Conflict in Cameroon: EU and African partners should not count on France

12 June 2019   ·   Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle

European and African partners should not wait for France to move diplomatically to address the growing crisis in Cameroon. Rather, they should foster an international debate from which Paris will not be able to hide.

In October 2018, my friend was on the phone with a relative located in a village in the Anglophone, north-west region of Cameroon. We were in Douala, the country’s economic center, located not too far to the south. Suddenly, we heard the relative breathing loudly into the phone. She had started running with her children after hearing gunshots. She called back later when she was safe – hiding in a forest.

I’ve visited Cameroon regularly for the past 20 years, but never did I imagine I would bear distant witness to such a traumatic scene. Despite introducing a multi-party system, the country’s regime has been careful not to open up. Nevertheless, Cameroon is generally regarded as a haven of peace – one where large numbers of children attend school, intellectuals debate passionately, and families work hard on their farms.

So far, Western diplomats seemed as afraid of the regime as some of its citizens

It has now been more than a year since the Anglophone regions of Cameroon faced a cycle of insurgency and repression that left close to two thousand dead and displaced half a million people. This internal crisis has thus far garnered very little attention from external observers. For a long time, Cameroon’s politicians have gotten by via clever duplicity – selling the country’s image as a peaceful haven, thereby emphasizing its importance to Western and Eastern partners, while simultaneously attacking these same partners as soon as they dare comment on the regime’s actions. This “extroverted nationalism,” as it could be dubbed, has proven an invaluable asset for the Cameroonian regime. It knows how to attract resources, and detract criticism. Perhaps it is its status as a former territory under United Nations (UN) mandate that has rendered Cameroon so skilled at playing its cards and getting its way in international organizations.

The “informal discussion” on the humanitarian situation in Cameroon held on May 13th by the UN Security Council is optimistically unprecedented and a sign of a true concern by some countries about the dramatic situation in the country. Until then, it had seemed that Western diplomats were nearly as afraid of the Cameroonian regime as some of its citizens. Few had been taking public stands against the regularly flawed electoral process, reforms that never materialized, waste of aid, and more.

The US, UK, Germany and the UN have slowly become more critical

Among Cameroon’s donor countries, the United States (US) has historically been the most vocal. In 1992, for example, the US stopped its aid to the regime after what it labeled a flawed election. But this position did not remain consistent – especially after 2001. Only recently did the US revive its critical stance: Members of Congress as well as the State Department have asked the Cameroonian government to hold its army accountable for its actions. The US also led the group at the UN Security Council that pushed for an informal discussion on Cameroon.

The United Kingdom (UK) has also become more critical. Despite its history as a former colonial power, the UK does not have a strong presence in Cameroon, apart from a small involvement of the Commonwealth organization. As the first colonial power to step foot in what is now Cameroon, Germany was, until a few years ago, present as a trading partner and seen by the local population as a “fair” colonizer as compared to its successors. Berlin recently adopted a more political stance on the situation in Cameroon, pushed by members of its parliament.

Multilateral bodies have been constrained by all these divergent interests, as well as by their own. The UN, for example, has a regional headquarters in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. The European Union (EU) is the most important aid donor in the country. Its political representatives have voiced concern throughout the last few months, after another crisis compounded the unrest brought about by the already dire Anglophone crisis: In January 2019, the main political opponent of President Paul Biya, Maurice Kamto, was imprisoned with more than a hundred of his followers following a demonstration.

Since the explicit internationalization of the Cameroonian situation at the UNSC on May 13th, the “international community” has adopted a stronger stance. All of the powers at play point the finger at France, Cameroon’s former colonial power and a close ally to the postcolonial regime, for failing to exercise its influence on President Biya to mitigate the crisis.

French diplomacy in Cameroon has failed

Both in public and private conversations, French diplomats emphasize that their influence on Cameroon stems from the direct connection that they maintain with President Biya – and that any public move or condemnation of the regime would undermine this special relationship. They argue that quiet diplomacy behind closed doors is the most efficient tool they have. Discrete signs of warning are said to have come from President Macron, who called his counterpart twice, saying he was “worried”; the communiqué released after the October 2018 presidential elections did not congratulate the President, but the Cameroonian people. French diplomats reportedly pushed for a complete overhaul of the government, as well as the establishment of a framework for negotiations between the two conflict parties. According to a journalist from Le Monde (March 15, 2019), those attempts were met with contempt by the regime. It simply never responded.

It is fair to say that French diplomacy has failed. It was bound to fail. Much of this inevitable futility can be traced back to the French frame of analysis about Cameroon, which has always been about curating a special relationship under threat that should not be abandoned. That remained the case even as French economic interests in the country decreased significantly. French diplomats are very skeptical when the “Françafrique” paradigm is used to describe their actions: This term should not be used to describe a confusion of private and political interests, but the idea that the special relationships between France and francophone Africa should be maintained at all costs. The “pré carré” (“our backyard”) reflex seems to remain strong.

A second reason why the current French diplomacy towards Cameroon will continue to fall short is because it is simply not very high on France’s agenda in Africa. French intervention in the Sahel region absorbs the attention of the Africa section of the French diplomatic service, as well as that of the critics in the public sphere.

European and African partners should put pressure on France 

Only a concerted action by European and concerned African states could increase much needed attention at the UN, which is the most neutral platform available to mediate the conflict and the only one with some legitimacy in Cameroon. Some efforts have been made to alert the UN bureaucracy, which is working hard on the humanitarian side. At the level of the UN Secretary General and some permanent members of the Security Council, political will seems to be gradually increasing. But European and African partners should not count on or wait for France to make a move. They should foster an international debate from which it won’t be able to hide. The nomination of a new French Ambassador in Cameroon, as well as some public concerns expressed by the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, might be a first sign that France might join this discussion soon.

Sub-Sahara Afrika Frieden & Sicherheit

Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle

Dr. Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle is senior lecturer at the University Paris 1- Panthéon Sorbonne. From 2014 to 2018 she was the director of the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA), in Nairobi.