s a consensus that a dialogue with the Anglophones and increased autonomy for the region could contribute to ending the conflict. But while Biya has created a new ministry focused on decentralization and named two Anglophones to head other ministries, his government has refused to negotiate with the Anglophone leaders, branding them terrorists. It has also kept Ayuk Tabe, the first leader of the Interim Government of Ambazonia, in jail without trial since January.
The government’s heavy-handed response to the peaceful marches of 2016 and 2017 and its staunch refusal to negotiate have fueled demands for independence, making what was once a fringe position in the Anglophone regions more mainstream. Without reliable polling, or a referendum, it’s difficult to gauge with certainty the amount of public support for independence. But every Anglophone Cameroonian I’ve talked to has endorsed it.
Meanwhile, among Francophones, the conflict has become a divisive issue. Unlike Boko Haram’s demands to create a fundamentalist Islamic State, the Anglophones’ appeals for better governance and basic infrastructure are things most Cameroonians can identify with. Over the past decade, I’ve traveled to dozens of rural villages all over the country, and the wish list is nearly always the same: a good road, a hospital and a school—in short, all the basic services that the state routinely fails to provide. For this reason, especially at the start of the crisis, many Cameroonians commented on social media that the Anglophones could be an example for the rest of the country in their appeals to the government for change.
In many ways, the sometimes haphazard brutality of the army is emblematic of Cameroon’s government at large.
Nevertheless, on social media it also seems that a sizeable part of the Francophone population disapproves of the militias’ violence against security forces. This occasionally, albeit rarely, translates into anger against Anglophones as a whole. For their part, Anglophone social media users occasionally condemn Francophones writ large, and threaten to kick them out of Ambazonia.
A Very Stable Dictatorship
For many Cameroonians, abuses by the security forces in the Anglophone regions reinforce perceptions that the state has little regard for its citizens. In many ways, the sometimes haphazard brutality of the army is emblematic of the government at large. It’s a “sort of decentralized tyranny,” says Achille Mbembe, a prominent Cameroonian political philosopher. “This means that each [civil servant] is a little tyrant at his little level. It’s a rather spectacular democratization of tyrannical dynamics.”
The heart of this apparatus is in Yaounde, the green, hilly inland capital. Near the city’s widest boulevard sit half a dozen stylish art deco buildings constructed in the 1970s to house government ministries. Take one step inside these buildings, and their glory fades. Rickety elevators lift visitors to dark corridors padded with worn-out carpets.
Behind the doors in these corridors are dingy offices where civil servants slouch in their chairs while taking a nap, reading a newspaper or browsing on their phones. The workday is short. Until 11 a.m., secretaries report that their bosses are “arriving soon.” After 4 p.m., they’ve often “gone out for a meeting.”
Mbembe explains that these officials take their cues from Biya’s own governing style, which is “basically to do nothing at all, or to do very little.”
Biya is famous for spending time outside the country, usually at a five-star hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. Overall, he’s spent over four and a half years on private trips abroad since he came to power.
Pursuing an audience with a government minister means sacrificing hours in sleepy waiting rooms. If a meeting is granted, the minister’s door opens and a glacial breeze escapes. Crossing the threshold, the visitor enters a new world of air-conditioning, fresh paint and plush leather sofas.
Although official salaries are not high, government posts are generally the best-paying jobs in Cameroon because of pervasive corruption and high per diems given to attend meetings. One friend working at a multilateral organization remarks that he could gauge the integrity of his government counterparts by taking a look at the quality of their watches and suits.
Biya has used the carrot of these postings to maintain his hold on power, nominating friends and foes alike as ministers or directors of public companies. Potential challengers, in particular, are often bought off with such jobs.
One prominent example is Issa Tchiroma Bakary, the communications minister and de facto government spokesman. He wasn’t always on Biya’s good side. In 1984, two years after Biya became president, he was accused of participating in the failed coup attempt and spent the next six years in prison. He then joined an opposition party, until Biya named him transport minister in 1992. In 1996, he lost this posting and rejoined the opposition, only to be brought back into the government in 2009. He still heads an opposition party, but one that supports Biya’s re-election.
During Biya’s 36 years in office, this approach has required him to get creative, cutting the governmental cake into ever-shrinking slices. As a result, there are now 64 ministers and secretaries of state. The education sector alone is shared between four ministries: one for primary school, one for secondary school, one for tertiary education and one for professional training. This year, in a bid to address Anglophones’ frustration, the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization was split into two.
Cameroon, September 2013 (Photo by Emmanuel Freudenthal).
Biya also wields sticks to keep threats to his power in line. He often demotes his appointees for no apparent reason. In more drastic cases, he sends them to jail. By now, so many high-ranking civil servants have been sent to Yaounde’s notorious Kondengui prison, most of them on graft charges, that the joke among Cameroonians is that they could form a shadow government.
Such tactics have allowed Biya to become the world’s second-longest-serving non-monarch head of state, behind his neighbor to the south, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea.
For decades, the international community has praised Cameroon for its peace and stability, attributes that have made it an attractive destination for foreign investment. The description of Cameroon as “a politically stable country in an unstable region” is still widely used by foreign governments and aid groups.
Despite the government’s poor record on corruption, outside help continues to flow. In 2017, Cameroon received $600 million in foreign aid.
Nevertheless, over the past year, the regime’s international allies have appeared to be scrutinizing the partnership, at least somewhat. It is hard to know the precise reasons for this shift, but it could have something to do with the well-documented abuses by the army or an attempt to keep the country stable after Biya dies.
Washington grew closer to Biya’s government after Cameroon stepped into the fight against Boko Haram, becoming an ally in the war against terrorism. But the U.S. support has drawn considerable scrutiny. Last year, Amnesty and the research agency Forensic Architecture revealed that Cameroonian soldiers had tortured civilians accused of supporting Boko Haram at a site where U.S. military personnel were staying.
The U.S. military is investigating whether American soldiers willfully ignored the torture, but for the time being bilateral military cooperation seems to have continued apace. In May, the U.S. ambassador in Yaounde, Peter Henry Barlerin, praised Cameroon as a “model of effective cooperation between the army and the population” in the north of the country. He announced the donation of two surveillance aircraft to the military for use in its fight against Boko Haram, while securing a promise that those planes would not be used in “other conflicts,” an apparent reference to the Anglophone crisis.
A few days later, though, Barlerin took a harder line on the government. Following a meeting with Biya, he stated that there had been “targeted killings” as well as “burning and looting of villages” in the Anglophone regions. He said he had also “suggested to the president that he should be thinking about his legacy and how he wants to be remembered in the history books,” adding that “George Washington and Nelson Mandela were excellent models.”
The Cameroonian government saw this as a challenge to Biya’s rule and called Barlerin in for a talking-to. Barlerin had to deny giving any financial support to opposition parties. “We do not have a preferred outcome for the election,” he said in a subsequent interview with The New York Times. “We want a strong and stable Cameroon.”
South West region, Cameroon, June 2018 (Photo by Emmanuel Freudenthal).
These words echoed the line taken by French President Emmanuel Macron. Recounting a July phone call with Biya, Macron repeated the word “stability” four times in just over a minute.
Yet France and the U.S. have diverged in their approach to the Anglophone crisis, with France so far refusing to join the Americans in directly criticizing the army’s violence. Macron has instead stressed the importance of “national cohesion,” a statement that seemingly supported Biya’s strong stance against Anglophone independence.
This reflects the regime’s long-established bond with France, the former colonial power. France has supported Biya’s rule since the start. Over the years, Biya has taken 35 trips to France, according to data from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and he’s met all the French presidents since Francois Mitterrand.
French companies also have substantial assets in the country. The oil firm Perenco owns oil concessions. The Bollore Group operates a railway line and the Douala container terminal and is involved in the deep-sea port in Kribi on the Gulf of Guinea. Lafarge has several factories that produce cement. French companies are also leaders in the export of bananas and timber.
So while the Paris-Yaounde relationship might be drawing increasing scrutiny, French support of Biya shows no signs of wavering.
‘The Old Don’t Let Go’
With victory for Biya all but assured, next week’s election is unlikely to produce any immediate change. For many in Cameroon, life will go on as it always has. Most of the population is young and has known only one president.
Amid such stagnation, Cameroonians have been conditioned to dream small. Many graduates, unable to find jobs, set up makeshift stands along the road to sell mobile phone credit, spending their days idly waiting for customers, rain or shine. Others walk around with secondhand shoes or clothes to sell in order to generate a bit of money for their families.
After decades of stagnation, Cameroonians have been conditioned to dream small.
Some decide to try their luck abroad. At international sporting events, it has become standard for some Cameroonian athletes to split off from their delegations in hopes of starting a new life elsewhere. At the last Commonwealth Games in Australia, for example, a third of the Cameroonian delegation failed to return home. Similar defections occurred at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2012 Olympics in London.
Other Cameroonians try their luck on risky sea voyages across the Mediterranean.
Among those who stay home, a typical refrain is: “On va faire comment?” In English, this means, “How are we going to do?” The idea is that there is no alternative but to try and muddle through.
The 2008 food riots, in which security forces used live rounds on demonstrators, showed Cameroonians that to openly challenge the regime was to risk one’s life. Since then, there have not been any major protests in the Francophone regions, but that does not mean there is no discontent.
Expressing disagreement via elections is not straightforward. Voting in the Anglophone regions will be difficult because ballot boxes are unlikely to make it to much of the area, and the separatist fighters have promised they won’t let anyone vote. Choosing a candidate won’t be easy either. In this year’s election, Biya has eight opponents, six of whom are running for the first time. The most intriguing candidates appear to be Maurice Kamto, a member of Biya’s government until 2011; Akere Muna, an Anglophone lawyer and anti-corruption activist; Joshua Osih, the new leader of the Social Democratic Front, historically the most prominent opposition party; and Cabral Libii, a 38-year-old newcomer.
The fact that these challengers have not formed a united front makes an opposition victory nearly impossible. Florian Ngimbis, a prominent blogger, wrote on Twitter earlier this year that their failure to come together “makes one wonder if the goal is not to dethrone the King, but to become the King of the opposition.”
It was yet another expression of Cameroonians’ frustration, a feeling that was perhaps best captured in 2009 in “This Country Kills the Youth,” a popular song by the Cameroonian rapper Valsero.
“This country kills the youth, and the old don’t let go,” Valsero raps over the song’s slow beat, with faint strings and horns in the background. “Once they get in power, they don’t let go… This country is like a bomb, and for the youth, it’s a grave.”
Emmanuel Freudenthal is a freelance reporter based in Nairobi. He has been doing investigations in Africa for a decade, including projects based on open-source reporting and extended trips in conflict zones. He first traveled to Cameroon in 2008 and has returned many times since.
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