Emmanuel Macron having proclaimed his desire to renew relations between Africa and France, his visit to Cameroon at the end of July represented a serious test, perhaps the most difficult for him. A pivotal country, full of explosive contradictions, Cameroon is one of the most complex and enigmatic states on the continent. For obvious historical reasons, since the colonial era, it has been one of the most critical, and even the most virulent centers of French policy in Africa.
At the origin of Cameroonian nationalism
German protectorate from 1884 to 1918, it became, in 1919, a territory under the mandate of the League of Nations (SDN) before being placed under the supervision of the UN, which entrusted its administration to France and the Britain after World War II. From a legal point of view, it was therefore never a colony as such, even if the two occupying powers insisted on administering it as such. This exceptional legal status is at the origin of Cameroonian nationalism.
Created in 1948, the Union des populations du Cameroun (UPC) carries the torch. Its secretary general, Ruben Um Nyobe, who was its theoretician and spokesperson (“Mpodol”), was assassinated on September 13, 1958, in the maquis of Libel-li-Ngoy, in Sanaga-Maritime, by troops French, after his movement was expelled from the legal political scene in 1955. Desecrated, his remains were dragged to Eséka, where he was buried in a huge block of concrete. Other figures will suffer a more or less similar fate: Félix-Roland Moumié, Castor Osendé Afana, Ernest Ouandié.
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The War of Independence, which began in 1955, claimed tens of thousands of lives. This bloody conflict will continue long after decolonization. It will have shaped the nature of the Cameroonian state and will have, according to historians, made the country one of the privileged laboratories of the much decried system of Françafrique.
As Emmanuel Macron himself admitted in Yaoundé, this traumatic period was the subject of active repression on both sides. On the other hand, the souvenir of the struggles of the time served as a matrix for the cultural imagination of the Cameroonian nation, to the point that criticism and contestation of French policy in Africa feed on it today, including among the younger generations, who have known neither colonization nor the war of independence.
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Succeeding after Biya
The contradictions accumulated since that time now converge on one and the same point: the struggles for the succession of the current head of state, in power for nearly forty years.
Obviously, the way in which these struggles are carried out and the form that their outcome will take constitute one of the major issues of France’s African policy. Accompanying and, above all, succeeding in the succession of Paul Biya is a strategic political objective of Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term.
Such a success would open up a vast field of possibilities to all the actors involved in the project to rebuild relations between Africa and France. Above all, it would give a new course to the history of a sub-region with a breakdown in integration, threatened by the encystment of aging regimes and by the progressive metastasis of sources of tension that are increasingly difficult to eradicate.
Already, a sub-regional market of violence is in the process of being structured. Under the effect of numerous calls for air, the arc of Islamist terrorism is likely to extend beyond the edges of Lake Chad and the northern border with Nigeria. On the eastern flank, the effects of the violence exerted by the militias in the neighboring Central African Republic are gradually being felt. Added to this are the activities of Russian mercenaries.
A model of power based on predation and the extraction of wealth is gradually being put in place throughout the sub-region, against a backdrop of the militarization of social and economic life. This model seeks to reproduce itself by relying on the protection of private security companies, militias and other armed forces; in exchange, these armed formations capture the natural resources of the countries in question.
In Cameroon, struggles for the succession of Paul Biya are ongoing as the internal situation continues to deteriorate. It is characterized by an unprecedented increase in inequalities and social fragmentation, by the abandonment of young people, the multiplication and extension of risks of all kinds.
At first glance, the longevity in power of Cameroonian presidents is among the most remarkable in the world. The vast majority of sexagenarians will have known only two heads of state since 1960. If, in the past, this longevity could be synonymous with stability, such is no longer the case. On the contrary, the absence of change has become a factor of serious uncertainty. It jeopardizes most of the progress made since independence, starting with the unity of the country and its major ethno-regional balances. Internal divisions are about to reach a point of no return, as evidenced by the situation in the English-speaking regions.
Regional divisions are not new. Between 1960 and 1980, they opposed the South and the North. They led, the day after the 1982 succession, to the 1984 coup attempt. Today, the risk is less of seeing power change hands at the end of a popular uprising than of witnessing the dismemberment of the country by means of a de facto secession or by the multiplication of portions of ungovernable territories.
The English-speaking conflict has caused thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of internally displaced persons and more than a hundred thousand refugees, the destruction of habitat and a humanitarian situation which is spoken of relatively little despite its seriousness. It should be a priority of any political dialogue between Cameroon and its foreign partners. Above all, it should be the subject of an intra-Cameroonian dialogue accompanied, if necessary, by international mediation.
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The federal solution
Added to these regional divisions are the effects of the ethnic policy pursued by the ruling bloc since the attempted coup in 1984. It is the source of many recriminations, which raise fears of acts of revenge, even pogroms , in the short or medium term.
The turn ethnic that the political struggles have taken is a fundamental fact of the mobilizations in progress. This is particularly the case for appointments in the nerve centers of the State such as the army, the civil service, the territorial administration, the judiciary, the universities, the State companies, the diplomacy.
These ethnic tensions are fueled by many political actors, who use them either to monopolize wealth, or to stigmatize and delegitimize their rivals and competitors. This is particularly the case in the awarding of public contracts, the issuance of various permits and other privileges.
The land struggles are the perfect illustration of this. They are not only intensifying in urban areas. They take place through land grabbing in rural areas, the privatization of huge forestry and mining estates, or their sale to foreign multinationals, often with disregard for the interests of local communities or the safeguarding of environment and biodiversity.
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Many ethnic communities feel aggrieved. They demand new administrative and territorial divisions, which would allow them to have their own provinces, sources of investment and jobs, as well as parliamentary representation proportional to their demographic weight.
Most of these demands could fit into a genuine regionalization policy, or even within the framework of a federal regime. To be a vector of local and territorial democracy, such an empowerment policy should go far beyond decentralization.
A step towards the irreparable
The situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms is, in all respects, worrying. The same applies to levels of predation, even corruption, including within the justice system. Arbitrary imprisonments of opponents are commonplace. Opposition rallies are regularly dispersed. Attempts to adopt an electoral code by consensus have failed. It has become objectively impossible to hold free, fair and transparent elections.
With a view to a peaceful and successful succession, all efforts should focus on building an inter-Cameroonian dialogue platform. Well-conceived and well-conducted, such a continuous dialogue would pave the way for a period of détente, which would lay the foundations for reconciliation among Cameroonians.
The erection of such a platform would be accompanied by concrete gestures and a set of measures aimed at the gradual release of all political prisoners, an amnesty for all those who are not guilty of any blood crime, a renewed effort with a view to the eradication of corruption and, above all, a reform of the electoral code by consensus and the transfer of power through the ballot box.
A succession by mutual agreement or a succession from father to son would lead inexorably towards irreparable damage. The success of the transition will be measured by the possibility for Cameroonians to freely choose their leaders after free and transparent elections.
Reconciliation of memories
The general reconciliation will pass, moreover, by the re-establishment of the truth on the events which surrounded the struggle for independence. After decades of denial by the French authorities, Francois Hollande had, during his visit to Cameroon in 2015, recognized the tragic part of this story. “There was a repression in Sanaga-Maritime and in Bamileke country,” he said before announcing the opening of the archives of this period. This announcement remained without a future.
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Emmanuel Macron has pledged to go further. A multidisciplinary commission responsible for shedding light on France’s action and establishing responsibilities will be created. The archives will be opened in their entirety. Admittedly, many works already exist and no one now disputes the essentials of the facts. But many gray areas remain. We have seen it in other cases, such as those of Algeria and Rwanda: for the past to be assumed politically, a work of truth is essential.
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It should also be remembered that this historic dispute does not only oppose Cameroon to France. Because it extended well beyond decolonization, it also opposes Cameroon to itself. If general reconciliation there must be, it will not be enough for France to recognize its responsibilities. The Cameroonian State will also have to recognize its own, with regard to its clean children.