The international community has fallen asleep at the wheel when it comes to the crisis in Cameroon. Brutal killings burned villages and hundreds of thousands of displaced people – and the reaction is a deafening silence.
–Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council
In terms of international attention, not all conflicts are equal. Some, like Russia’s war against Ukraine, receive the lion’s share of global media coverage and diplomatic engagement. Others, sadly, are ignored by the vast majority of foreign policy experts. The crisis in Cameroon, the site of one of the world’s unseen wars for nearly six years, falls into that latter category. This Central African country of 26 million people has been locked in a series of conflicts, ranging from fighting between the Francophone central government and Anglophone separatists in southern Cameroon to interethnic clashes in the country’s north. Killings, kidnappings, and internal displacement of people fleeing the violence, if left unchecked, could lead to another Rwanda-type catastrophe. Over 6,000 people have been killed and nearly one million people have already been displaced by the ongoing violence in the country. The presence of Boko Haram in the north, growing ties between Cameroon and Russia, and the recent introduction of the Kremlin-linked private military company, the Wagner Group, only adds fuel to an already volatile situation.
The United States is beginning to recognize the extent of the challenge in Cameroon. Last month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas granted temporary protective status to Cameroonians who were already residing in the United States on April 14. This action, which the Center for American Progress estimates will apply to up to 40,000 people, is for a period of 18 months. While this is a good first step, more needs to be done to stop the violence before it spirals out of control. The Anglophone-Francophone conflict in the south, combined with interethnic violence in the country’s north, if allowed to go unchecked, could very well turn into a Rwanda-like catastrophe that would require outside intervention to prevent genocide. The United States should coordinate with the United Nations, the African Union, regional groupings, and Cameroon’s neighbors to encourage all sides in the separatist conflict to find peaceful ways to settle their differences. Doing so would save lives, prevent an even greater humanitarian disaster, and advance U.S. diplomatic and security interests.
Backsliding in Cameroon
Cameroon was once considered a beacon of stability in Africa. After its independence from France in 1960, Cameroon enjoyed a period of peace that allowed the country to develop critical infrastructure such as roads and railways and profitable agricultural and petroleum industries. The Francophone majority, however, dominated the central government. As a result, the Anglophone region of the country was marginalized and left out of power sharing. Tensions between the two groups intensified when Ahmadou Ahidjo, the country’s first post-independence president, resigned in 1982 and was replaced by Paul Biya, a position he has held ever since.
Differences between Francophone and Anglophone Cameroonians were further exacerbated in 2008, when the constitution was amended to abolish presidential term limits. This allowed Biya, whose Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement holds a strong majority in the National Assembly, to become president for life.
For the last several years, international experts have been concerned that Cameroon could descend into chaos. In 2016, lawyers, students, and teachers from the country’s English-speaking minority launched protests objecting to their under-representation and cultural marginalization by the central government. The state responded with a brutal crackdown. The ensuing violence has caused a massive dislocation. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Cameroon security forces have engaged in a scorched earth policy of razing villages and indiscriminately torturing, maiming, and killing civilians with tactics that border on ethnic cleansing. These actions have targeted the people of Southern Cameroon, home to the country’s Christian Anglophone minority. Genocide Watch has described the actions of the Cameroon government in Southern Cameroon as “extermination”—the ninth stage of genocide. The tenth and last stage is denial. The Norwegian Refugee Council identified Southern Cameroon as the world’s most neglected displacement crisis in 2019.
Russian Advances in the Gulf of Guinea
Cameroon lies in the center of the Gulf of Guinea in Central Africa. The region accounts for 60 percent of the continent’s oil production and contains 4.5 percent of proven global oil reserves. Cameroon produces 66,000 barrels per day and is the fifth-largest oil producer in Africa (Nigeria is the largest producer of oil on the continent). Cameroon’s population is projected to rise to 50 million by 2050 and to nearly 90 million by 2099.
Despite it’s geopolitical significance, the United States routinely ignores this part of Africa. Washington, for example, allocated only 8 percent of the meagre $2 billion budget for U.S. Africa Command in 2020 to the region. The United States currently only has a nominal presence in the Gulf of Guinea. In the past, France was the dominant foreign power.
But as in the Sahara, the sands of the Gulf are shifting, and not necessarily in favor of U.S. interests, or even France’s for that matter. From the Central African Republic through Mali to Guinea, there is a distinct and dramatic move away from relying on French military support. In its stead, Russia and China are quickly securing strategic positions within the region. Russia has become the preferred military partner of the Central African Republic and Mali in their fights against insurgents. In March 2022, France announced the withdrawal of its troops from Mali, the first time Mali will be without French troops since 1892. The dominant foreign military presence in Mali now is the Russian government-linked private military company, the Wagner Group. The group is fast becoming the preferred military support option for governments in the region, undercutting U.S. efforts to promote rule of law and respect for human rights in sub-Saharan Africa. With the Wagner Group’s focus on protecting ruling elites and critical infrastructure in exchange for commercial concessions, it is inevitable that Cameroon is likely to be their next target.
On April 12, 2022, Cameroon’s defense minister, Joseph Beti Assomo signed a military cooperation agreement in Moscow with his Russian counterpart. A few days later, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy tweeted, “I cannot believe that the Cameroonian government, in incredibly bad timing, signed a military agreement with Russia – at the height of the aggression in Ukraine.” In U.N. General Assembly votes condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Cameroon—like many African countries—abstained from voting.
While China has not yet established a significant presence in Cameroon, there has been speculation that the Chinese navy is working with Equatorial Guinea to allow the construction of a Chinese naval base at the mainland port of Bata. Few details of the Chinese plan are currently known, but if true, having a Chinese naval presence on Africa’s west coast—placing warships within easy striking distance of targets on the U.S. eastern seaboard—has implications for U.S. national security. China has also provided military training and equipment to Cameroon, ostensibly to use in its operations against Boko Haram, but there have been unsubstantiated reports that much of the Chinese-provided equipment has been shifted to the south for use in the fight against the Anglophone separatists.
Cameroon’s growing ties with Russia and its stance in the United Nations come despite extensive American assistance to the country. Over the past decade, the United States has provided significant military aid to Cameroon. The fiscal year 2020 amount, for instance, was $8.4 million under the category of cooperative threat reduction. However, in 2019, U.S. Africa Command cut over $17 million of funding to Cameroon due to “growing concerns over the government’s human rights record.” According to a 2012 PBS report, in 2010, the United States provided $1.5 million in military aid to Cameroon, and the total amount of aid from independence from 1960 to 2010 was $71.5 million. At the same time, reporting in 2022 suggested that the United States was still supporting and employing a Cameroonian unit alleged to have committed atrocities, including extrajudicial killings to conduct counter-terrorism operations against violent extremist organizations, especially Boko Haram. This came eight months after the announced cut because of human rights concerns. There have also been reports that elite units that were trained by the United States for the fight against Boko Haram were deployed to fight against the separatists. Until early 2020 there were reported to be as many as 300 U.S. military personnel deployed to Cameroon in connection with the counter-terrorism operations.
Implications for U.S. Policy
In addition to granting temporary protective status to Cameroonians, on April 18, 2022, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 2 travel advisory for the country, advising Americans to “exercise increased caution in Cameroon due to crime” and not to travel to the northwest and southwest regions due to armed conflict.
But Cameroon seems to be under the radar, especially with the current focus on the situation in Ukraine taking up most of America’s diplomatic attention. While both sides in the conflict have been accused of committing atrocities, it is the people of Cameroon who bear the brunt of the suffering. With the introduction of Russian mercenaries into the equation and the lack of attention from the United States and France, the situation is likely to worsen. The presence of Boka Haram and China in the region only complicates matters for the United States and its Africa policy. Until the current conflict in Cameroon is ended, it will be difficult to establish the kind of bilateral relationship that would be mutually beneficial between Washington and Yaoundé.
Besides the humanitarian imperative to end the conflict in Cameroon, the United States has a legitimate security interest in stabilizing the country. Boko Haram is active in Cameroon. The terrorist group has killed at least 80 civilians since December 2020 and looted hundreds of homes in the Far North region.
Countering extremism and terrorist activity is an important goal but the pursuit of this goal should not lead to undermining the U.S. commitment to respect for human rights and rule of law. The vetting of individuals and organizations to receive assistance in counter-terrorism operations should be comprehensive. Past support of terrorist groups should be examined and appropriate actions are taken to terminate any ongoing support to human rights violators.
It is important that the United States not be seen as taking sides in Cameroon’s domestic disputes. Both the central government and the separatist movement should be held accountable for any actions taken against the civilian population or violations of human rights. The roots of the current Francophone-Anglophone conflict have been growing for decades, as have the ethnic conflicts between other groups in Cameroon, such as the 2021 clashes between Arab Shoa cattle herders and Massa farmers and Mousgoum fishermen in northern Cameroon. Inter-communal tensions in the Far North region of Cameroon have been amplified by the negative impacts of climate change, with increased desertification that has led to water scarcity and decreased access to grazing land.
There are no quick and easy solutions to the crisis in Cameroon. Likewise, the ability of the U.S. to directly affect affairs in Cameroon is admittedly limited. But the United States can pursue diplomatic efforts to influence the African Union, and Cameroon’s neighbors, most notably Nigeria, to work with all sides in Cameroon to end the violence. In particular, Washington should empower the African Union to take a more active role in mediating the conflict.
The United Nations also has a role to play. In October 2021, for example, despite the reports of the central government’s failure to provide adequate protection to civilian populations, Cameroon was re-elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2022–2024 term. This was a major setback to international diplomacy and weakened any effort to compel the warring parties in Cameroon to respect human rights.
If the United States does not take an active diplomatic role in seeking to end the conflict in Cameroon, the situation there will only get worse.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.