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Opinion: Why the African Union must not ignore Cameroon

Felix Agbor Nkongho | Rebecca Tinsley
February 7, 2020

When the 33rd African Union Summit begins on Sunday, the conflict in Cameroon's Anglophone regions should be on the agenda. Yet the violence is unlikely to be seriously discussed by African leaders.

The Cameroonian Prime minister Joseph Dion Ngute preside the opening session of the National Dialogu
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Str

If the African Union (AU) is to live up to its founding charter's high ideals, its members must confront the human rights abuses occurring in Cameroon, rather than sweeping them under the carpet.

Cameroon's historically English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions are home to 20% of the country's population. The UN-backed referendum following independence in 1960 failed to give the Anglophones the option to form an independent country.

Although they were promised a degree of autonomy under a federal system, power shifted to the Francophone-dominated capital, Yaounde, by 1972. There has been an 'Anglophone Problem' of marginalization in Cameroon ever since.

Peaceful protests began in 2016, when the government imposed French-speaking teachers and judges on Anglophone schools and courts, with a systematic process of eroding the common law.

Impartial international human rights groups believe the regime responded with disproportionate force. Escalation over the past three years has seen more than 200 villages burned, opposition leaders and journalists detained and tortured, civilians randomly fired upon and terrorized, causing 656,000 people to flee their homes for the bushes, Francophone regions, or next-door Nigeria where 50,000 people are currently living in refugee camps. More than 2,000 people are thought to have been killed.

In response, some of the more extreme Anglophone secessionists formed increasingly violent militias over time, forcing schools, clinics, markets, and businesses to stay closed.

Human rights organizations report atrocities on both the government and separatist sides. The economy is at a stand-still, and normal life is impossible for many of the 5 million residents of the Northwest and Southwest.

Read more: Opinion: Cameroon's stillborn dialogue for peace

People fill seats at the opening session of the National Dialogue
The National Dialogue was supposed to resolve the crisis but peace in the English-speaking regions is still distantImage: Getty Images/AFP/Str

Reacting to international pressure, the Cameroonian government held a Major National Dialogue over several days in October 2019. These limited talks were boycotted by separatist groups and some members of civil society were unable to safely attend.

The government subsequently granted 'special status' to the two Anglophone regions. However, critics argue that the proposed level of autonomy remains loosely defined, with power remaining in the centralized Francophone administration in Yaounde.

Even so, any implementation is uncertain, especially in light of the legislative and municipal elections set for Sunday February 9, in which few Anglophones are expected to participate or vote due to worsening violence and horrific threats.

The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Switzerland has offered to facilitate peace talks, but the Cameroonian government has not consented to take part. Very recently, the Africa Forum announced a Symposium on Cameroon in April to support a peaceful resolution — a welcome development.

The African Union role

The AU is well aware of the violence suffered by unarmed civilians in the Anglophone regions. As recently as November 2019, a delegation including the chairperson of the AU Commission urged President Paul Biya to implement the conclusions of the Major National Dialogue, encouraging peace and stability through this nonviolent process.

Yet, in his New Year's message, Cameroon's leader reminded his citizens that the armed forces would carry out their duties "without weakness." Biya persists in believing a military solution will resolve the Anglophone issues.

Cameroonian armed forces stand holding guns
Biya has sent extra forces to the English-speaking regions ahead of the municipal and parliamentary electionsImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Huguet

In January 2020, Cameroon delivered a 190-page report to the AU, measuring its own performance against its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. The document, which amounts to a student marking her own essay, boasted that Cameroon had ratified sundry protocols protecting human rights.

Its description of Cameroon is at odds with the findings of watchdog groups such as Transparency International and Freedom House, both of which give Cameroon the lowest ranking.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International would also struggle to recognize the country as it appears in its report to the AU.

Read more: Cameroon crisis: 'Federalism is the solution,' says opposition leader Maurice Kamto

The Cameroon government congratulates itself for creating a National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, aimed at "maintaining the peace," "consolidating national unity" and "maintaining social cohesion." 

The report to the AU also justifies shutting down the internet in the Anglophone regions for four months in 2017, saying that people were using it to stir up "hatred, violence, insurrection and secession." Freedom of speech applies only if used in a "responsible manner."

Three months ago, 65 mainly African human rights groups wrote an open letter to the chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, calling on the AU to urgently take specific actions to address the deteriorating security situation in Cameroon. They received no response.

Among many observers, the AU has a poor reputation. Some criticize it for spending more time seeking to guarantee its leaders' immunity from prosecution than persuading its members not to persecute minorities or detain political opponents.

Co-author Felix Agbor Balla stands in front of a bookcase
Co-author Felix Agbor Nkongho, founder and director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in AfricaImage: CHRDA

The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights held its 2019 summit in Egypt under the leadership of current AU Chair and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — US President Donald Trump's "favorite dictator," who is not known for respecting civil liberties.

If the AU is to gain legitimacy in the eyes of African citizens, it must prove it exists not for the well-padded political and business elite, but to speak the truth when one of its members violates the founding principles of the AU.

Read more: Cameroon is still a far cry from peace

Cameroon deserves more than the slap on the wrist delivered in a 2018 AU resolution. Diplomats know there is a difference between hand-wringing resolutions urging Cameroon to respect human rights, and exerting genuine, sustained pressure on President Biya behind closed doors.

The only way forward for Cameroon is through inclusive peace negotiations between the government and both moderate and extremist Anglophone voices.

The AU summit — whose 2020 theme is "Silencing the Guns" for development —should make it clear to the Cameroonian government and the armed separatist groups that there will be consequences if they refuse to participate in the proposed Swiss-led peace talks, and the upcoming Africa Forum symposium as well.

If the AU's African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights is to mean anything, it must apply to a situation like Cameroon's.

Co-authored by Felix Agbor Nkongho from the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa and Rebecca Tinsley of Global Campaign for Peace and Justice in Cameroon, UK branch.