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Germany rejects mediating in Cameroon's bloody conflict

Cai Nebe
April 16, 2021

Cameroon's Anglophone separatist crisis has German opposition members asking for a change of policy towards the central African country. But Germany's colonial past and political clout is in question.

Two men with assault rifles
Cameroon's gendarmerie on patrol in the Anglophone South WestImage: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

Germany's government has dodged calls to change its political stance towards Cameroon, amid increased reports of instability, armed conflict and human rights abuses in the central  African state.

In reply to a questionnaire authored by members of the free-market liberal Free Democratic Party on Germany's contribution to facilitating stability in Cameroon, the German government stated:  "The impetus for a sustainable peace process must come from Cameroon and cannot be provided by external actors."

Cameroonian soldier in Yaounde
Cameroon's security forces have been increasinly accused of human rights violationsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Alamba

German aid

According to Germany's Foreign Office, the country "provides the largest amount of bilateral governmental development cooperation funding of all countries [over €100 million in the 2017-2019 period alone]."

Projects aimed at development, supporting decentralization schemes, and socio-economic assistance in secondary cities will see at least €32.6 million flow from Germany to Cameroon until 2025.

But for German lawmaker and FDP member Christoph Hoffmann, Germany has a special responsibility.

"Germany is a former colonial power of Cameroon," he told DW. "We parliamentarians started an initiative about two years ago in the German parliament to bring the Foreign Office to engage themselves in the peace process.

"We think that Germany could play a role in mediation as we are not directly involved - as Britain has been a former colonial power or France has been a former colonial power. Germany has been one, too, but for a very short period and not necessarily be the one responsible for their actual problems."

Christoph Hoffmann, German FDP MP
Christoph Hoffmann has petitioned for German involvement in solving the crisis in CameroonImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture-alliance

But according to Andreas Mehler, professor of development theories and development policy at the University of Freiburg and a Cameroon specialist, Germany's role is not that clear cut.

"The Cameroonian government was potentially not very successful in many things over the last period, but it was rather successful in diversifying its international relations, Mehler told DW. "It has a lot of donors, has a lot of relationships, including in the Middle East and other places. It's rather hard for one single country to exert pressure more efficiently on the Cameroon government."

Decentralization programs

Many see decentralizing power in Cameroon as key to ending the conflict. Accordingly, about €15 million of German aid money is tied up in programs focused on decentralizing power and conflict prevention. But according to Hoffmann, these schemes are not yielding results or are moving very slowly. The German lawmaker blames a lack of political will within Cameroon for the slow progress.

"If there is no real support for decentralization, even if the program financed by Germany, it can't work," Hoffmann said.

German colonial history in Cameroon

Parts of modern-day Cameroon were colonized by Germany between 1884 and 1916. During World War I, German possession was taken over by French and British colonialists and administered until 1960.

Three people in front of a tent
German colonialists annexed part of modern-day Cameroon from 1884 and ruled until World War OneImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Recent, violent conflict in Cameroon has pitted Anglophone and Francophone communities against one another, with English-speaking Cameroonians saying they have been marginalized by the central, French-speaking government.

Germany's relatively short-lived colonial involvement has led some to suggest Germany is the perfect country to spearhead negotiations.

Mehler, though, said the perception that Germany's "short-lived" colonial history in Cameroon would help its role as a mediator, is problematic.

"Germany has colonial baggage, and it has to be looked into. Very important decisions concerning the setup of the Cameroon economy, the infrastructure date back to German times," Mehler said.

France, meanwhile, has a much closer post-colonial relationship with Cameroon. But as instability has escalated in Cameroon and other former French colonies, Mehler suggests the country would in fact welcome solutions from elsewhere: "In Paris, the desperation with actually the entire subregion has grown immensely."

Cameroon's abandoned schools

Reluctance to change

President Paul Biya has been Cameroon's head of state since 1982. The international community has long justified tolerating his leadership because it provided stability, despite reports of authoritarianism and crackdowns. Yet when tensions between Anglophone and the Francophone-led government boiled over in 2016 and have since turned parts of Cameroon into a state of civil war, German politicians like Hoffmann saw a chance for Germany to change its stance.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya casts his ballot during elections in 2018.
88-year-old Paul Biya is one of Africa's longest-serving leaders, having come to power in 1982 Image: Reuters/Z. Bensemra

"We have tried to bring in Chancellor Merkel to Cameroon or Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. And we didn't succeed, unfortunately, because we thought a high-ranking personality could do some more speed into the peace-building process, because we see the Swiss peace-building process where Germany is engaged as well, is grinding along very slowly and we see the bloodshed every day."

So far, Germany's policies have not changed noticeably, maintaining, "Peace can only be achieved within the framework of a political dialogue process that addresses the profound political, social, economic and cultural tensions in Cameroonian society that have developed over decades and that is initiated by Cameroonian actors," according to a 2021 statement.

But according to Mehler, the structural weaknesses in Cameroon's government have resulted in the current state of instability that has been around for a long time.

"One could have intervened much earlier and that has not been done," he told DW. "My suspicion goes in the direction of not wishing to change a certain portfolio. There is a certain imminent weight of existing programs to be continued, even if the context might have changed."

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