Yaounde, Jul 25: Macron’s visit, part of a four-day Africa tour, comes as France has been forced to withdraw from Mali, where its armed forces have fought an increasingly violent Islamist insurgency. Meanwhile, Boko Haram, a fundamentalist terrorist group originating in Nigeria, continues to cause havoc in Cameroon’s Far North Region. France supports Cameroon’s security services with training, weapons and money, as do the United States and the UK.
Yet, several Sahel countries currently battling offshoots of the Islamic State are turning to Russia and its mercenaries for support, rather than their former French colonial masters. In April, Cameroon also renewed a defense agreement with Russia. Macron will want to use his trip to the capital Yaounde to reinforce historic bonds with Cameroon’s Francophone-dominated government, ensuring that yet another former colony does not slip out of the French orbit of influence.
France also has significant business interests in the region. Many French companies operate in Cameroon, including Bollore Transport & Logistics, which opened a hub in the southwestern town of Kribi in June. Mass distribution company BUT also announced plans to open its first store in Cameroon.
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Solving the Anglophone standoff
At the top of Macron’s agenda should be encouraging a peaceful and prosperous economic environment in Cameroon. That means using France’s vaunted position to press President Paul Biya to embrace a political, not military, solution to the country’s Anglophone separatist insurgency.
Twenty percent of the population speaks English and uses the English legal and education system left behind by the United Kingdom, which shared a colonial-era mandate with France. The federal system established at independence in 1960, intended to give autonomy to the Anglophone and Francophone parts of the country, was dismantled by the majority-Francophone government, stripping English-speakers of their rights and marginalizing them.
Peaceful Anglophone protests in 2016 were met with disproportionate force by Biya’s security forces. As the situation deteriorated, calls for secession grew. Various armed groups, fighting for independence for the breakaway state “Ambazonia,” have brought education and the economy to a near halt in the Northwest and Southwest Regions while battling Cameroon’s armed forces to a bloody stalemate.
Schools in the Anglophone regions have been closed for the best part of five years, causing massive harm to an entire generation of innocent children. Civilians and civil society groups are caught between increasingly rogue government soldiers and non-state armed groups, both of which extort from the population and behave with impunity.
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Misery piles on for civilians
As a result, tens of thousands have fled to neighboring Nigeria, and nearly one million more are internally displaced, some trying to survive in the bush. The Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, Cameroon Anglophone Crisis Database of Atrocities, and Human Rights Watch, among others, keep a roll call of atrocities and misery being committed on innocent civilians.
Diplomatic attempts to secure peace talks have stalled, and France and Biya have hung back from acknowledging the seriousness of the conflict. The French have reportedly refused to join a proposed contact group of nations hopeful for a negotiated settlement and been hesitant to support efforts by other countries for peace. Yet, their historic and present-day business and military ties mean that they could have enough power to persuade Biya to announce a road map for inclusive talks to reach a new constitutional settlement that improves governance for both Anglophones and Francophones.
Recent weeks have seen attacks by armed separatist groups in Cameroon’s Francophone regions, a concerning new trend. These attacks lend additional urgency for Macron to engage President Biya on the Anglophone Crisis. The security situation now threatens Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians alike.
Forcing Biya’s hand
It is in France’s interest to push Biya to redeem his personal legacy and return Cameroon to being an “island of stability in a troubled region” by engaging in mediated peace negotiations with the Anglophone population, including moderate leaders and civil society as well as the men with guns. There is little trust on either side, which is why commentators believe Biya must transparently commit to peace talks, as well as release political prisoners as a confidence-building measure. Certainly, Macron must ask that the four Medecins Sans Frontieres workers facing trial be first on the list for immediate freedom, followed by Anglophones tortured and jailed unjustly for political reasons.
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Macron is into his second and final presidential term. He can now focus not on winning votes at home but on recalibrating France’s role in Africa. He can seek a genuine partnership in Cameroon, built on the search for peace and prosperity for all of Cameroon’s citizens. Let us hope he seizes the opportunity before any new crises emerge, succession or otherwise.