by Melanie Torrent, Senior Research Fellow

Back in October 1995, the admission of Cameroon to the Commonwealth during the Heads of Government Meeting in Auckland was a fairly controversial affair. Within Commonwealth circles, a number of experts believed the country was too steeped in the political, economic, legal and cultural traditions of its French past and of the contemporary Francophone world to be a beneficial addition to the association; and, to put it bluntly, that its democratic credentials failed to meet the standards of the newly devised Harare Principles of 1991. In Cameroon itself, some shared these doubts. In the Northwest and Southwest provinces particularly, which had been British mandates and trust territories between 1918 and 1961 and on which Cameroon’s historical claim to Commonwealth membership rested, several politicians, journalists and civil society groups thought membership should be postponed until further democratisation, including a revised constitution providing for decentralisation, if not outright federalism, and greater cultural rights for the ‘Anglophone’ minority, had been secured. If the Southern Cameroons National Council stood out, it was not because it voiced dissent, but because it sought independence for the two ‘Anglophone’ provinces and, therefore, exclusive and separate Commonwealth membership. The consensus among the Commonwealth and Cameroon’s political elite at the time, however, was that engagement with the Commonwealth would buttress national unity and improve relations across Cameroon’s linguistic and cultural traditions. Six years after its first application to the Commonwealth and the Francophonie, and four years after its admission to the Francophonie, Cameroon thus became a member of the Commonwealth – just as its neighbour Nigeria was suspended for gross violations of democracy and human rights.

Twenty-two years later, Cameroonians are finding themselves in the midst of what many are calling the ‘Anglophone’ crisis. It brings to mind the International Crisis Group’s warning in 2014 that ‘without social and political change, a weakened Cameroon could become another flashpoint in the region’. On 16 October 2016, lawyers in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest Province, went on strike against the appointment of magistrates whose command of both English and common law was uncertain, while teachers and parents marched against the continuing ‘Francophonisation’ of the country. The ensuing repression, including ‘the use of excessive force’, ‘arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions’, ‘torture and custodial deaths’ and the suspension of internet access on several occasions – leading to dire economic consequences beyond the more obvious breach of media freedom – have thrown many communities into turmoil, while a number of separatist groups have themselves upped their use of violence and the radical nature of their demands. ‘Fulfilling the language rights of minorities’, as one of the special rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council stated in December 2016, ‘is not only essential to prevent tensions from escalating further, but is also a fundamental element of good governance’, in a country where ‘Anglophones’ represent 20% of the population and count a greater proportion of bilingual speakers. And as writer Patrick Nganang emphasised recently, ‘Anglophone’ has acquired a political and cultural dimension that goes beyond the mere use of the English language.

Cameroon is a member of the Francophonie as well as the Commonwealth

In the media, official discourse and even on the streets outside the Northwest and Southwest provinces, ‘terrorists’, ‘secessionists’ and ‘Anglophones’ have sometimes become, most worryingly, interchangeable terms. After the renewed repression that followed the protests of September 2017 and, on 1 October, the proclamation of the independence of Ambazonia (the name given to the Northwest and Southwest provinces) by the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Governing Council (itself more radical than the Southern Cameroons National Council), it was perhaps little surprise that Baroness Scotland should reserve one of her last engagements of 2017 to her first official visit to Cameroon, travelling to both Yaoundé and Buea, in the Southwest Province. With several major elections scheduled for 2018 – the regions, city councils, the National Assembly, the Senate and, most importantly, the Presidency, which Paul Biya has held since 1982 – this is surely a crucial time for the Commonwealth to prove what relevance, if any, it can have.

It would be both facile and incorrect to suggest that the Commonwealth has had no impact in Cameroon. The Association of Commonwealth Universities, for instance, has been a beneficial partner, enabling both contacts between students across the Commonwealth and between ‘Anglophone’ and ‘Francophone’ students within Cameroon. From political training to election monitoring, the Secretariat, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum have all contributed to political dialogue in Cameroon. Secession, in reality, remains a minority view, with the experience of South Sudan a moderating prospect. Nigeria, whose Cross River State has seen a sharp rise in the number of Cameroonians fleeing the violence of their provinces, has been a key champion of Cameroonian unity – as Cameroon was for Nigeria during the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s. Among international partners, caution in the ‘Anglophone’ crisis has been partly due to the value of a strong regime in facing the rise of Islamic and Christian religious fundamentalism and the direct attacks of Boko Haram. The inclusion of Cameroon in one of the priority countries of the newly formed Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) unit at the Secretariat in 2016 was therefore very good news. Opposition parties also welcomed the Secretary General’s visit in December because of the Commonwealth’s track record of fair and critical monitoring of elections in the country, and overall work for media freedom, transparency and the eradication of corruption.

Recent events have shown that stability won’t survive the absence of profound political reform. What the Commonwealth can offer is visible, community engagement on constitutions and institutions, particularly in relation to federalism, on which it has a wealth of collective and individual knowledge. This would not preclude confidential discussions with the authorities or exclude an ultimate choice for decentralisation; but it would show an increasingly disillusioned majority of ‘Anglophones’ that the federal option (which would not necessarily be a return to the federal state of 1961-1972) was given real consideration. For months, information about the ongoing crisis in Cameroon came from the non-governmental Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, particularly after the visit of Cameroon’s Minister of External Relations to Marlborough House in March 2017 failed to bring results. In September, the CHRI asked CMAG (the ‘custodian of Commonwealth values’, which had engaged with Cameroon on previous occasions, to press Cameroon ‘to take effective steps towards releas[ing] all political prisoners, investigate allegations of illegal detention, ensure an enabling environment for dialogue and honour its international human rights obligations’. The concluding statement of CMAG on 22 September 2017 made no mention whatsoever of Cameroon*. Balancing good offices with public democratic engagement remains one of the most delicate – but also most necessary – tasks of the Commonwealth.

The relevance of the Commonwealth for small states, for climate change and debt management is largely uncontested internationally. Whether it can be a useful trading network based on shared traditions, the outcome of the Brexit process will help determine. And recent Gambian and Togolese interest shows that it remains a desirable association to join. Yet, seen from Cameroon, the Commonwealth can only claim relevance if it fully embraces its political mission as well, based on democracy, the rule of law and human rights – all the more so as they are now enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter. In the 1950s, a French Socialist was admiring the ‘British empiricism’ of a Commonwealth whose beauty lay in its lack of definition. This is certainly no longer the case – neither possible nor desirable. But next to irrelevance, or to the imperial nostalgia which surfaced in the Brexit debates, complacency is what the Commonwealth should be wary off. There is still a sense of self-congratulation – perhaps in fact emphasised by events in Cameroon – that the Commonwealth remains a far better model than its counterparts in the Francophone and Lusophone worlds**. The Francophonie’s renovated programmes for (cross) cultural awareness, from teacher training to peacekeeping, are a valuable contribution to good governance in its broad sense and should be investigated more closely.

In 2018, the relevance of the Commonwealth will be tested at the Summit in the United Kingdom. A successful summit will be one that is not (just) a show, and one which does not come across as an essentially elitist affair, played out in the diplomatic corridors of London and the Windsor retreat. Much depends on the People’s Forum, and the extent to which Foreign Ministers are demonstrably receptive to its proposals. But the relevance of the Commonwealth will also be tested in Cameroon. Of course, the solution to the crisis can only be multilateral. But unless the Commonwealth engages visibly with political reform in Cameroon, and denounces abuses as and when they occur, it will lose much credibility. The good news is, it has precious tools at its disposal – and hopefully the will to use them

*On the new Commonwealth Secretariat website, archived material for CMAG seems to start in 2011, save a list of suspensions from 1995 onwards. This, again, seems a shame in terms of engagement with civil society.

**These organisations are in fact very different, but the comparison is still often made in public discourse.