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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Separatism in Cameroon is of its government's own making

Too often resource-rich regions are denied their share of investment and support

A soldier prepares for elections in Buea, southwestern Cameroon. Marco Longari / AFP 
A soldier prepares for elections in Buea, southwestern Cameroon. Marco Longari / AFP 

Octobers are notoriously fraught in Cameroon. In that month in 2016, teachers and lawyers in the country’s marginalised English-speaking regions protested against the imposition of French in their schools and courts.

In October 2017, thousands of Anglophone Cameroonians took to the streets to declare independence of a new country they called “Ambazonia”. The resulting crackdown overseen by President Paul Biya, who at 85 has ruled for 36 years, claimed the lives of at least 420 civilians, 175 military and police officers and countless separatist fighters.

And today, voters went to polls in a nation listed by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt on earth. Mr Biya hopes to secure his seventh term as president and, with a divided opposition and little hope of a fair process, few expect him to lose.

Among Cameroon’s myriad problems, rising separatism in Anglophone regions is the most pressing. Ever since the country was united in 1972 following years of split British and French rule, Anglophones – who comprise a fifth of the population – have complained of marginalisation and oppression. The heavy hand with which governmental security forces have greeted their protests has only fuelled their cause.

And while the violence is largely between English-speaking militants and Francophone-led security forces, innocent civilians have been swept up in it. To date, more than 300,000 have been forced from their homes, many fleeing to neighbouring Nigeria.

With little animosity between the Francophone and Anglophone communities themselves, this conflict is politically driven. Behind it is the state’s acknowledgement that the resources in Anglophone soil are central to Cameroon’s economic survival – and its determination to retain them.

This scenario exists across the world, from Khuzestan in Iran and Basra in Iraq to the Niger Delta. Often the regions whose resources buttress national wealth are denied much-needed investment and support.

There is more to a nation than its resources and it is the duty of governments to ensure all are given an equal stake in society.

In truth, the only destiny that appears to matter to Mr Biya is his own. But while today's election may not be fair, it must occur without bloodshed. Because when governments mistreat minorities, separatists are emboldened, and all citizens suffer.