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Cameroon: 'Risk of violence spiraling'

Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth /sst
February 6, 2018

France has condemned attacks by suspected English-speaking separatists in Cameroon that killed three policemen. Cameroon's conflict could threaten regional stability, warns Paul Melly of Chatham House.

Soldiers securing an area in Bamenda (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Image: Getty Images/AFP

DW: The West African state of Cameroon has been locked in violent crisis since 2016. The Anglophone region is accusing the Yaounde-based government of marginalization and underrepresentation, claiming they are being treated as second-class citizens. Both France and Britain who were former colonizers had remained quiet. However, last week France spoke out, condemning the killings and calling for dialogue. Why has France finally taken this step?

Paul Melly: Because the situation in Cameroon is becoming really very serious. What started off as a dispute, as a discussion about internal social services — for example, the conditions for education and the court system — has become a really dangerous situation with a risk of violence spiraling on both sides. And it could move from what you might call a disputed civil protest to a situation of really quite dangerous tension and potential conflict.

There's been no sign of a peaceful resolution. Now France is calling for dialogue, but the separatists have consistently demanded independence and even gone ahead to create a so-called Republic of Ambazonia. Just how realistic is the idea of dialogue?

I think there is still a possibility for dialogue, because there are so many elements of the Anglophone community who are interested in change or reform that falls short of independence. And on the Francophone side there are many Francophone Cameroonians who think there should be a compromise in the discussion.

It wouldn't be accurate to say that all the English speakers in Cameroon are totally committed to independence and all French speakers are totally opposed to any kind of reform.

Is this insurgency a test of President Paul Biya's 35-year rule considering that he's  currently preparing for another re-election in July this year?

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It is inevitably a test because, as you say, he's been president for three and a half decades.

So it's a question about whether he can offer the leadership that avoids Cameroon sliding into a more confrontational and dangerous situation. That has to be a test of his presidency.

So the question now will be whether the government, and himself as president on one side, and whether the range of leaders on the Anglophone side, can now find a way to unlock a road to meaningful discussion and compromise and dialogue.

France has significant business interests in its former colony and also relies on it to fight Islamic militants. Should this crisis slip into anarchy, how much of a danger would it be to France's business interests as well as to global efforts to fight terrorism?

Of course it's in the interest of French companies that are active in Cameroon that this sort of crisis should be diffused. But I think it would be wrong to think that France's main motive in trying to promote dialogue is really to protect their business interests. The real danger is a much, much bigger one - it's a question of regional stability.

Paul Melly is an analyst at the London-based think-tank Chatham House.