Cameroon: Conflict Continues in Lead-up to Elections

Cameroon: Conflict Continues in Lead-up to Elections

On February 7th, parliamentary elections will be held in Cameroon, a nation plagued by internal conflict for the last four year. The prospect of elections has seen a ramping up of tensions. There is a significant increase in violence from both the separatists in the country’s west and government forces.

The crisis in Cameroon began in 2016 when lawyers and teachers protested the increasing marginalisation of English in the Cameroonian legal and education systems. Protests increased in the scope of their demands and violence after the government’s attempt to repress them. Dozens of armed groups formed, fighting for a range of goals, from greater Anglophone autonomy within a federalised system to the creation of a new state – Ambazonia.

The fighting takes place against a backdrop of instability in the Sahel, a growing Boko Haram insurgency in the North, and a flow of refugees from the Central African Republic into Cameroon’s east. However, the most significant transnational elements fueling the conflict are Anglophone diaspora engagement and apathy of the international community. 

Diaspora mobilisation 

After the initial outbreak of civil disobedience, President Biya responded by arresting key leaders, including Paul Ayah Abine, a former member of parliament. Other significant figures, including Wilfred Tassary, a member of the powerful Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, escaped from Cameroon. Their imprisonment led to the Anglophone diaspora playing an increasingly important role in the separatist movement. 

The diaspora has served as a radicalising force in three ways. First, diaspora groups argued that the creation of Ambazonia should be the ultimate strategic goal, rather than the more moderate aim of federalism. Second, they emphasised the primacy of armed struggle. Third, they ensured that fighters on the ground in Cameroon’s west were resupplied financially and militarily. 

Key diaspora groups include the Interim Government and Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC). Ayaba Cho Lucas, the head of the AGC, is currently based in Norway. Reporting has revealed that aid workers in Cameroon must contact leaders in Europe in order to access local villages, which speaks to the power of these diaspora organisations. 

While diaspora support has strengthened and emboldened the separatist movement, this remote support is not sufficient to maintain unity and strategic cohesion on the ground. Cracks are starting to show, as the separatists turn to extortion and lose public support.  Reports suggest that the Amba Boys are engaging in kidnap-for-ransom, while other groups are no longer purely armed political groups, but also function as organised criminal groups.  

On the ground, in Cameroon, the separatists are becoming increasingly fractured, structurally and strategically. On 6 January General Divine, a rebel leader in the Meme region, was assassinated by his own men after he repeatedly ignored warnings to stop extorting and threatening the local population. Separatists forces also face waning public support as the local population complain of the insecurity the rebels have created. There have been a number of clashes reported between fighters and villagers. Ambazonian fighters, aware of the potential to extort money and supplies from locals, risk damaging relations with the local community and therefore damaging basis of a guerrilla group’s power in an asymmetric conflict.  

International involvement

International actors play a crucial role in mediating peace negotiations, ensuring commitments to peace deals are credible, and aiding in peacebuilding efforts. Yet the Anglophone crisis has been neglected by powerful regional actors and international organisations. 

Geopolitics has disincentivised other states from reproaching Biya’s government or insisting on peace negotiations. The conflict is taking place on the Cameroon-Nigeria border ,and the latter is keen for instability to be neutralised. The Nigerian government needs Cameroon’s help to combat the Boko Haram insurgency in the north of the country. Nigeria also wants to ensure that the Ambazonian rebel groups in Cameroon don’t encourage its own Biafran separatists in the south east. 

International and regional organisations have been similarly muted in their response. The African Union’s Peace and Security Council has failed to formally debate the crisis while South Africa and Equatorial Guinea blocked an official discussion in the UN Security Council.  

Russia and China, both of which maintain the power to veto UN Security Council action on Cameroon, have maintained their strict policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states. China has also become an increasingly important investor in Cameroon and wants to ensure that its relationship with the government remains strong.

However, France remains the most influential external actor. French companies remain Cameroon’s largest source of foreign direct investment and control much of the extractives sector. French conglomerates like Bollore are reported to have significant influence over the Cameroonian leadership. 

But these economic links are secondary to Cameroon’s place in France’s geopolitical and security strategy. As French military operations develop across the Sahel, Cameroon has a crucial role to play as an ally. As part of Operation Barkhane, France is conducting counter-insurgency missions across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger. While Cameroon is in relative terms a pillar of stability in the region, Boko Haram has been growing in strength in the far north of the country. 

The Anglophone crisis could stretch government resources thin, leaving them more vulnerable to a jihadist insurgency. This desire to ensure that Cameroon remains stable amid surrounding volatility means that France has tried to keep President Biya on the side and avoided public rebukes or more significant forms of pressure.


Without a significant increase in external attention, the conflict is unlikely to deescalate in the near future. The Ambazonian Military Forces have called for a 5-day lockdown of southern Cameroon during the election period and sought to intimidate politicians and voters. In December 2019, separatists kidnapped over 40 council and parliamentary candidates while on 7 January fighters burnt down an election office in the Misaje commune. 

Biya, aware that Cameroon is an important Western partner in West Africa, will continue to pursue a military response to the Anglophone crisis. The separatists, bolstered by diaspora support and able to engage in rent-seeking, will be incentivised to continue fighting. However, if the separatists become sufficiently fractured and lose a critical mass of public support, the Cameroonian military may be able to exert control back over the Anglophone territories. 

Categories: Africa, Insights

About Author

Tom Sayner

Tom holds a BSc in International Relations and a MSc in Conflict Studies from The London School of Economics. Tom specialises in the analysis of armed groups and peace processes with a regional focus on Russia, Ukraine and Central Asia. He has previously worked at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association as well as Action on Armed Violence