Rebellion in Cameroon poses New Year headache for Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron

Push for seccession by Anglophone minority creates problems for former colonial rulers and neighbouring Nigeria.

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Cameroon, a former British responsibility in Central Africa, is facing a secessionist threat from rebels from the English speaking region of south-western Cameroon who have declared the independence of their region, naming it “Ambazonia”. 

The regional crisis, that has been brewing for years, erupted into an open revolt earlier this year. It has resulted in some 40,000 people fleeing into neighbouring Nigeria. Even this figure – admits the UN refugee agency – may be an underestimate.

The English speaking western regions of the country – and about one fifth of the population – have been dominated by the French speaking remainder. The country has been under the dictatorial rule of President Paul Biya since 1982, who shows few signs of relinquish control. Trained as a layer at the Sorbonne in Paris, Biya has been accused of ruthlessly repressing the Anglophone minority. The President tolerates little dissent and has just ordered the deportation of the US based author and scholar Patrice Nganang, who is a fierce critic of Biya's rule.

The English speaking minority has now taken up arms to resist his rule. Protests in September, including a general strikes in the largest towns, resulted in the security forces opening fire, leaving several demonstrators dead. The government cut internet access for several months and a night-time curfew was imposed.

In October, the rebels raised the flag of their movement over government buildings. They declared the independence of “Ambazonia” and announced that Julius Ayuk Tabe, an information technology executive with the American University of Nigeria, was their president. The Ambazonians have an official website, complete with flag and national anthem.

International repercussions

Cameroon says separatist fighters have been receiving military training in Nigeria, and government troops are accused of crossing into Nigeria in pursuit of the rebels. Ties between peoples on both sides of the border are strong, and the Niger delta region is awash with weapons, following years of conflict between bandits and rebels and the Nigerian authorities. Al-Jazeera broadcast a report showing young Cameroonians in a camp inside Nigeria.

This has posed a serious problem for the Nigerian authorities, who have been attempting to co-operate with Cameroon to fight Islamist insurgents of Boko Haram.

But the rebellion also poses a headache for Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron.

Cameroon was divided into Anglophone and Francophone regions following a joint operation in to deprive Germany of one of its African colonies during the First World War. A Belgian-French-British force took the territory in 1916. Following a bad-tempered spat over the spoils, the victors decided to split it into British and French spheres of influence.

This unfortunate division was perpetuated by the League of Nations. In 1961 the northern half of Anglophone Cameroon opted to join Nigeria, while the southern half voted to join Cameroon. There the matter might have ended, but in 1972 the government ended the federal status of Cameroon, and the Anglophones lost many of their rights. They have complained of severe discrimination ever since.

The current conflict has been a long time in comings, says Dr. Seraphin Kamdem, of the School of Oriental and African Studies. “This region produces most of the oil on which the wealth of Cameroon depends,” he points out. “Yet it receives few of the benefits. The strength of this rebellion will depend on how deeply frustrated the community is about the way in which they are treated by the government.”

Cameroon has declared war on the Ambazonian rebels, following attacks on military targets that have resulted in the deaths of members of the security forces. The UN has called for a dialogue, but to little avail. The Commonwealth despatched its Secretary General, Baroness Scotland since both Nigeria and Cameroon are Commonwealth members. She spent five days in Yaoundé, attempting to bring about a “frank, sincere, comprehensive and inclusive dialogue”, but with little evidence of real progress.

In a statement, Baroness SCotland said that all the parties she met durng her visit appreciated the need for dialogue and expressed willingness to engage in it.

She added: “Escalation over recent weeks brings deepened urgency, and it will demand of the government a positive step to facilitate an inclusive and structured dialogue leading to real decentralisation.

The situation has left a particular mess in the laps of British and French diplomats, who no doubt would rather be spending the festive season with their families. Neither the Foreign Office nor the Quai d'Orsay can really afford for this to spill over into a wider regional crisis. Both would far rather encourage Nigeria and Cameroon to continue fighting Boko Haram. Apart from appealing for “restraint” the Foreign Office has had nothing to say about the issue. But this linguistic divide is a colonial legacy that has rumbled on for a century: neither can London nor Paris can wash their hands of this crisis.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.