Cameroon: AFCON, a 40-Year Dictatorship and a Brutal Civil War

Protest against government in Cameroon

Cameroon is a country with more than 280 local languages. Yet it is the only nation to boast of French and English official bilingualism in Sub-Saharan Africa. A member of both La Francophonie and the British Commonwealth of Nations, the country just held the biggest football tournament on the continent, the African Cup of Nations (AFCON). However, Cameroon’s organisation of the AFCON was marred by building delays, scandals and massive corruption – all of which led to it being postponed from 2019 to 2022. Still, the various failings in the organisation, the empty stands in a continental tournament which in all other countries has always filled the stadia, and the questionable performance of the Cameroonian national football team, the Indomitable Lions, are just a few examples of the deep discontent in a country torn apart by a brutal civil war in its two Anglophone provinces. 

The history behind the conflict

The current AFCON host country is in the midst of a brutal civil war, at the root of which lies the division between the minority Anglophones and the majority Francophones. The sociolinguistic and political division of this former mandate territory of the League of Nations started from the post-WWI 1920s. At that time, the colonial German Kamerun was partitioned into two Cameroons, which were granted for administration to France and the United Kingdom as mandatory colonial powers. Then, in 1960, in the waves of independence from European colonial powers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Francophone Cameroon gained its independence. In 1961 followed a federation with the Anglophone territory divided in two provinces, then added to the existing French provinces to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. But in 1972, the first president of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo, engineered a referendum that was unconstitutional in relation to the 1961 federal Constitution, uniting the Francophone and Anglophone provinces to form La Republique Unie du Cameroun.

The Anglophone issue has never been properly resolved, either throughout the Ahidjo years until 1982 when he resigned and passed the power to his Prime Minister Paul Biya or throughout the 40 years of Biya’s dictatorship. Therefore, the Francophone/Anglophone cohabitation has always been a major point of socio-political discontent.

When some Anglophones marched to demand autonomy from the Francophone central government in 2017, more than 20 peaceful protesters were shot and over 500 arbitrarily detained. From then, the protests have escalated into a full civil war over the last five years.

An under-reported civil war

It is primarily in its two Anglophone regions that the country is in civil war (dubbed in French La guerre du NO/SO), making the current crisis the worst consequence of what is known as ‘the Anglophone problem’ in Cameroon. This socio-political ‘problem’ manifests itself through inequitable political power sharing; economic misallocations of regional resources; the quest for post-colonial recognition and validation of the ‘Anglo-Saxon culture’ claimed by Anglophones; and a preservation of administrative and educational practices that marked the emergence of the British Southern Cameroons and their Anglophone identity.

The NO/SO civil war has now become one of the most under-reported conflicts in Africa in recent years. And the global media and audience are still somehow struggling to grasp the scope and negative impact of this civil war and the humanitarian crisis in Cameroon during AFCON, and the continuing grip of the Biya dictatorial regime on the country.

Before the NO/SO conflict started in 2016, Cameroon was billed as one the most peaceful countries in Africa. The Biya regime has been in totalitarian power for the last 40 years, and oddly enough, not as a military regime, but as a civilian regime.

It is baffling that the international media are not bringing enough attention to the NO/SO war, especially when, as early as 2018, the United Nations (UN) declared the country to be in a full humanitarian crisis. At the time, the international observers were hoping that this would be the first step toward a stronger presence of the UN, and possibly their Peacekeepers, to intervene in Cameroon in order to reduce the bloodshed and the killing and torture of civilians in the warring regions. Four years later, things have only worsened, and there is no international intervention in sight.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and ranking countries based on three criteria – namely the lack of political will on both the part of in-state and international actors, the lack of media attention, and the lack of international aid – Cameroon has consistently topped the list of the 10 most neglected humanitarian displacement crises in Africa today. 

On the ground, the assessment of the situation is worrying and very dire. As of 2021, the political and humanitarian crisis in the North West and South-West regions of the country has been deteriorating. There’s been over 5000 deaths, more than 1,000,000 internally displaced persons, more than 60,000 refugees in Nigeria, more than 5 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and already at least five years of education lost for school children. Back in March 2020, UNICEF, the UN’s children’s fund, estimated that more than 855,000 children remained out of school in the Anglophone regions, where 80% of schools were still closed.

And to all that, one needs to add that the current Covid-19 pandemic is still raging in Cameroon.

Recent reports have emerged that the UK is spending taxpayers’ money supporting Cameroon’s military BIR unit which is implicated in gross human rights abuses against civilians in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon. “Declassified UK” reports that the UK provides training to the BIR units and has built a training facility at Salak.

The BIR is notorious for its use of abuse, torture, and deadly force against civilians in the North West, South West and Far North regions of Cameroon. Amnesty International, Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and other reputable, impartial human rights watchdogs all agree that BIR is implicated in human rights abuses against civilians.

The British government’s intentions may be to support the BIR in the Far North in its anti-terrorist operations against Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa. However, because the BIR and its resources are being diverted from the Far North to the Anglophone regions, their reckless behaviour only increases insecurity and resentment toward the government of President Paul Biya. In other words, the BIR’s actions are counter-productive and in breach of international humanitarian law.

Abuse of human rights and crackdown on political opposition 

In January 2019, and again in September 2020, more than 500 activists from the leading opposition party, the Movement for the Renaissance of Cameroon (MRC), were arbitrarily arrested and detained without charges. Many of them have been given lengthy jail sentences, after being summarily tried by military tribunals, when they are civilians. This procedure is contrary to international human rights law.

The crackdown against the MRC members earned Biya criticism from civil rights organisations and UN human rights experts, who have complained about these unlawful mass arrests of peaceful protesters and political activists who express dissent. More than 100 activists from the MRC opposition party remain in detention, Amnesty said recently.

Further reading

Caxton, A. S. (2017). The Anglophone dilemma in Cameroon: The need for comprehensive dialogue and reform. Conflict Trends, 2.

Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa & Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. (2019, June 3). Cameroon’s unfolding catastrophe: Evidence of human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

Database of Atrocities of the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis (University of Toronto): https://research.rotman.utoronto.ca/Cameroon/ 

International Crisis Group. (2019, May 2). Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis: How to get to talks. International Crisis Group, Africa Report Nº272, 1-38.

International Crisis Group. (2019, September 26). Cameroon’s Anglophone dialogue: A work in progress. International Crisis Group.

Norwegian Refugee Council. (2019, June 4). Cameroon tops list of most neglected displacement crises.

Dr Seraphin Kamdem is a Lecturer in African Studies in the Section of African Languages, Cultures and Literatures at SOAS, University of London.

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