Life After Biya

As Cameroon witnesses the dying embers of the embattled Biya regime, questions abound about what the future holds for the Central African country. Beset by a violent separatist conflict in the Anglophone regions and the omnipresent scourge, Boko Haram, in the North, that Cameroon faces significant challenges ahead is an understatement. Yet slowly and very carefully, the potential for a more democratic future is emerging from conversations between leading Cameroonians.

President Paul Biya has effectively ruled Cameroon since 1982, with questionable elections returning him as President as recently as 2018. Biya, now a sprightly 87, will be a venerable 92 when his seventh term ends, and his health remains a popular topic amongst Cameroonians both at home and in the diaspora. Extended stays in Geneva and regular disappearances from the public eye have only furthered these discussions. Biya’s absence was particularly conspicuous this year at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic- even his reappearance at a meeting with French Ambassador Christophe Guilhou did little to stop them. Biya is apparently back at the helm now, but questions about his health abound. There is now a growing inevitability about the end of the Biya regime. Nobody lives forever, and Cameroonian eyes are starting to turn toward the future. Who will succeed Biya? What does the Cameroon of the future look like? More simply- what comes next?

Whilst Biya’s Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement (CPDM) party may retain an overwhelming majority (139/180 seats) in the National Assembly, there is a degree of inescapability about the instability and potential power vacuum to come. This is the price any highly centralized country must pay for being ruled by a strongman with an iron fist for so long. Out of this change, however, arises an opportunity never truly granted the people of Cameroon since its formation in 1960, as the only previous president, Ahidjo, was also widely regarded to be dictatorial figure. It is remarkable that since 1960, Cameroon has had just two presidents. After sixty years of the rule of the Strongman and ultimately the cult of Biya, the people of Cameroon are approaching the greatest crossroads since federation in 1972, or perhaps in the country’s history. The people of Cameroon can allow the nation to continue down its current path, settling on a new ‘chosen’ leader in the mold of Biya, but they will also have the chance to effect the lasting political change that many desire. Leader of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement opposition party, Maurice Kamto, is the most prominent proponent of this view, publicly opposing an apparent transfer of power to one of Biya’s acolytes, as if the CPDM party itself had the divine right to rule.

On social media, he stated ‘We will not accept the mutual agreement succession in our country, nor new popular elections without consensual reform of the electoral system. Only the Cameroonian people will have to choose their legitimate leaders, in freedom and democratic transparency’.  Kamto has paid and continues to pay the price for his opposition to the regime. He and his supporters were imprisoned from January to October 2019 in the notorious Kondengui Prison in Yaoundé. A rumored assassination attempt followed, and only this week was his compound attacked and death threats reportedly made against him. He recently also proposed a wide-ranging, representative committee to help resolve the Anglophone Crisis. It is somewhat symptomatic of the Biya regime’s extremities and decline that Kamto’s efforts to fundraise for the Coronavirus response were heavily suppressed- and even outlawed- by the government.

Yet whilst Kamto is indeed a key player, a drive for change is coming from some of Cameroon’s most revered figures. Politician and entrepreneur Kah Walla’s ‘20th of May Dialogues’, livestreamed simultaneously on Twitter [CS1] and Zoom, has brought some of the nation’s brightest minds together to discuss the future of their country. Speakers including journalist Mimi Mefo, once imprisoned by the Biya regime, the indomitable technology entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong, surgeon Dr. Dennis Foretia and others have all voiced their thoughts on issues including the Anglophone Crisis, Coronavirus and political transitions. The value of these dialogues should not be underestimated, as they are introducing and highlighting new, exciting Cameroonian options for the country’s future, from some of the nation’s finest minds. The reaction to these dialogues on social media illustrates both the richness of Cameroon’s political sphere and the yearning for change- or at the very least, more discussions.

Although the Anglophone Crisis is oft ignored by the international community, it threatens the stability of the entire state of Cameroon and thus must form (and has formed) a key part of these discussions. The dialogues have hinted at how a solution to the Anglophone Crisis could be found, but longer-term thinking is required in order to produce a lasting peace – be it through a true federation or another mechanism. A weakness of previous dialogue efforts has been a lack of unity among Anglophone groups, with views varying widely. With a stronger coalition of Anglophone voices, a meaningful dialogue has more chance of success. The concept of a future Cameroonian state beyond the Biya regime offers a genuine opportunity for change, and for Cameroon to better reflect the demands of the Anglophone population. Of course, this will not satisfy everybody, particularly the most ardent Ambazonian separatists, but it would represent a significant improvement on the current situation. The Anglophone regions remain of vital economic importance to Cameroon, and so they would invariably be a major point of discussion, even if the crisis had never occurred.

Looking across Central and Francophone Africa, change is coming. Even Burundi’s Nkurunziza has handed power over to a successor, and more nations are supportive of Presidential term limits. France’s controversial and neocolonial CFA Franc is being replaced in West Africa by an exciting though arguably imperfect successor, the ECO. Central Africa’s CFA Franc, used in Cameroon, will surely follow, reducing the country’s dependency on its former colonial master. Coronavirus itself has also upset the world order, and what that fully means for Cameroon and Central Africa remains to be fully understood. The end of the Biya regime, then, may coincide with a changing of the guard on multiple fronts.

Whilst the Biya regime will invariably trundle on for a while to come, it feels more finite than ever before. Cameroonians have the rarest of opportunities to reform their state and to mold it to be ready for the next 100 years. That process starts with conversations like the ‘May 20th Dialogues’, led by so many brilliant Cameroonians. This progress will likely be contested fiercely by those in power by way of the Biya regime, and so there are tough political challenges ahead. Somehow though, in the unlikeliest of times amidst a terrible pandemic, there is an indelible source of hope in Cameroon.


Cameroon’s Crisis Falls on Deaf Ears

When American Pastor Charles Wesco was killed in the crossfire of separatist and government forces, people thought that change would come. The American government surely wouldn’t stand to lose one of their own. But that was 2018.

When Baby Martha Neba, with only four months on this earth, was gruesomely killed by state forces, people thought that change would come. A four-month-old child? Horrendous. But that was 2019.

When government forces committed a terrible massacre at Ngarbuh, people thought change would come. At least twenty-two dead women and children, as innocent as could be. An atrocity. And that was 2020.

Yet no change has come.

When Samuel Wazizi, a popular TV anchor and journalist, was arrested in August 2019, people thought it was just another example of the repression of the press in Cameroon. He would surely be released, in time, as Mimi Mefo and others had before him.

Yet Wazizi’s lawyers were never granted access to him. His family never heard from him. When his lawyers finally won the right to have him produced by the government in court, he did not appear.

Then, on June the 5th, the truth came out.

The Government’s Military Spokesman revealed that Wazizi had died in their custody. In August 2019.

For Three Hundred Days, Wazizi’s family, friends, lawyers, colleagues and international press advocates had all been pushing for his release. To see him, to hear him, to feel him again. For Three Hundred Days, the Government of Cameroon maintained a cruel charade that denied justice and tortured his family. The Government stated that Wazizi died of sepsis shortly after his arrest. But after three hundred days of deceit, who would possibly trust that? An independent investigation and autopsy has been demanded by many, and French Ambassador Christophe Guilhou intimated that President Biya has indicated that an investigation will take place. With allegations of torture rife, an independent investigation this is the only way to bring any form of peace to those who cared so deeply about Samuel Wazizi.

Yet Biya’s suggested investigation is nothing to applaud. The Government of Cameroon is a serial suppressor of press freedoms, and still has at least 7 journalists in prison. The gravestone of Wazizi is yet another grim marker of the deterioration of the Biya regime, and yet another indicator of the grave threat posed to journalists in Cameroon.

There is a famous thought experiment that asks:

‘If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound’?

It could be argued that in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, two other versions of this thought experiment are being tested.

Firstly, with reference to the government of Cameroon,

‘If an incident occurs and all the journalists and witnesses have been arrested or killed, did the incident happen’?

Secondly, with reference to the international community,

‘If incidents happen and nobody cares enough to act, are they really incidents’?

The international community has watched as the Anglophone Problem became the Anglophone Crisis, and now they have watched as the Anglophone Crisis has become the Anglophone War. Through an absence of meaningful enforcement and redress, the government of Cameroon has operated with absolute impunity throughout the crisis. Separatist groups have also committed serious human rights abuses. Incidents like the Ngarbuh Massacre have drawn international attention, even at the level of the United Nations Secretary General, but the lack of subsequent action has facilitated the further deterioration of the crisis. Despite overwhelming evidence of serious human rights abuses, Cameroon remains off the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council. Cameroon is also not on the UN Security Council agenda.

With little pressure on Cameroon and the armed groups involved, there is no end in sight for the Anglophone Crisis.

In the mean time, I at least hope that we will see #JusticeForWazizi.

Image created by Gabriel_TheCode

From Russia With Gas

Russian troops on patrol in Syria 

Cameroon has resisted foreign interference of any form in the Anglophone Crisis, but Russia is prowling in the wings. Here’s why: 

The famous £1.5 billion British New Age gas deal, announced to great fanfare by the then-International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, has slowly been rumbling along in the background. The deal concerned the development of the offshore Etinde gas field, located off the coast of the Southwest region of Cameroon. London-based New Age (African Global Energy) Ltd. has an interesting history, being backed by Och-Ziff, a US hedge fund that has previously paid over $400 million to settle bribery suits following an investigation from the US government- after bribing officials in various African countries to the tune of some $100 million. While there is no evidence to suggest that the same occurred with the Etinde gas deal, it does potentially hint at a pattern of behaviour.

What is forgotten, however, is that whilst New Age has a 37.5% stake, and Bowleven has a 25% stake, Russian firm Lukoil also has a 37.5% stake in the Etinde field.

In the past few years, Russia has extended significant efforts towards increasing its presence and influence in Africa, particularly in Central Africa. Positing itself as an alternative to the West, and particularly to the former colonial powers , Putin’s Russia has almost imperceptibly moved in to a position of power. Far away from the goal-tied investments of the west and their vocal concern for human rights, and differing from the financial might of China, Russia has found success with the export of military muscle and natural resource development. Whilst exporting arms and training military units is part and parcel of trade and diplomacy, Russia has also developed a habit of leaving ‘little green men’ across the region- often mercenaries working for the Russian PMC ‘Wagner Group’, which itself has ties to the Russian regime. Assumedly part of Russia’s hybrid warfare approach, as used to great success in Ukraine, the Wagner Group have been involved in Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Libya and Mozambique. Russia’s approach is effectively tailor-made to support the strongmen of Africa.

CAR POster
A Poster Praising Russian/CAR Military Cooperation. (Sebastian Shukla/CNN)

Why is this relevant to the Anglophone Crisis?

Firstly, the Wagner Group’s involvement has been associated with the presence of Russian natural resource companies, including Lukoil. In the CAR, Wagner Group troops were used to guard lucrative mines, and similar has been reported elsewhere.

Secondly, the Russian Ambassador Anatoliy Bashkine met with the Cameroonian government in early March. The Russian ambassador came out strongly against humanitarian intervention in the Anglophone regions, which is significant in and of itself- but it was the fine detail that is the most interesting. It was announced that Russian Lukoil was negotiating the reconstruction of the SONARA refinery in Limbe, which was devastated by fire in mid-2019. Russia will thus likely have people on the ground in the Anglophone regions in the coming months, as they look to bring the SONARA refinery back online.

Thirdly, New Age (African Global Energy) recently signed a Letter of Intent with Victoria Oil & Gas for the supply of gas from the Etinde field. Again, it is the fine print that is interesting here, as Victoria state that:to access Etinde gas, GDC will need to install a 60 km high-pressure gas pipeline from Limbe to Bekoko where it would connect with the existing low-pressure pipeline network which operates throughout Douala‘, before hinting at gas infrastructure towards the towns of Tiko, Muntengene, Buea and others. Whilst there is a major BIR base at Limbe, protecting such linear infrastructure (and its development) is going to pose a serious security challenge for the Cameroonian government. Even Limbe has seen its share of violence during the crisis so far, and a high-profile gas pipeline is an obvious strategic target for non-state armed groups. Events that would likely increase instability – such as the death of the serving president of Cameroon – would raise the risk of this operation even higher. Already involved at SONARA, and with a significant stake in this development too, it is not hard to imagine which country will be ready to protect its investments and support the government.

Early Etinde plans via New Age (African Global Energy) Ltd.

Finally, Russia has been involved in disinformation campaigns in African states, using social media to support the ruling party. Whilst the most detailed instances of these campaigns involved Libya, Mozambique and elsewhere, it is notable that Cameroon was also targeted by a Russian campaign. I have reached out to the author of the study to understand the Cameroon-specific elements of this further.

To conclude, it is evident that Russia has made a major geopolitical shift towards Africa, and Cameroon appears to be the next target in line. Recent developments elsewhere on the continent have shown how Russian investments in unstable areas often come with military muscle attached, relying on the concept of plausible deniability.  Supporting strongmen with military solutions enables Russia to form closer ties with the host nation, whilst reducing the risk to its lucrative investments. In theory, Russia’s approach could increase the profitability of risky conflict zone investments by minimizing disruptions. Thus for Russia, a strongman is their perfect ally, and is one where the West seldom wishes to tread. In Cameroon, it is easy to see exactly why Russia is pushing for closer ties with the Biya regime, and the previously outlined evidence illustrates how this relationship continues to develop.

Ultimately, Lukoil’s Etinde field investment and the repair of the SONARA plant are located in the contested Southwest region, and on the balance of evidence, that is why I would not be surprised if some Russian ‘little green men’ appear around Limbe in the months and years ahead.




Cameroon Receives New Croatian Rifles

Images of the military of Cameroon on both exercises and operations reveal that they have recently taken delivery of an unknown quantity of Croatian HS Produkt VHS-2 assault rifles. The VHS-2 is an advanced bullpup design which has previously been evaluated by the US and French militaries, and is the standard issue weapon of the Croatian army. The rifles are also used by the armies of Togo and Iraq. It is believed that the VHS-2 has been spotted in the hands of troops in the Anglophone regions and also in the Far North.

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It remains to be seen which weapon the VHS-2 will replace, but it continues the military’s love affair with Eastern European weapon systems, with Serbian firm Zastava previously supplying a range of weapons including the M21. From investigations, it appears that the VHS-2 entered service at the very end of 2019 or the start of 2020. The VHS-2 is one of the most modern assault rifle designs on the market.



Concerning Trends: Conflict Spreading & IEDs

I want to draw attention to a series of concerning trends that are being overlooked. These trends worry me, especially when considering the long-term negative trajectory of the Anglophone Crisis.

Conflict Spreading Outside the Anglophone Regions

On Sunday, a rare attack occurred outside the Anglophone Regions. According to reports,  a police station and Gendarmerie post in Galim, West Region. The attack killed at least 8, including two policemen and two gendarmes. Firstly, this is another example of the growing reach, ability,  and confidence of separatist groups. To be able to launch an attack some 4 miles into a neighboring region is not the work of an amateur group of ‘ragtag’ rebels. Furthermore, reports describe both targets being hit simultaneously, which shows how this was a well-coordinated, pre-planned attack. I’ve also read accounts that suggest they were deliberately targeting those areas to retrieve weapons and supplies, and video evidence suggests that they were successful in that aim, retrieving multiple AK-variants, FALs and a Beretta PM12 submachine gun. They also took a quantity of body armour and tactical equipment. I have heard suggestions of the existence of some kind Ambazonian ‘Special Forces’ before, and whilst I still think this is largely propaganda, there is clearly a trusted separatist unit capable of performing more sophisticated raids.

Secondly (and more importantly), by its nature the Anglophone Crisis has been limited to only the Anglophone regions of Cameroon. There have been two previous incursions into the neighboring regions, but those were not as sophisticated as Sunday’s attack. Is this a new stage of the conflict, where cross-border raids become more common? Where (and what) is within reach of such raids? If it does become a new dynamic, how would the populations of the adjacent regions respond?

This could be a really significant shift in the crisis, but only time will tell. It certainly feels different to the previous cross-border incidents. This is something to watch.

The Growing Usage of IEDs

Also on Sunday, the Women’s Day Parade in Bamenda was hit by a brutal bomb attack, carried out by separatist forces. 1 soldier was killed with up to 8 other people wounded. Graphic imagery released of the soldiers in medical facilities reveal terrible, life-changing injuries. Separatists have been developing their IED capability over time, with a few videos showing past training and test attempts. At least one government Toyota was hit by a small mine at one point during an ambush, and more recently (and famously), an armoured convoy was hit by a larger IED earlier in 2020. So this is not a ‘new’ thing, but it is the most successful attack thus far.

IEDs are a powerful, deadly tool, and are a cornerstone of modern insurgency. They act as a force multiplier, and they caused the international coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq to lose hundreds of troops. They accounted for up to 63% of coalition deaths in Iraq by 2007. The stories of British soldiers being killed by IEDs in inadequate ‘Snatch’ Land Rovers will remain etched in the minds of the British defence community for a long time to come. That is the problem with IEDs- they are weapons of terror, and can have a severe political cost. They are indiscriminate weapons, and so will leave anybody in the vicinity- civilian or soldier- dead or with terrible, life-changing injuries. And they can go wrong. That IED planted for an army convoy will still go off if a civilian bus drives over it. That political cost can be both local and international too, as their usage can quickly temper any sympathy from abroad. Boko Haram use IEDs, suicide bombers and the like. Is there a danger of separatist groups becoming not dissimilar to a group they claim to be so different from?

There is also something to be written on the Fulani/Mbororo element, but that will have to wait for another time.