U.S. Reactions to Recent Developments in Cameroon

Over the last several years, Cameroon, a country of 15.7 million people on the west coast of Africa, has been engaged in armed conflict between its central government, which is controlled by the population’s 2/3 majority of Francophones (French-speaking people), and the minority Anglophones (English-speaking people).[1]

As covered in a prior post, in a September 10 speech Cameroon President Paul Biya called for a National Dialogue about the conflict between the country’s Anglophones and Francophones. Here we will examine U.S. actions and statements about Cameroon this year, before and after that speech.

State Department Statements About Cameroon [2]

Surprisingly for this blogger, the State Department has not issued any statement, pro or con, on the Biya speech or the National Dialogue. Instead, the Department, before and after the speech, has issued negative comments about the country other than the brief congratulations on its National Day on May 20 while also noting that the U.S. “supports the people of Cameroon, and remains committed to working with Cameroonians to strengthen democracy, governance, human rights, and rule of law.”

On February 6, 2019, the U.S. suspended certain military aid to Cameroon because of alleged human rights abuses by the country’s security forces. The Department said, “The reason for this action was concern over alleged human rights abuses by the country’s security forces. We do not take these measures lightly, but we will not shirk from reducing assistance further if evolving conditions require it. We emphasize that it is in Cameroon’s interest to show greater transparency in investigating credible allegations of gross violations of human rights security forces, particularly in the Northwest, Southwest, and Far North Regions.”

On April 9, 2019, Cameroon was included in a general Department Media Note about Updates to Safety and Security Messaging for U.S. Travelers, which stated that its public Travel Advisories for Cameroon and some other countries had “added a new risk indicator [K] to our public Travel Advisories in order to communicate more clearly to U.S. citizens the risks of kidnapping and hostage taking by criminal and terrorist actors around the world.”

On July 9, 2019, the Department publicly designated Cameroon’s Inspector General of the Cameroonian Gendarmerie, Colonel Jean Claude Ango Ango, due U.S. to his involvement in significant corruption related to wildlife trafficking. Pursuant to a federal statute, the Colonel and his wife were ineligible for entry into the U.S.

And on October 31, President Trump announced that effective January 1, the U.S. would suspend Cameroon’s participation in a U.S. preferential trade program because “the Government of Cameroon currently engages in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. . . . Despite intensive engagement between the United States and the Government of Cameroon, Cameroon has failed to address concerns regarding persistent human rights violations being committed by Cameroonian security forces.  These violations include extrajudicial killings, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and torture.”

An individual, perhaps with Cameroonian connections (Joel Ademisoye), registered objections to this U.S. suspension of that country’s eligibility for certain trade benefits. He said, “interestingly and unfortunately, President Trump has weaponized and turned the [African Growth and Opportunity Act] AGOA into an economic instrument to intervene, ameliorate and solve a political crisis in Cameroon.” This is “an inappropriate way to address a volatile political issue that centers on historic, cultural and linguistic fault lines in Cameroon. Preventing Cameroon access to the U.S. market would have significant negative effects on the powerless and poor in Cameroon.” Instead, he opines, “Mr. Trump should restrict the supply of military weapons to and ban assistance for police training to the Biya administration because of its effective employment of the country’s security forces to oppress, subjugate and kill the Anglophone people in Cameroon and deny them their human rights.”

 U.S. Embassy in Cameroon [3]

On October 1, the U.S. Embassy issued its only statement regarding the National Dialogue, which was mentioned in President Biya’s speech. It was made to clarify the role of the U.S. in Cameroon’s National Dialogue by saying the U.S. “is a neutral observer of the process and, while we have offered to play a role in identifying an eventual solution, we would need to be asked by both sides before taking on this role. The United States remains a committed partner and friend of Cameroon.  Our desire is for all Cameroonians to live in peace.  The Embassy urges all involved in the conflict in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest to abjure further violence and enter into an open-ended dialogue.”

The Embassy also has made the following comments on some of the continued unrest in the country.

  • On October 5, the Embassy welcomed Cameroon’s “decision to drop charges against Maurice Kamto and other members and supporters of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) arrested following election protests earlier this year.  Their release from prison today is a constructive step toward relieving political tensions and affirming the government’s commitment to respect for fundamental freedoms.  We hope further measures will be taken in the wake of the recently concluded National Dialogue, leading to the restoration of peace in the Northwest and Southwest Regions.”
  • On October 11, the Embassy condemned “the horrific late September aggravated assault, murder, and beheading of a female prison official and mother of three in the Northwest Region of Cameroon.  We extend our deepest condolences to her surviving family. We urge the authorities to undertake a thorough and balanced investigation of this and other atrocities and bring the perpetrators to a fair and transparent trial.”“More violence is not the answer.  We call on both sides to the conflict in the Northwest and Southwest to abjure further violence and to enter into an open-ended dialogue without pre-conditions.”
  • On November 12, it was a “Demonstration Alert” about “the potential for demonstrations and unrest related to a reported ban on motorcycle taxis in certain areas within Yaoundé.  There is currently a heightened law enforcement presence at roundabouts and other intersections throughout the city.”
  • On November 20, it was a “Security Alert,” which stated, “S. citizens in the North and Far North Regions of Cameroon should take all necessary precaution to prevent attacks, kidnappings, or other associated actions by terrorist groups seeking to retaliate for the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.   The Embassy reminds U.S. citizens that our April 9, 2019, Travel Advisory for Cameroon advises no travel to these regions due to the threat of crime, kidnapping, and terrorism.”

In addition, the U.S. Embassy has made the following recent positive comments about the country that say or suggest the U.S. was still supporting the Cameroon government.[5]

  • On September 26, the Embassy published U.S. remarks congratulating Cameroon on “the many successes of the PREDICT 2 project, funded by the United States government.  This project is just one of the many ways that the United States is partnering every day with Cameroon for a healthy, prosperous, and peaceful future for the people of this country.”
  • On October 17, the U.S. Ambassador presented self-help and refugee awards to seven Cameroonians. He emphasized that the U.S. “is a committed partner to all Cameroonians who are striving to improve the governance, prosperity, peace, and health of their fellow citizens. . . . We know that it is Cameroonians who will bring sustainable solutions to the critical problems of their country.”
  • On October 18, the U.S. Ambassador awarded “over 42 million FCFA to seven Cameroonian organizations working for the development, health, and prosperity of their communities” as “an example of the [U.S.] commitment to its partnership with Cameroon.”
  • On October 20, the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon gave a speech in Yaoundé (the country’s capitol) congratulating Cameroon and certain other African countries for progress in fighting the disease of meningitis.
  • On October 24, the Embassy welcomed the “voluntary return” of groups of refugees to the neighboring country of the Central African Republic (CAR) and congratulated the “governments of Cameroon and [CAR and ] UN High Commissioner of Refugees “for their cooperation and goodwill.” The U.S. “is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance in Cameroon, having contributed over $87 million since 2018 to humanitarian actors to provide food, water, shelter, and other services benefitting refugees and other vulnerable populations.  We encourage other countries to contribute more to the urgent needs of refugees and vulnerable populations in Cameroon in a way that supports progress toward stability, good governance, and self-reliance. We recognize the hospitality of the government of the Republic of Cameroon and of the Cameroonian people in continuing to host more than 400,000 refugees from neighboring countries.  Protecting the rights of refugees and ensuring they have access to jobs and education for their children is fundamental.”
  • On October 30, the Embassy congratulated Cameroon on the first international certification of a blood bank in the country.
  • On October 31, the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon released a statement expressing deep sadness over “the loss of life, destruction of homes, and displacement of people due to floods and landslides in the neighborhood of Gouache near the West Region’s capital city of Bafoussam.  We convey our deepest condolences to the families of those who have died or been injured and to the Government of Cameroon.  The United States expresses its solidarity with the people of the West region and stands ready to work with the regional and national authorities as they respond to the humanitarian needs resulting from this natural disaster.”
  • On November 1, the U.S. Embassy released a statement about the previously mentioned U.S. decision to terminate certain trade benefits for the country as of January 1, 2020. But its headline was “U.S. Commitment to Cameroon Remains Strong Despite Change in AGOA Status.” The statement itself said the U.S. remains “committed to working with Cameroon to [meet the criteria for that trade status]. In 2018, Cameroon exported roughly $220 million in goods and services to the United States; $63 million was exported under AGOA, over 90 percent of which was crude petroleum.  The United States is a committed partner and friend of Cameroon, and we will continue to pursue robust and diverse commercial ties, working with other tools at our disposal toward realizing the enormous potential of this relationship for our mutual prosperity and economic growth.”

Conclusion

The difference in the messaging of the State Department and the Embassy is striking. While it is easy to understand the Embassy’s desire to maintain good relations with the country, this blogger finds it unusual that this messaging was not repeated or endorsed by the Department.

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[1] See generally List of Posts to dwkcommentareis—Topical: CAMEROON.

[2] State Dep’t, Cameroon’s National Days National Day (May 20, 2019); U.S. Announces Suspension of Military Aid to Cameroon, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 7, 2019); U.S. Announces Suspension of Military Aid to Cameroon, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 7, 2019); State Dep’t, U.S. Department of State Announces Updates to Safety and Security Messaging for U.S. Travelers (April 9, 2019); State Dep’t, Public Designation, Due to Involvement in Significant Corruption, of the Republic of Cameroon’s Jean Claude Ango Ango (July 9, 2019); White House, Message to the Congress (Oct. 31, 2019); Paquette, Trump ends trade benefits for Cameroon over ‘persistent human rights violations,’ Wash. Post (Nov. 1, 2019; Letter to Editor from Joel Ademisoye,  Wash. Post (Nov. 6, 2019).

[3] U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: Clarification of U.S. role In Cameroon’s National Dialogue (Oct. 3, 2019); U.S. Embassy, The Charge d’Affairs’ Speech during the Closeout Ceremony of the USAID Predict Project (Sept. 26, 2019); U.S. Embassy, U.S. Embassy, Media Publishers Called to be Good Managers (Oct. 3, 2019); U.S. Embassy, Ambassador PeterBarlerin’s Remarks at the 2018 Ambassador’s Special Self-Help and Julia Taft Refugee Fund Small Grant Presentation Ceremony (Oct. 17, 2019); U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: Ambassador Awards Grants to Help Local Communities (Oct. 18, 2019);U.S. Embassy, Speech by U.S. Ambassador Peter Henry Barlerin On the occasion of the 16th Annual Meeting on Surveillance, Preparedness and Response to Meningitis (Oct. 23, 2019); U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: United States Welcomes Voluntary Return of Central African Refugees (Oct.24, 2019); U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: United States Congratulates Cameroon for Certification of Blood Bank (Oct. 30, 2019); U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: United States Condolences to Those Affected by Landslide in West Region (Oct. 31, 2019); U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: U.S. Commitment to Cameroon Remains Strong Despite Change in AGOA Status (Nov. 1, 2019).

 

Potential Breakthrough in Cameroon’s Civil War?

Since 2016 Cameroon, a country of 15.7 million people on the west coast of Africa, has been experiencing violence, and a de facto civil war, between the central government controlled by its dominant Francophone (French-speaking) citizens and its minority Anglophones (English-speaking).[1]

On September 10, 2019, there was a potential breakthrough in that conflict with a lengthy and rare public speech by the country’s President Paul Biya. That speech and some of the subsequent developments will be reviewed in this post while a subsequent post will review the U.S. reactions to recent events, including this speech and National Dialogue.

 President Biya’s Speech[2]

Recognition of Initial Causes of Conflict. The “crisis was triggered by corporate demands made by lawyers and teachers calling for the translation of the OHADA Uniform Acts into English and the preservation of the specificity of the Anglo-Saxon judicial and educational systems in the two regions.”

Government’s Response to Initial Causes of Conflict. The Government made the following responses to these concerns: (a) “the translation into English of the OHADA instruments which are now available in the two official languages;” (b) “the creation of a Common Law Section at the Supreme Court to handle appeals filed against the decisions of lower courts in Common Law matters;” (c) “the creation of a Common Law Section at the National  School of Administration and Magistracy” and “a Common Law Section at the National  School of Administration and Magistracy” for “the training of judicial and legal officers;” (d) the creation of “a programme for the recruitment of English-speaking pupil judicial and legal officers and court registrars;” (e) “the launching of the special recruitment of bilingual teachers in secondary schools;” (f) “at the level of the judiciary, the stay of proceedings against some persons arrested in connection with the demands; (g) “the setting up of a national Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and  Multi-culturalism to, among other things, carry out an in-depth review of all the sources of frustration suffered by our compatriots in the North-West and South-West Regions; (h) [fast-tracking] “the decentralization process, with the creation of a new ministry devoted thereto;” and (i)”the upcoming regional elections will complete the process by enabling our compatriots nationwide to fully participate in the management of their local affairs.”

Emergence of Secessionist Movement and Violence. Ignoring the above Government’s responses to the initial causes of the conflict, “radical movements . . . have hatched a secessionist plan to partition our country” . . . [and] have formed and financed groups that have caused untold harm, to the population of the North-West and South-West Regions [the Anglophone  regions]. Their “atrocities” include “ maiming, beheading, assassination of elements of the Defence and Security Forces, administrative authorities and defenceless civilians, destruction of public infrastructure and buildings, and burning of schools, hospitals, etc.” These atrocities “have forced thousands of our compatriots to seek refuge in other regions of the country and, for some, in neighboring countries where they have been reduced to living under precarious conditions.”

Government’s Response to Secessionist Movement and Violence. The Government responses to these radical actions included: (a) “ the Defence and Security Forces have taken energetic measures, often at the risk of their lives, to perform their duty of protecting citizens and their property; “ (b) the President “ordered the discontinuance of judicial proceedings pending before military tribunals against 289 persons arrested for offences committed during this crisis; “ (c) the Government called on armed secessionists “to lay down their arms and benefit from the process of reintegration into society. A National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Committee was thus set up [along with] Regional Disarmament Centres;” (d) the Government is working to meet “the challenges we are facing in order to improve the welfare of our population, especially in terms of infrastructure, water and electricity supply, healthcare delivery and youth employment;” (e) this January the President appointed a new Prime Minister, who is from the South-West Region,” which is consistent with other major government posts since April 1992; (f) the President has continued “to wage a ruthless war against corruption and the embezzlement of public funds, and to promote good governance.”

New National Dialogue. Recognizing “the strong desire of the people of the North-West and South-West Regions to return to a normal life, to be able once again to safely carry out their economic and social activities, to witness the return of refugees and displaced persons, and to see their children return to school,” the President at the end of September will convene “ a major national dialogue that will, in line with our Constitution, enable us to seek ways and means of meeting the high aspirations of the people of the North-West and South-West Regions, but also of all the other components of our Nation. The dialogue in question will mainly concern the situation in the North-West and South-West Regions, [but since] it will focus on issues of national interest such as national unity, national integration and living together, it is obvious that it will not concern only the population of these two regions.” The dialogue also will “focus on issues that can address the concerns of the population of the North-West and South-West Regions, as well as those of the other regions of our country such as bilingualism, cultural diversity and social cohesion, the reconstruction and development of conflict-affected areas, the return of refugees and displaced persons, the education and judicial system, decentralization and local development, the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants, the role of the diaspora in the country’s development, etc.”

Rejection of Pardon or Amnesty for Certain Secessionists. Recent court decisions against certain secessionists are not obstacles to this new dialogue.[3] “Respect for the rule of law and the fight against impunity are pillars in the consolidation of a State ruled by law to which we all aspire. Violating the rule of law and granting impunity to some citizens is paving the way for anarchy. It is therefore crucial, at this stage, to dispel rumours that one can quietly loot, rape, burn, kidnap, maim, murder, in the hope that a possible dialogue will erase all these crimes and provide impunity to their perpetrators.” However, “ in the context of a dialogue, a peace process or national reconciliation, the possibility of pardon may be considered, under certain conditions.”

President’s Peace Offer. Under the presidential power of pardon under the Constitution, the President offers the following: “Those who voluntarily lay down their arms and place themselves at the disposal of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) Centres have nothing to fear. Their fellow armed group members who are already there can testify to this. Conversely, those who persist in committing criminal acts and violating the laws of the Republic will have to contend with our Defence and Security Forces and will face the full force of those same laws.”

“The same applies to promoters of hate and violence who, comfortably settled in foreign countries with impunity, continue to incite murder and destruction. Let them know that sooner or later they will have to face justice.” The President also appeals “to the countries sheltering these extremists to take action against these criminals if they really care about the situation of the people of the North-West and South-West Regions.”

Cameroonian Reactions[4]

The day after this speech, the country’s Prime Minister Joseph Dion began discussions with political party leaders, civil society activists, opinion leaders, traditional rules, lawmakers and clergy.

Julius Sisku Ayuk Tabe, the leader of a separatist movement who the priormonth had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, called the speech a “non-event” and “non-starter.” He said Biya’s call for a dialogue was “an awkward and grudging attempt timed to avoid UN sanctions,” considering that the UN will be deliberating on the anglophone crisis this month.

The opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), called for a “general amnesty” for detainees linked to the separatist crisis and a “ceasefire” before participating in the “grand national dialogue.” That gathering “cannot effectively prosper without a calm environment: the declaration of a ceasefire and the guarantee of a general amnesty for all those involved at any level in the English-speaking crisis,”

The president of the United Socialists Democratic Party, Prince Ekosso,  said among the recommendations they are strongly making for the dialogue to be successful are the unconditional release of all people allegedly illegally held in prisons and detention centers and an end to the separatist war in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon.

Cameroonian civil society groups and opposition political parties have called for the unconditional release of Anglophone separatist leaders and other political prisoners before the beginning of the dialogue.

Justin Roger Ndah, assistant secretary-general of the opposition party MRC, said they are urging discussions on the form of the state.

Nkongho Agbor Balla, an Anglophone activist, told Al Jazeera that “the call for an all-inclusive dialogue is very appreciate,”, saying the announcement “should signal the end of arrests of Anglophones for their political ideas. Whilst my expectations were not fully met in the speech, we should give peace a chance by supporting the dialogue process. I urge those who will be attending the national dialogue to call for the release of all those detained in connection with the crisis, the need for constitutional amendment and also to ensure that the form of the state is equally discussed at the dialogue table.”

A BBC report said Biya’s “offer of peace has been rejected by the separatists who say they are horrified at the “callous indifference” the president and his regime have shown towards the crisis. Analysts are now worried that rejecting dialogue could mean more bloodshed.”

A senior official of Biya’s political party, Siddi Haman, said all Cameroonians should see Biya’s true will to bring peace to the country and his desire for maintaining Cameroon as a peaceful and indivisible state with everyone living in harmony.

Foreign Reactions[5]

The United Nations and the African Union welcomed and endorsed President Biya’s call for a national dialogue in Cameroon.

The U.N. Secretary-General through his spokesman, “welcomes the announcement made today by President Paul Biya on the launch of a national dialogue process in Cameroon. He encourages the Government of Cameroon to ensure that the process is inclusive and addresses the challenges facing the country. He calls on all Cameroonian stakeholders, including the Diaspora, to participate in this effort. The Secretary-General reiterates the readiness of the United Nations to support the dialogue process.”

The Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, welcomed “the commitment of the President of the Republic of Cameroon . . . to organize a national dialogue to resolve the crisis in the English-speaking regions of the country.” The Chairperson also “encourages all Cameroonian stakeholders, including the diaspora and armed groups, to take part in the national dialogue and to seize the opportunity to discuss the root causes of this crisis.”

In addition, the Chairperson “reiterates the readiness of the African Union Commission to support Cameroon in the search for a consensual and lasting solution to preserve Cameroon’s unity and integrity.”

U.S. Reactions

Surprisingly for this blogger, there was no public reaction by the U.S. State Department to the Biya speech and the Cameroonian National Dialogue. But the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon made direct and indirect public comments on these matters, which will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Conclusion

Although this blogger is not Cameroonian, he has a number of Cameroonian friends, has maintained contact with these friends, has visited the country once with a group from his church (Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church) and has followed the news from that country. The Cameroon president’s call for a national dialogue prompts the following questions:

  1. Was his account of what the Government has done in response to the initial conflict truthful?  If not, in what respect was it not truthful?
  2. Was his account of what the Government has done in response to the separatists movement and violence truthful? If not, in what respect was it not truthful?
  3. What is your reaction to the proposed national dialogue?
  4. What are your opinions to the above reports about Cameroonian reactions to the Biya speech and call for national dialogue? Are there other Cameroonians who should be mentioned?
  5. Should Cameroon invite international observers or monitors to attend the dialogue?
  6. What do you as a member of the Cameroonian diaspora want to say to the Government.

I encourage Cameroonian readers of this blog post to add their comments and answers to these questions.

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[1] See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CAMEROON.

[2] Republic of Cameroon, The Head of State’s Message to the Nation-10 sept. 2019; Assoc. Press, Cameroon’s President Calls for National Dialogue, Surrender, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2019); Reuters, Cameroon Leader Says Government Will Organize Talks to Solve Separatist Crisis, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2019).

[3] In August 2019 the Yaounde military tribunal gave life sentences to Julius Ayuk Tabe, the leader of the separatists movement,and nine others after having been found guilty of secession, terrorism and hostility against the state. In addition, opposition leader Maurice Kanto, who came in second in last year’s presidential election, is on trial with dozens of others in a military tribunal on insurrection charges. (Voice of America)

[4] Kindzeka, Calls for Release of Separatists, Political Prisoners Intensify in Cameroon, Voice of America (Sept. 15, 2019); Cameroon opposition demands amnesty for separatists, africanews (Sept. 13, 2019); Cameroon to hold ‘national dialogue’ on separatist crisis, Al Jazeera (Sept. 11,2019); Ngala, Analysis: Biya’s call for dialogue in Cameroon, BBC News (Sept. 11, 2019).

[5] U.N. Secretary-General, Statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on announcement of a national dialogue in Cameroon (Sept. 10, 2019); Republic of Cameroon, Major National Dialogue: Reaction of Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission (Sept. 11, 2019).