This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

Anglophone Cameroon has been under curfew for most of the past two years. Fighting between armed separatists and government forces in the administrative regions of Southwest and Northwest began in 2017 and intensified in 2018 ahead of the October presidential elections.

The Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF), the military wing of the separatist movement, waged a series of hit-and-run attacks against the Cameroonian Armed Forces, after Yaoundé cracked down on a wave of peaceful protests demanding political representation and cultural rights for the Anglophone minority.

As a result of the clashes, more than 2,000 people have reportedly been killed, with extra-judicial killings and kidnappings taking place on a daily basis in the run-up to the election. Caught between government reprisals and militia intimidation, civilians have fled their homes and dozens of villages have been burnt. According to a report published by the UN in May, at least 160,000 people have been internally displaced, while over 20,000 have been registered as refugees in Nigeria.

Guerrilla tactics

Armed with hunting rifles, small guns and knives, the ADF uses guerrilla tactics to challenge a well-equipped and highly sophisticated army, trained by France and the United States.

Government troops retain control of the main urban centres, while the ADF operates in villages and remote territories, where soldiers are fewer and poor road infrastructure limits the direct reach of the state. Government operations have, however, severely disrupted the ADF chain of command, forcing it to operate in a more clandestine fashion.

As a result, it is now unclear who is in charge of the separatist forces. To complicate the dynamics of the violence on the ground, other armed groups operate in the same areas, some with criminal affiliations and others loosely linked to the ADF.

Why this matters

Cameroon is a key member of the Multinational Joint Task Force fighting the Boko Haram insurgency in its northernmost region, squeezed between Nigeria to the West and Chad to the East, and contributes just over 1,000 troops to MINUSCA, the UN’s stabilization mission in the Central African Republic (CAR).

It hosts nearly 300,000 refugees from the CAR in its impoverished eastern region. This area is also on a key cattle-trafficking route through the porous and insecure border, where the humanitarian emergency offers a fertile recruiting ground for Boko Haram and increases the likelihood of a southern expansion of the farmer–herder conflict from the Lake Chad Basin.

Any escalation of the conflict in the south would inevitably stretch even the well-funded and well-trained Cameroonian army, and thus compromise regional efforts to mitigate militant jihadism, and to enhance border security and peacekeeping.

Reports of human-rights violations by Cameroonian Armed Forces against local populations have already tainted the success of the operation against Boko Haram. The harsh suppression of separatist activities (both peaceful and violent alike) in southern Cameroon suggests that the government’s response to dissent is unlikely to change soon. The lead-up to the October election triggered more violence, with separatists seeking to enforce a boycott and government troops aiming to quash their armed challenge.

Presidential elections

The presidential elections held on 7 October returned octogenarian Paul Biya to his seventh term in office. Having been president since 1982, and prime minister from 1975 to 1982, Biya won with 71.3% of the vote. He was so confident in the eventual outcome that he seldom left his residence to take part in the election campaign. This task was instead entrusted to Prime Minister Philemon Yang, who is also responsible for convening the Council of Ministers’ meetings. Biya’s leadership approach, together with his habit of vacationing in Switzerland, earned him the moniker of ‘absentee president’.

He did complete one important piece of electoral preparation, though. In March 2018, he appointed 11 new members to the Constitutional Council, the body responsible for adjudicating electoral disputes, which dutifully rejected 18 petitions put forward by the opposition calling for a re-run, citing widespread fraud, such as vote-buying, ballot-box stuffing and falsification.

International observers had too limited a presence on the ground to provide a comprehensive assessment. Nonetheless, the African Union reported that a precarious security situation prevented voters from reaching the polls. Official figures have not been released, but turnout was low – around 55% across the whole country and 5–15% in the Anglophone areas. The number of Cameroonians able to exercise their right to vote was already low – due to bureaucratic shortcomings only 50% of the electorate was able to register.

The Anglophone issue

There are no more legal avenues open to the opposition to contest the results. Biya’s control over the judiciary, including the Supreme Court and the Electoral Commission, means that elections are merely a tool to consolidate his power rather than a way to challenge it. In Anglophone Cameroon, contestation is even more restricted and simmering discontent eventually turned violent.

The administrative regions of Southwest and Northwest Cameroon host 16% of the country’s population (or four million of the country’s total of 24 million inhabitants) and play an important role in the national economy, with vibrant agricultural and commercial sectors, and most of the country’s off-shore oil.

The two regions were part of the larger British Cameroon in colonial times and joined newly independent, federal Cameroon in 1961 after a referendum. From 1972, however, various constitutional reforms rolled back the promises of more autonomy, and turned Cameroon into a unitary and highly centralised state. Its Anglophone minority has been politically, economically and culturally marginalised ever since. Its efforts to push back against this discrimination have been met with a mix of repression and denial, as well as elite co-optation.

In late 2016, what began as sectoral grievances by Anglophone lawyers, teachers and students morphed into increasingly articulated political demands, in turn leading to strikes, riots, internet shutdowns and ‘ghost town’ protests. A brutal police response, including sexual violence and looting, escalated the unrest. Though Anglophone Cameroonians have differing claims – from more representation in a unitary state to all-out secession – the government responds similarly to all, with many non-violent opponents incarcerated, and freedom of expression and assembly greatly curtailed. This approach has given ammunition to the radicals in the separatist movement, leading the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front to declare the new independent state of Ambazonia on 1 October 2017.

Looking ahead

Violence decreased significantly in the immediate aftermath of the election due to massive military deployments across the country. There are nonetheless worrisome signsthat it might revert to pre-election levels soon. A durable solution to the conflict must address its causes, not its symptoms.

The Catholic Church and France have the most leverage to bring the current violence to a peaceful end. The Church is well regarded by different communities in Cameroon and some of its prominent members, such as the Archibishop of Bamenda, are vocal supporters of a peaceful resolution, including a national dialogue. With strong historical and commercial ties, France has yet to wield its influence over Yaoundé. But it is in its interests to do so if it is to succeed in making the G5 Sahel Cross-Border Joint Force self-sufficient and in reducing its military footprint in the region. It is unlikely that any other major Western power will have any appetite for getting involved.

Within the region, the record of conflict-resolution initiatives is mixed. The Gambia experience offers a successful blueprint, but other regional governments seem to prefer a model of politics as usual, as in the case of Equatorial Guinea.

Why Cameroon’s conflict matters for regional security, Francesca Grandi, the International Institute for Strategic Studies