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Cameroon: Speech, Rights, and Aging Autocracy

AfricaFocus Bulletin
December 18, 2017 (171218)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Cameroonian-American writer Patrice Nganang, an acclaimed novelist who writes in French and teaches at the State University of New York, Stonybrook, remains in prison in Cameroon after his detention at the airport on December 6. His friends and colleagues around the world have mobilized protests, which has evoked international attention and pressure. But the aging autocracy of Cameroon President Paul Biya is pressing charges against him, and is even more resistant to addressing the issues of discrimination he highlighted in an article just a day before his arrest.

An on-line petition for his release has gained more than 7,500 signatures: "Pour une liberté immédiate de Patrice Nganang, écrivain camerounais" petition


Announcement: this will be the last AfricaFocus Bulletin in 2017.

Publication will resume in mid or late January. The AfricaFocus website and AfricaFocus Facebook page ( will continue to be updated.

Best wishes to all for the new year.

AfricaFocus continues to depend on support from readers. To make a donation, visit


Patrice Nganang        

Additional background on Patrice Nganang and his arrest is available in the following articles:

Mark Chiusano, "Activism lands Stony Brook professor Patrice Nganang in jail," AM New York, Dec. 13, 2017

"Cameroun: le procès de l'écrivain Patrick Nganang renvoyé au 19 janvier," France 24, December 15, 2017.

Patrice Nganang, "Cameroun: carnet de route de l'écrivain Patrice Nganang en zone (dite) anglophone," Jeune Afrique, 05 déc 2017

Despite the attention to his individual case, and the need to continue that pressure, it is notable that the issues of human rights, repression, and national unity in Cameroon still have a very low international profile, despite warnings from Cameroonian critics both inside the country and in the diaspora, and by human rights organizations. The Far North of Cameroon is a key battlefield in the terrorist campaign of Boko Haram. The "Anglophone" regions adjacent to Nigeria in southern Cameroon are the scene of rising discontent, brutal government repression, and sporadic secessionist violence. And, after 35 years in power, the corrupt and authoritarian regime of President Paul Biya, who spends long periods outside of the country at his properties in France, is in its "twilight," although no one knows when and how the end will come.

This AfricaFocus, in addition to the key links cited in this editor's note, includes excerpts from two recent reports from the International Crisis Group, and translation of selected excerpts from a commentary in Le Monde by Achille Mbembe, among the most prominent African public intellectuals, who was born in Cameroon.

Amnesty International has released several recent reports detailing human rights abuses both in the far North and the Anglophone regions.

Specific reports include one on 13 October "Inmates 'packed like sardines' in overcrowded prisons following deadly Anglophone protests"

There is also extensive coverage of Cameroon by Reporters without Borders in Paris ( and the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. (
Particularly prominent is the case of RFI journalist Ahmed Abba, who was sentenced to ten years in prison under Cameroon's anti-terrorism law for his news coverage of Boko Haram.

The most detailed and reliable background analyses come from the International Crisis Group. Their Cameroon page is at

Profile of President Paul Biya at 30 years in power BBC News, Yaounde, 6 November 2012

"Call for Proposals: Cameroon, The Stationary State," Politique Africaine, November 9, 2017
This call for proposals, for an issue to be published in June 2018, is also a clear analysis, with a bibliography, of the current status of research and analysis of the current situation in Cameroon.

Achille Mbembe, "Au Cameroun, le crépuscule d'une dictature à huis clos" (the twilight of a dictatorship behind closed doors), Le Monde, Oct. 9, 2017
French text, see selected translated excerpts below.

For a previous AfricaFocus on repression of journalists and the shutdown of the internet in Cameroon, see

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Cameroon's Anglophone Crisis at the Crossroads

International Crisis Group, August 2, 2017 - Direct URL:

Executive Summary

The Anglophones of Cameroon, 20 per cent of the population, feel marginalised. Their frustrations surfaced dramatically at the end of 2016 when a series of sectoral grievances morphed into political demands, leading to strikes and riots. The movement grew to the point where the government's repressive approach was no longer sufficient to calm the situation, forcing it to negotiate with Anglophone trade unions and make some concessions. Popular mobilisation is now weakening, but the majority of Anglophones are far from happy. Having lived through three months with no internet, six months of general strikes and one school year lost, many are now demanding federalism or secession. Ahead of presidential elections next year, the resurgence of the Anglophone problem could bring instability. The government, with the support of the international community, should quickly take measures to calm the situation, with the aim of rebuilding trust and getting back to dialogue.

Generally little understood by Francophones, the Anglophone problem dates back to the independence period. A poorly conducted re-unification, based on centralisation and assimilation, has led the Anglophone minority to feel politically and economically marginalised, and that their cultural difference are ignored.

The current crisis is a particularly worrying resurgence of an old problem. Never before has tension around the Anglophone issue been so acute. The mobilisation of lawyers, teachers and students starting in October 2016, ignored then put down by the government, has revived identity-based movements which date back to the 1970s. These movements are demanding a return to the federal model that existed from 1961 to 1972. Trust between Anglophone activists and the government has been undermined by the arrest of the movement's leading figures and the cutting of the internet, both in January. Since then, the two Anglophone regions have lived through general strikes, school boycotts and sporadic violence.

Small secessionist groups have emerged since January. They are taking advantage of the situation to radicalise the population with support from part of the Anglophone diaspora. While the risk of partition of the country is low, the risk of a resurgence of the problem in the form of armed violence is high, as some groups are now advocating that approach.

The government has taken several measures since March - creating a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism; creating new benches for Common Law at the Supreme Court and new departments at the National School of Administration and Magistracy; recruiting Anglophone magistrates and 1,000 bilingual teachers; and turning the internet back on after a 92-day cut. But the leaders of the Anglophone movement have seen these measures as too little too late.

International reaction has been muted, but has nevertheless pushed the government to adopt the measures described above. The regime in Yaoundé seems more sensitive to international than to national pressure. Without firm, persistent and coordinated pressure from its international partners, it is unlikely that the government will seek lasting solutions.

The Anglophone crisis is in part a classic problem of a minority, which has swung between a desire for integration and a desire for autonomy, and in part a more structural governance problem. It shows the limits of centralised national power and the ineffectiveness of the decentralisation program started in 1996. The weak legitimacy of most of the Anglophone elites in their region, under-development, tensions between generations, and patrimonialism are ills common to the whole country. But the combination of bad governance and an identity issue could be particularly tough to resolve.

Dealing with the Anglophone problem requires a firmer international reaction and to rebuild trust through coherent measures that respond to the sectoral demands of striking teachers and lawyers. There is some urgency: the crisis risks undermining the approaching elections. In that context, several steps should be taken without delay:

  • The president of the republic should publicly recognise the problem and speak out to calm tensions.
  • The leaders of the Anglophone movement should be provisionally released.
  • Members of the security forces who have committed abuses should be sanctioned.
  • The government should quickly put in place the measures announced in March 2017, and the 21 points agreed on with unions in January.
  • The government and senior administration should be re-organised to better reflect the demographic, political and historical importance of the Anglophones, and to include younger and more legitimate members of the Anglophones community.
  • The National Commission on Bilingualism and multiculturalism should be restructured to include an equal number of Anglophones as Francophones, to guarantee the independence of its members and to give it powers to impose sanctions.
  • The government should desist from criminalising the political debate on Anglophone Cameroon, including on federalism, in particular by ceasing to use the anti-terrorism law for political ends and by considering recourse to a third party (the church or international partner) as a mediator between the government and Anglophone organisations.

In the longer term, Cameroon must undertake institutional reforms to remedy the deeper problems of which the Anglophone issue is the symptom. In particular, decentralisation laws should be rigorously applied, and improved, to reduce the powers of officials nominated by Yaoundé, create regional councils, and better distribute financial resources and powers. Finally, it is important to take legal measures specific to Anglophone regions in the areas of education, justice and culture.

Cameroon, facing Boko Haram in the Far North and militia from the Central African Republic in the East, needs to avoid another potentially destabilising front opening up. If the Anglophone problem got worse it would disrupt the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018. Above all, it could spark off further demands throughout the country and lead to a wider political crisis.

Cameroon: A Worsening Anglophone Crisis Calls for Strong Measures

International Crisis Group

Nairobi/Brussels, 19 October 2017.

[Excerpt: Full briefing available at]

IV. The Serious Political Consequences of the Violence

The violence seen in September and October is unprecedented in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon. It has opened up a rift between the government and the population, exacerbating the climate of mistrust and making the idea of secession more attractive. The secessionist movement probably still lacks support from the majority, but its proponents are now no longer an insignificant minority. Anglo- phones increasingly take the view that secession offers the best solution and it will be difficult to ignore their opinion within the framework of an inclusive political dialogue, particularly since the secessionists are now at the forefront of the Anglo- phone dispute. The violent incidents have also increased backing for federalism, which has traditionally enjoyed Anglophone support. In June, several federalists told Crisis Group that, in the absence of the federalism they desired, they would settle for genuine decentralisation. But since the clashes some of them no longer consider decentralisation as an acceptable middle-ground solution.

Recent violent unrest has also aggravated pre-existing social tensions between Anglophones and Francophones. Hate speech and attacks on Anglophones have both proliferated since September, creating a palpably tense atmosphere. In state media, the Southwest's governor referred to the protesters of 22 September as "dogs" and the minister of communication described them as "terrorists". The pro-govern- ment media and certain Francophone intellectuals imply that Anglophones are all secessionists. Some journalists working for Vision 4 - a television channel financed by powerful backers of the regime - consider the demonstrators to be terrorists and, in September, advised the government "to call a state of emergency in the Anglophone regions, make mass arrests, search houses (including those belonging to ministers), and conduct surveillance operations on the Anglophones of Yaoundé". On Facebook, some Francophones have celebrated the repression and number of deaths, while also vowing more deaths on subsequent occasions.

After 22 September, Anglophones living in the Francophone parts of the country, particularly in Yaoundé and Douala, have been targeted: arbitrary arrests in taxis, house searches without warrants, and mass detentions of Anglophones have taken place in Yaoundé neighbourhoods with large English-speaking communities such as in BiyemAssi, Melen, Obili, Biscuiterie, Centre administratif and Etoug-Ebe. Many of these arrests were made by police officers and gendarmes on 30 September. A number of Anglophones have reported being insulted by Francophones in the markets. In their places of work, Francophones have asked them "what were they still doing in Yaoundé and why didn't they go back home to their filthy Bamenda?" Anglophones are suffering a deep malaise as a result; they feel hated and more marginalised than ever before. In the words of one Anglophone public official: "Perhaps the Francophones are right about us spoiling their country. Now we need secession so that we can all live in peace. That will bring back the peace". High- ranking Anglophones officials feel under surveillance, and one of them said: "Here in the ministry everyone is suspicious of everyone else. You have to be discreet, and keep to yourself". Feeling watched, this elite has become more discreet and inward-looking.

The pro-federalist Social Democratic Front (SDF) - the largest opposition party, winning 11 per cent of votes at the presidential elections of 2011, and with an Anglophone leadership - has been subjected to strong pressure since the start of this crisis. Initially it attempted to strike a moderate and conciliatory tone in order to avoid losing support from its national Francophone base, but after the recent violence, many of the party's deputies have symbolically announced their resignation from the Cameroon parliament, without initiating the legal processes. The SDF's national president has described the government's bloody repression of October as genocide, calling for Paul Biya to be put on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

V. The Winding Path Toward a New Cameroon Consensus

Just as the government appears in denial about the depth of discontent facing it, some leaders of the Anglophone protest movement appear detached from the country's reality and international dynamics. Hence their often unrealistic demands, including the call for secession. Meanwhile, the radicalisation of the dispute and increasing support for secessionism is the fruit of the regime's initially disdainful approach to corporatist demands, and of the bloody repression of protests since 2016, the three-month internet shutdown (perceived by the Anglophones as a collective punishment), and of the arrests of hundreds of protesters.

The regime allowed the situation to worsen as it hoped that protests would lose momentum, while it alternated between violent repression and cosmetic concessions.

Currently the most powerful hardliners are betting on repression, and criticise the president for having released some 50 militants in August; they are against participating in any talks about federalism or even decentralisation, and some say they are no longer willing to wait for the Anglophones to mount an armed insurrection before "crushing" them. The more moderate see an effective decentralisation or even a ten-state federation as a solution, though they don't dare say so in public as they lack influence and fear being marginalised and considered as supporters of the protest movement.

President Biya holds the cards needed to resolve this crisis, but he does not appear genuinely interested in doing so. It falls to him to prevent a stalemate in Cameroon that could lead to a political impasse one year before the presidential elections. Signs exist of a possible armed uprising, given the continued multiplication of violent groupings, acts of civil disobedience, and sporadic outbreaks of violence (arson and home-made explosives). Some sources suggest that small groups of young people have gone to Nigeria to be trained in guerrilla warfare, despite opposition from Abuja to the principle of an independent Anglophone state, as it would risk becoming a rear base for Nigerian secessionist movements.

Cameroon, which is engaged in a struggle against Boko Haram in the Far North and against militias from the Central African Republic to the east, cannot afford a new front, especially since an insurrection in the Anglophone region would probably have repercussions in Douala and Yaoundé. The economic cost of overcoming such an insurrection would be severe for a country currently under IMF adjustment measures and that must organise general and presidential elections in one year's time, as well as the African Cup of Nations Football competition.

International credit rating agencies are already concerned about Cameroon's political climate. Fresh political troubles could lead to a downgrading of its sovereign credit rating and make borrowing on the financial markets difficult. The political cost will be high if the crisis drags on and more violence breaks out, because of the difficulty if organising elections in the Anglophone regions. If the elections do take place, the ruling party will most likely face a rout in those regions. Moreover, any further violent clashes will only increase calls for international justice.

The Twilight of a Dictatorship behind Closed Doors

Achille Mbembe, Le Monde, October 9, 2017

{Selected excerpts, translation by AfricaFocus]

[In addition to talking about President Biya] it is necessary to go beyond the individual and take the exact measure of the system which he has put in place and which is likely to survive him.

Because, in order to curb contestation and consolidate his grip on this country, which was constantly threatened by the risk of impoverishment and decline of the middle classes, by tribal fragmentation and the weight of patriarchal and gerontocratic structures, he not only resorted to coercion. He also invented an unprecedented method of managing state affairs that combined government with abandonment and inertia, indifference and immobility, negligence and brutality, and the selective administration of justice and penalties.

For its daily functioning and long-term reproduction, such a mode of domination required, among other things, the miniaturization and systematization of both vertical and horizontal forms of predation.

At the top, many senior officials and directors or board members of parastatals draw directly from the public purse. At the bottom, poorly paid bureaucrats and soldiers live off the population.

Niches for corruption proliferate and illegal activities are omnipresent in all bureaucratic sectors and economic sectors.

In reality, everything provides an excuse for misappropriation and overvaluation, whether it be the management of projects, procurement and implementation of public contracts, compensation of any kind or transactions for everyday life.

The funds allocated to the ministries, delegated to the regions or transferred to local authorities are hardly exempt. In thirty-five years of [Biya's] rule, the number of contracts awarded over the counter and abandoned projects is in the hundreds of thousands. In 2011, a document of the National Anti-Corruption Commission estimated that between 1998 and 2004, at least 2.8 billion euros of public revenue had been diverted.


[Mbembe is critical of the tendency of Anglophone secessionists to idealize the history of British colonialism in comparison to French colonialism. But he strongly criticizes the policies of the Biya regime.]

The intellectual weakness of the secessionist movement notwithstanding, there exists, for historical and legal reasons, a singularity of the Anglophone question. Recognition of this is a prerequisite for any resolution of the conflict. Indeed, colonization has inherited two models of government. On the one hand, the French command-model and, on the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon cooperative model, whose indirect rule-law was the typical formula.

The francophonization of the state, institutions and political culture on the model of commandism is indeed one of the reasons that led to the current stalemate.

How can one explain the relative absence of Anglophones in key positions in government and their low representation in major power structures since reunification? What to say about the frenzied policy of assimilation that has resulted in the virtual abolition of their legal and educational systems and reduction of the use of the English language in the day-to-day management of the state and its symbols? And, for that matter, what concrete benefits have Anglophones derived from the exploitation of oil, the main deposits of which are found on their part of the territory?

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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