Cameroonian Paul Biya basks in the football spotlight hoping for a propaganda win

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Five years ago, thousands of English-speaking Cameroonians took to the streets to protest against an issue that has long fueled internal tensions: the marginalization of the English-speaking minority. Although Cameroon is officially bilingual and has Anglophone and Francophone regions, the government has always favored French. Knowing French is necessary to progress in school, work and business, while English-speaking Cameroonians say their regions receive less state funding and have poorer infrastructure.

Although the protests were sparked by recent encroachments on French language and Francophone administrators in English-speaking regions, the divide goes back much further – to arbitrary borders drawn by European powers during colonial times. The small English-speaking regions of Cameroon lived under the British while the larger French-speaking majority was ruled by France. After Francophone Cameroon gained independence in 1960, British regions voted to join in 1961. The result was a centralized state that joined not only two languages, but also different systems of law and education inherited from their former colonial powers.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s response to the 2016 protests – a deadly crackdown that killed several civilians, injured dozens and led to the arrest of hundreds more – only deepened these divisions. His heavy-handed measures not only attacked peaceful protesters, but also inflamed tensions with a minority separatist movement fighting for an independent state; after separatists launched guerrilla campaigns against government forces, Biya declared war on them in 2017. The conflict took its toll: more than 4,000 civilians were killed and an estimated 800,000 Cameroonians fled their homes.

Five years ago, thousands of English-speaking Cameroonians took to the streets to protest against an issue that has long fueled internal tensions: the marginalization of the English-speaking minority. Although Cameroon is officially bilingual and has Anglophone and Francophone regions, the government has always favored French. Knowing French is necessary to progress in school, work and business, while English-speaking Cameroonians say their regions receive less state funding and have poorer infrastructure.

Although the protests were sparked by recent encroachments on French language and Francophone administrators in English-speaking regions, the divide goes back much further – to arbitrary borders drawn by European powers during colonial times. The small English-speaking regions of Cameroon lived under the British while the larger French-speaking majority was ruled by France. After Francophone Cameroon gained independence in 1960, British regions voted to join in 1961. The result was a centralized state that joined not only two languages, but also different systems of law and education inherited from their former colonial powers.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s response to the 2016 protests – a deadly crackdown that killed several civilians, injured dozens and led to the arrest of hundreds more – only deepened these divisions. His heavy-handed measures not only attacked peaceful protesters, but also inflamed tensions with a minority separatist movement fighting for an independent state; after separatists launched guerrilla campaigns against government forces, Biya declared war on them in 2017. The conflict took its toll: more than 4,000 civilians were killed and an estimated 800,000 Cameroonians fled their homes.

As Cameroon hosts the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s biennial football competition, Biya basks in the international spotlight and tries to use the tournament to create goodwill for his regime, even as he continues its ongoing campaign of brutality. This month, the country hosted 24 national teams for the tournament, a huge honor that Biya hopes to use to secure a propaganda victory, legitimize his crackdown and tighten his grip on power. Although some media covered the crackdown, they paid little attention to the legitimate grievances of Anglophone Cameroonians.

From the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the 2022 Beijing Games, autocratic governments have long used high profile tournaments to generate positive media coverage and attempt to whitewash their regimes – and Cameroon is no exception. Until the world looks beyond this facade and pays more attention to what the Norwegian Refugee Council called the “most neglected” crisis of 2019, Cameroonian civilians will continue to suffer.

When the protests first erupted in 2016, few expected them to lead to such violence. Early protests were peaceful, with teachers’ unions and bar associations calling for greater respect for the autonomy of the legal and education systems in English-speaking regions. Few protesters had secession on their agenda.

Biya’s tough response, however, has radicalized many protesters and fueled the separatist movement. After suppressing the protests, many English-speaking Cameroonians who previously only wanted reform began to support – or at least understand the grievances of – those who were calling for the secession of the English-speaking regions of Cameroon and the formation of a state. independent: Ambazonia. This new country would be nestled between the French-speaking regions of Cameroon and neighboring Nigeria and would have a population of around 3 to 4 million.

During the conflict, Biya radicalized his tactics and response, deploying US- and Israeli-trained Cameroonian special forces to quell dissent. Critics of the government, whether armed or peaceful, now face increasingly brutal violence and human rights abuses by the state.

The hands of the separatists are not clean either. Mirroring the government’s tactics of intimidation and fear, they have attacked schools and markets in the very towns they claim to be fighting for. In recent months, they have also begun to deploy more lethal weapons, such as improvised explosive devices, against Cameroonian military forces. This violence shows no signs of abating during the Africa Cup of Nations; during the first week of the competition, a sitting Cameroonian senator was assassinated.

As the country’s crisis worsens, one has to wonder why the Confederation of African Football (CAF) chose to grant hosting privileges to a country embroiled in such conflict. Cameroon was originally selected to host the 2019 cup but that decision was later withdrawn due to infrastructure delays and security concerns. Last year, CAF decided to give Biya another try.

The fact that CAF has chosen Cameroon to host the Africa Cup of Nations twice during an ongoing conflict is a stain on the competition. By ignoring Biya’s abuses, CAF gave him the opportunity to legitimize his rule and his government’s stranglehold on power. If the tournament ends without significant disruptions, Biya will have scored significant propaganda points. Emboldened by successful competition, he also risks losing interest in negotiations with the separatists.

The ongoing unrest in Cameroon also raises legitimate security concerns for football players, visiting dignitaries and spectators. The weeks leading up to the tournament produced disturbing images, showing that it would be anything but a normal Africa Cup of Nations: one image showed the The Africa Cup mascot walking among soldiers and another showed armored vehicles patrolling the streets of the city.

More than five years after the start of the protests in the country, it is high time for all parties to come to the negotiating table in good faith. Although Cameroon was once seen as a bastion of stability in Central Africa, its growing crisis threatens to further destabilize the entire region. This instability also weakens the country’s existing relationships with partners like the United States, which relies on Cameroon to help combat extremist groups in the Sahel. Multilateral institutions – such as the United Nations and the African Union – as well as key partners – such as France, Britain and the United States – must pressure the government to stop its heavy-handed tactics and acknowledge the grievances of Anglophone Cameroonians while pushing separatists to stop their attacks.

For now, however, all eyes will be on the football tournament, just as Biya wanted. But whether it’s Senegal’s Sadio Mané, Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar or another African football star who leads his national team to victory, it is the people of Cameroon who have the most to lose if the country’s civil war is not ended. not treated with the seriousness it deserves.

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