The October election in Cameroon, in which long-serving octogenarian President Paul Biya retained power to extend his 36-year rule by another seven years, was marred by allegations of fraud, intimidation and low voter turnout.
Nationally, only 54% of registered voters turned up. And in the volatile Anglophone region a paltry 10% cast their vote. Most people boycotted or were forced to do so by the militias who have taken up arms to secede, whereas others demanded a change of governance structure. The main opposition political formations have rejected the results of the “sham” election and are challenging Biya’s legitimacy.
If the situation in the Anglophone region is anything to go by, Biya’s new term is extraordinary and will require substantive shifts and political brinkmanship to bring the country back from the precipice.
But why does a country with such huge economic potential risk becoming another basket case in Africa? A quick historical voyage is necessary to explain this.
The world recently commemorated the centenary of the end of World War I in France on November 11. Cameroon was one of the spoils of war for the victorious allied powers. The defeat of Germany in 1918, being the geographical home of the crime of colonialism when Otto von Bismarck hosted the 1884-85 Berlin West Africa Conference at which European potentates carved up Africa among themselves, further divided Cameroon into French and British territories under the mandate of the League of Nations.
The French took over the eastern half of the country that was formerly German territory, and the British were rewarded the land along the border of their Nigeria colony, comprising northern and southern Cameroon as well as the Ambas Bay Protectorate. When the League of Nations died a natural death with the outbreak of World War II, it was succeeded by the United Nations in 1945, which took over the mandated territories under its Trusteeship Council.
When the wind of change blew across Nigeria and Cameroon, bringing independence from colonialism, South Cameroonians debated whether to become part of either of the two or to opt for independence. A disputed UN-organised plebiscite in 1961 gave only two options, which resulted in this region becoming a federal state of Cameroon. This was followed by unilateral referendum in 1972 that replaced a federal state with a unitary state in which the largely Anglophone southern Cameroonians lost their autonomous status to become the Northwest and Southwest regions of today’s Republic of Cameroon.
This fate was sealed when the country’s name changed from the United Republic of Cameroon in 1975 and the flag was altered to remove the second golden star that was seen as representative of the “federal system”. This loss of identity and glaring exclusion renewed exigence for secession, thus calls for a new autonomous state called Ambazonia gradually became louder.
The current wave of violence pitting “separatists” against the government security apparatus is a culmination of deep-seated discontent, sparked by striking lawyers in October 2016, who were later joined by teachers.
These professionals challenged the use of French for doing official business in regions that largely speak English when the Constitution treats them as equal. Their cause has huge support from the region’s diaspora community, especially those based in the United States. The paradox of it all is witnessing a great African country going to war for the use of colonial languages in the 21st century.
Although this conflict has not attracted much regional or global attention and intervention, the threats of escalation are growing with more youth being radicalised and joining the rag-tag guerilla fighters. Yet so much violence has already been experienced, resulting in scores of deaths and injuries. More than 40 000 refugees have crossed into Nigeria and more than 160 000 have become internally displaced persons surviving on food aid from humanitarian organisations.
Mondays have been declared curfew days, which has halted travelling and schooling. Basic service delivery systems have broken down. Sadly, and as can be expected when violence breaks out, women, children and other vulnerable groups are the main victims. Cases of arson, rape, sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence have allegedly been reported.
The biggest risk of this conflict is further destabilisation of a region that already fails to contain the Boko Haram insurgency in the north of Cameroon that has affected the Lake Chad Basin, including Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Sudan. To the east, Cameroon shares a long border with the Central African Republic, which is also fragile because of the disruptive attacks by Seleka rebel groups since 2013.
With the security situation deteriorating fast, a group of courageous women has emerged.
Under the banner of Southwest and Northwest Women’s Task Force, individual women and their counterparts in civil society are mobilising and campaigning for the end of the Anglophone crisis. They are demanding a ceasefire and meaningful participation to finding sustainable peace to the violent conflict.
In a patriarchal society, their task is not easy. Besides holding press conferences and marches, recently, they have successfully mobilised thousands of women to participate in two lamentation exercises. This is a cultural practice to show extreme displeasure by publicly wailing to draw the attention of elders, particularly men, forcing them to take appropriate action.
They are also active on social media, and they keep updating and supporting each other with WhatsApp messages. Their #HearMeToo campaign of this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence campaign to end violence against women and children started much earlier. It is their daily routine. And they need everyone’s support, now.
Dr Webster Zambara is a project leader of Peacebuilding Initiatives at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. He recently spent eight days building the capacity of women mediators in Cameroon at the invitation of United Nations Women