Cameroon: A House Divided

Cameroon: A House Divided

Conflict has riddled Cameroon for the last two and a half years. Over this period, the government has continued to battle Boko Haram in the North. It has also focused on cracking down on Anglophone separatists in the West. Finally, the government has also wrestled with political tensions in the capital, Yaoundé. Despite heavy unrest, the government has yet to face enough economic and political backlash to change its heavy-handed approach. 


Cameroon has long been described as ‘Africa in miniature’. This is because it embodies the geographic, ethnic and cultural diversity of the continent within its borders. With its location at the intersection of West and Central Africa, Cameroon exhibits all the region’s major climates and topography. It is also rich in natural resources and vegetation. Despite the cultural diversity of over 240 ethnic groups and even more indigenous languages, Cameroon has enjoyed relative peace and stability. However, a history of colonisation by Britain and France has created a dichotomy between Cameroon’s two main languages and cultures. Consequently, this has developed into the marginalisation of the minority Anglophone population.   

The roots of the crisis stem from colonialism. This mainly involved the historical separation of the Anglophone and Francophone regions of Cameroon. The said separation came before either region became independent, respectively from Britain in 1961 and France in 1960. Following the unification of the country, the lawmakers proceeded with establishing a federal system. However, this was subsequently suppressed in 1972 when the country’s first president, French-speaking Amadou Ahidjo, amended the constitution in favor of a centralised state. Since then, the Anglophone minority, which makes up roughly 20% of the country’s 24 million population, has battled successive governments for greater autonomy. 

Current state of affairs

The latest round of protests began in late 2016 when English-speaking teachers and legal practitioners led peaceful protests against long-standing discrimination by the majority Francophone government. The government’s heavy-handed response generated rapid rise to radicalism. The said radicalism came within a moderate movement seeking greater autonomy for the Anglophone regions in the Northwest and Southwest. The conflict has now escalated to deadly clashes between armed separatists and government forces. This has led to an estimated 1,850 killed, 530,000 internally displaced, 600,000 children out of school, and hundreds of protesters detained. This includes opposition leader Maurice Kamto.

The government’s use of internet blackouts, arson attacks and excessive violence against the uprising has been met with feeble economic and political backlash. Yaoundé will continue to be dismissive of human rights condemnation and defiant against making substantive concessions until it feels persuasive economic or political pressure. 

The economy swings in the government’s favour 

Cameroon Map

Cameroon Map – CIA World Factbook

Current analysis and speculations have not completed a thorough assessment of the conflict’s economic impact yet. However, reports from the World Bank, EIU and the Groupement Inter-patronal du Cameroun (GICAM) paint the agricultural sector as the hardest hit by the crisis because the region is a major producer of cocoa and coffee. The displacement of persons have contributed to a decline of Cameroon’s main non-oil commodity exports. Road blockages and disruptions in cross border trade with Nigeria have equally accompanied this, adding greater economic strain.

Cocoa and coffee exports saw an annual decrease of 28% and 26% respectively as of the end of September 2018 because of farmers have fled the region. For example, the country’s second largest employer, agro-industrial giant Cameroon Development Corporation, announced that more than half of their 20,000 employees cannot work because of the insecurity. Beyond the agricultural sector, overall business, tax revenue and tourism in the region has been affected by blackout days imposed by separatists seeking to demonstrate the regions’ economic importance.

While the region’s’ economic contribution to Cameroon’s economy has declined, the overall domestic effects have been fairly contained. Between 2017 and 2018, the government adjusted spending as a percentage of GDP by lowering non-wage recurrent spending and domestically financed capital expenditures, and slowing disbursements on externally financed public investment projects. Total revenue increased from 15% to 15.5% of GDP due to higher oil prices and tax administration measures supported under an IMF program. Consequently, the fiscal deficit halved from 4.9 to 2.4%. Moreover, inflation remained low and stable. The currency risk also continued to be minimal due to the French Treasury’s guarantee of the CFA franc. At the same time, official reserves remained virtually unchanged. 

More problems on the horizon

Following two years of slowdown, growth rebounded to 4% in 2018. This is largely because of construction activity related to Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) preparations. Simultaneously, increases in natural gas production have further contributed towards more growth. Speculations, however, share conflicting predictions. On the one hand, the World Bank believes export receipts will continue to decline in the short-term. On the other hand, there are expectations for the GDP growth rate to reach 4.2% in 2019. Both the World Bank and IMF project favorable medium-term prospects due to projected oil production, continued construction of infrastructure projects, and the coming on stream of large energy and transport projects, currently outside of direct impact of the crisis.

According to Control Risks, there has been a limit over how much the insurgency can expand into the country. This is because of the geographic and demographic nature of the conflict itself. Because of its ethnic dimensions, spectators have equally seen the crisis as an Anglophone cause. As a result, this has not generated widespread solidarity among the majority Francophone population. Therefore, this has led to minimal spread of the crisis towards the capital, Yaounde and the commercial hub, Douala.

Additionally, the government has heavily cracked down on attempts to spread protests in Douala, Yaounde and other cities. This has been strategic given the large threats posed by a heavy expansion of the insurgency to Oil & Gas areas around the town of Limbe, or the targeting of main roads linking Limbe to Douala, the major port city.

International pressure: Slow and temperate

The world’s response to the Anglophone crisis has been temperate, only intensifying recently. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Cameroon during the first week of May. This was particularly significant. For the first time since the start of the conflict, a high-level UN Human Rights official decided to visit. Likewise, the UN Security Council held its first (informal) session on Cameroon on May 13th of this year. One month prior, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the country’s human rights abuses and urging the government to begin inclusive dialogue.

Notably, Cameroon was named the most neglected crisis of 2018 by the Norweigan Refugee Council (NRC); and the NRC’s Secretary General strongly condemned the longstanding silence of the international community in a statement to the UN Secretary Council in May 2019. The Executive Director for Africa at Human Rights Watch also spoke out against the neglect of the international community in June 2019.

Western countries such as Germany, Canada and the UK have condemned the violence and called for dialogue. However, none have called for sanctions. The closest measure to sanctions came in February of this year when the US announced that it would cut military aid to Cameroon amid concerns over human rights violations. Unsurprisingly, Cameroon’s main ally, France, has distanced itself from overly criticising President Biya. 

Regional responses

African nations have also been careful in their criticism of President Biya. The African Union (AU) has not been able to intervene decisively. Instead, it has called for dialogue whilst reaffirming its “unwavering commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of Cameroon”.

Similar to the AU, Nigeria has been less inclined to put pressure on Yaoundé due to fear of its own separatist movements in Biafra and its need of Biya’s government as a key partner in the fight against Boko Haram. Where the continent has demonstrated a decisive stance against Cameroon has come in the form of football. This is because Cameroon was stripped of hosting the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations tournament partly because of the insecurity. 

A sustainable solution not within reach 

Separatist tactics of economic strikes, school boycotts and violence against alleged government sympathisers have yet to force Yaoundé to make concessions regarding the region’s autonomy. Hits to agricultural production have not offset the growth momentum. The said momentum, underpinned by major infrastructure projects and increases in natural gas production, resides outside the crisis’ reach. The IMF continues to execute its three-year Facility while the World Bank also continues to implement its robust portfolio in the country. International condemnation has picked up with the UN’s visitation to the region. The Security Council also held its first meeting in May 2019. However, this meeting took about two years to occur. Consequently, international pressure far lacks substance, such as applying sanctions and other restrictions.

On June 27, 2019, the Swiss government announced efforts to facilitate a resolution to the crisis through a dialogue process. This proposal follows an unsuccessful attempt for inclusive dialogue by local religious leaders in 2018. The likelihood of some form of dialogue is closer than it has been before because of international attention in recent months. As it stands, two preparatory meetings have taken place. However, it is unlikely that these discussions will result in a sustainable solution in the short term. This is largely due to President Biya’s tight hold of the state machinery, including the national media, Supreme Court and National Assembly. 

What to expect

Undoubtedly, the Anglophone crisis will hinder Cameroon’s long-term potential. However, exports and activities currently outside of direct impact of the Anglophone conflict underpin the country’s medium growth forecast. This has strengthened the government’s heavy-handed response. It is difficult to see how the present landscape will incentivise the government to make significant concessions. This refers to both the economic and political implications in the short term.

External factors and actors need to introduce additional measures, in order to change Cameroon’s medium term growth trajectory. Additional international pressure needs to force Biya’s hand into pursuing a different strategy. As such, this may contribute towards averting catastrophe and the continuation of the conflict. Unless such action is taken, there is little chance of a sustainable solution arising in the short term.

Categories: Africa, Economics

About Author

Afua Entsuah

Afua is an analyst focused on geopolitical risk in Sub-Saharan Africa. She holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School, and has experience working for a multinational conglomerate and a multilateral organization in Africa.