On Saturday, 17 February, 2018, the AFP news service ran a report that separatist groups in Nigeria’s neighbour, the Republic of Cameroon, had declared war in their push for an independent country. This declaration, not by the official separatist group, is the result of growing frustration with what people in the region see as Yaounde’s attempts to wipe out their identity.
Until a few years ago, Cameroon seemed like an oasis of calm in a region buffeted by storms of violent insurgencies; the proliferation of small arms; increasing ethnic division; and crushing poverty. It had not experienced any major challenges to its external sovereignty and internal cohesiveness, and the regime of Paul Biya, while imperfect, added a veneer of certainty and predictability in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa that was anything but, it was an Illusion.
In 1961, a year after independence, the United Nations held a referendum giving English speaking people in West Cameroon region the choice of either joining Nigeria or the new Republic of Cameroon. The political marriage made sense as the territory had already been administered as one by Germany before 1914, so they had a lot of similarities in terms of a shared colonial experience and territorial management. Most of the ethnic groups were found in both West and French Cameroon, so West Cameroonians wanted to reunite with their brothers who had been separated from them by arbitrary colonial borders. But, the English speakers soon found it was not a marriage of equals. Mumblings of an independent Ambazonia have been around since the 1980s but only gained real traction with the current political crisis.
Security implications for Nigeria and the region
It is important to note that Nigeria, which is dealing with its own internal conflicts, including a separatist movement, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, that has a broadly similar set of demands as the Cameroonian separatists, cannot afford to be seen in any way as aiding the Ambazonia movement. Viewed from this prism, the arrest of Julius Ayuk Tabe and some of his followers in Abuja on January 5 is logical.
Nigeria’s longest international border is with Cameroon at 1,975km. Along this border, on either side, there is currently one violent crisis or the other. Nigeria’s North-East states of Borno and Adamawa continue to have a diminished Boko Haram insurgency active.
The insurgents are also very active on the Cameroon side of the border. The escalating violence of the Pastoral Conflict between Fulani herdsmen and indigenous communities takes over the baton of violence as you travel further south, and runs from Adamawa through Taraba and Benue all the way into parts of Cross River. This essentially means that, at every point along the Nigeria-Cameroon border, there is a proliferation of arms and ammunition, trained fighters and complicated violent clashes. This is a cauldron of gunpowder not only for the two countries with a combined population of over 225 million, but for the whole region.
The economic impact
The regional economy has been severely affected as many small towns and villages inside Cameroon have been abandoned due to the military crackdown. Businesses remain closed in so-called ‘ghost towns’; big corporates with significant interests in the region are reporting reduced profits; councils are unable to realise budgeted revenue; most development projects have stopped; and government officials are unable to collect taxes and levies in many areas under a crushing state of emergency.
The wider economic impact on the trickling cross border trade has been significant. With its market of almost 170 million consumers, Nigeria is Cameroon’s largest trading partner (22% and 17.8% of imports in 2011 and 2012 respectively), with whom trade exchanges total on average FCFA382 billion (₦217 billion) a year according to the Cameroonian Ministry of Commerce; not including the robust informal trade linkages on both sides of the almost 2000km border shared by both countries.
As highlighted in an SBM report on the crisis last year, a crisis in Anglophone Cameroon will mean that much of the trade that goes on between the two countries will be negatively affected. Nigerians constitute the largest foreign community in Cameroon numbering about four million. Most stay in the Anglophone regions which are culturally and linguistically contiguous with South-East and South-South Nigeria. Such a crisis will see many of these Nigerians returning home. Cameroonians will also move across the border to avoid the crisis, creating a refugee situation akin to that which Nigerians created in Northern Cameroon due to the Boko Haram insurgency, a scenario which is now playing out.
Cameroon will hold local council, parliamentary and presidential elections in 2018. The major candidates in these elections are; Akere Muna a lawyer and anti-corruption advocate, Hon. Osi Joshua Nambangi member of the opposition party known as the Social Democratic Front (SDF), Joseph Mbah Ndam and John Fru Ndi both from the SDF party and current president, Paul Biya.”
As of the time of preparing this report, most of our respondents from the two English speaking regions of the country have mixed feelings towards English speaking candidates, and with the exception of Osi Joshua, consider the rest to be traitors to the region. Joshua is seen as young, and in the opinions of most respondents, has strong aspirations of changing Cameroon into a devolved paradise with “better opportunities for young people”. However, pressed further, many believe that “any other person but Biya” will be a good winner.
It appears then, that outcome of the coming elections will hold a huge significance in the outcome of the calls for independence in the Ambazonia region.