Will missionary’s death Be a tipping point for US position on Cameroon crisis?

Charles Trumann Wesco, an American missionary from Indiana who moved to the Republic of Cameroon with his wife and eight children just two weeks ago, was killed on October 30 after being caught in cross-fire between Cameroonian security forces and separatist fighters.

Wesco and his family were living in the suburbs of Bamenda, a large city in Cameroon’s Northwest Region that has been at the center of the country’s Anglophone crisis over the last two years.

Wesco’s death came just one week after Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, who has ruled the country with an autocrat’s grip since 1982, was reelected for a seventh term in an election marred by allegations of voter fraud, apathy, and, in places, outright fear.

Why is there a conflict in Cameroon?

While Cameroon is officially a bilingual country, the English-speaking (Anglophone) minority, which comprises roughly twenty percent of the total population, has long been marginalized, with many calling for an independent state called Ambazonia comprising the Northwest and Southwest regions of the country.

The issue dates to the independence period in the early 1960s, when Anglophone British South Cameroons entered a stormy marriage with French-speaking (Francophone) La République du Cameroun in a failed attempt by colonial powers to form a two-state federation. By 1972, the system was scrapped altogether after the country’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, held a referendum that made Cameroon a unitary state, centralizing power in Yaoundé.

The Anglophone minority has long aired its grievances, but in late 2016 unrest broke out after lawyers, teachers, and students mobilized hundreds of people in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest Regions for rallies against the oppression of Cameroon’s minority anglophone community. The protests quickly turned violent, with both the Cameroonian military and Anglophone separatists taking up arms.

Since then, Amnesty International has documented the deaths of up to 400 citizens at the hands of both the Cameroonian security forces and the armed separatists. More than 20,000 people have sought refuge in Nigeria, more than 160,000 are displaced within Cameroon, and approximately 3.3 million are urgently in need of humanitarian assistance.

Who are the separatists and why are they rebelling?

Anglophone separatists have been fighting for independence for decades. However, the movement has gained momentum in recent years.

In response to mass protests in late 2016, the Cameroonian government imposed a ninety-three-day Internet blackout in the Anglophone regions and jailed several protest leaders. Following the government’s heavy-handed response, separatist militias began to emerge and support for the movement to create an independent state increased. Last September, the Ambazonia Defense Council declared war on Biya’s government, and a month later several Anglophone separatists celebrated the independence of their self-proclaimed “Republic of Ambazonia.” The government rejected separatist claims of independence and state radio announced that Biya had “declared war on these terrorists who seek secession.”

It is difficult to determine the breadth of support enjoyed by separatist militias, but the crackdown by government forces in response to what started as peaceful rallies against the marginalization of Anglophones has pushed locals in the English-speaking regions to be more sympathetic to the separatist cause. Cameroon analysts suspect that there are now between five and twenty active armed groups in the two Anglophone regions, and up to one thousand 1,000 active separatist fighters.

Government security forces have been accused of attacking suspected Anglophone separatists, setting villages ablaze, and unlawfully arresting protesters. Separatists have been accused of killing members of the security forces, while also staging attacks designed to terrorize Anglophones who are less supportive of independence.

In an effort to end the conflict, the Cameroonian government has made some concessions. In March of this year, Biya created a new ministry focused on decentralization and even appointed two Anglophone officials from the Northwest and Southwest Regions to top cabinet positions. However, the government has refused to negotiate with separatists, despite increasing pressure from the international community.

What happened in recent elections?

On October 22, Cameroon’s Constitutional Court declared eighty-five-year-old Biya the winner of the October 7 presidential election, with 71.28 percent of the vote. This unsurprising win, in a controversial election marred by claims of fraud and voter intimidation, gave Biya a seventh term in office, keeping him at Cameroon’s helm through 2025.

The election was largely overshadowed by the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest Regions, violence by Boko Haram in the country’s far north, and numerous irregularities. Many Cameroonians in the two Anglophone regions were unable to vote because of the precarious security situation. Voter turnout was 53 percent nationwide, but just 5 percent in the English-speaking Northwest Region.

Despite numerous allegations of electoral fraud, voter intimidation, and more, the US State Department was quick to congratulate the people of Cameroon for their “largely peaceful elections,” while also acknowledging “a number of irregularities prior to, during, and after the October 7 election.”

How has the US government responded to this crisis?

For decades, Cameroon enjoyed much praise from the international community for its self-styled portrayal as an “island of peace” in a volatile region, and the United States has long considered Cameroon a strategic partner. The United States has increasingly provided military assistance to the country, primarily to help its battle against Boko Haram in the far north; provided training to its elite military unit; and maintained healthy commercial relations.

The US Ambassador to Cameroon, Peter Henry Barlerin, has criticized the government’s reported violence and spoken out against Biya in regard to the Anglophone crisis. However, his comments about Biya’s legacy sparked outrage in Cameroon, with local media accusing the ambassador of election meddling. Since then, the State Department has been treading carefully, but Wesco’s tragic death could bring greater attention to Cameroon’s deep-rooted problems and cosmetic approach to democracy in Washington, and generate meaningful pressure on the Biya regime.

In a statement after Wesco’s death, the State Department quickly pushed for “an immediate and broad-based dialogue without preconditions,” encouraging the Cameroonian government and the Anglophone separatists to view Wesco’s death “as an opportunity to put an immediate stop to violence and to allow unhindered access for humanitarian aid workers and healthcare providers in the Northwest and Southwest Regions.” US Vice President Mike Pence has also been vocal on the issue, offering his condolences to the family.

As one of Central Africa’s largest economies with four strategic sea ports, Cameroon is a crucially important hub for the region. The ongoing violence in the Anglophone regions and in the far north could prove damaging for its neighbors as well. Moreover, a divided Cameroon poses tremendous risk to US and international counterterrorism investments in the country to contain and ultimately defeat Boko Haram and stabilize what has long been a volatile Central African region.

For too long, the downward spiral in Cameroon has been met with an insufficient response from the international community. Wesco’s death may well push the United States to be more vocal on the issue.

Jonny Gass is an assistant director in the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. You can follow him on Twitter @JonnyGass.

Image: A still image taken from a video shot on October 1, 2017, shows protesters waving Ambazonian flags as they move forward toward barricades and police amid tear gas in the English-speaking city of Bamenda, Cameroon. (Reuters/via Reuters TV)