A primer on conflict in Cameroon

This is from Natalie Letsa in Foreign Affairs (highly recommended):

So far, at least 400 civilians and 160 state security officers have been killed in the conflict between the government and an armed separatist movement that, just two short years ago, started as a peaceful strike of lawyers and teachers.

…the Anglophone regions’ relative distance from both Biya’s networks of patronage and influence and the Francophone state media puts them in a unique position to see the autocratic nature of the regime and rebel against it. Although 75.4 percent of Francophone Cameroonian respondents said they trust Biya “somewhat” or “a lot,” in the Afrobarometer poll, only 45.5 percent of Anglophones felt the same way. Part of the reason for this is easier access to criticism of the Biya government.

…Cameroon’s Anglophone regions are also more economically autonomous from Yaoundé. They have a robust cross-border trade with Nigeria, successful plantations in the Southwest, and fertile farming land. They are not overly-reliant on the export of primary resources, such as oil or timber, which funnels through state-owned corporations. And they are not as poor as, for example, the northern regions, which face chronic food insecurity. The Anglophones thus have not only the will, but also the resources to rebel.

Read the whole thing here.

In addition to Letsa’s piece, Janet Lewis’ research on the dynamics of rebellion onset sheds some light on the underlying dynamics of the armed rebellion in anglophone Cameroon:

Because insurgent group formation typically occurs in secrecy and in poorly monitored areas, the empirical record on conflicts’ start is spare and systematically omits rebels who fail before committing substantial violence. This article argues that this presents a fundamental challenge for the study of conflict onset and demonstrates the theoretical and empirical problems it causes in studying a controversial relationship: how ethnicity influences armed conflicts’ start. Unusual evidence on all armed groups that formed in Uganda since 1986 indicates that ethnic mobilization was unimportant to the initial formation of rebel groups—but mattered after nascent groups had already formed. Contrasting evidence from Uganda with a prominent argument that ethnic marginalization induces rebellion shows why lack of evidence about how insurgencies begin can lead to broader inferential pitfalls.

 

The absurdity of Cameroon’s Paul Biya

This is from the organized crime and corruption reporting project (OCCRP):

An investigation supported by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) gathered information about the president’s travels from 35 years of editions of the daily government paper, the Cameroon Tribune. They show that, over that time, Biya has spent at least four-and-a-half years [abroad] on his “brief private visits.” This total excludes official trips, which add up to an additional year. In some years, like 2006 and 2009, Biya has spent a third of the year out of the country.

And here is a breakdown of Biya’s destinations over the last three and a half decades. It is almost as if Biya is a colonial governor of Cameroon, a Fanonian caricature.

Paul-Biya-Chart-A2

How does Biya pay for all this travel (estimated to be at least $185m in total)?

….. According to the International Monetary Fund, more than $300 million of the revenue of Cameroon’s national oil company in 2017 was not accounted for. The president has oversight over the company, whose oil sales, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, have historically been used as a slush fund.

Needless to say, the fascination with Geneva leaves little time for Biya to actually govern.

When Biya lands in Yaoundé, he also meets his government — at the airport. Formal ministerial councils are organized infrequently, every year or two at the most. But while Biya has used public funds to sustain a bureaucracy of 65 ministers and state secretaries, he mostly governs by decree or through a handful of laws sped through a rubber-stamp parliament.

Biya signs a flurry of acts between each of his trips. For example, in 2017, he signed a dozen laws — the entire legal output for that year – in a couple of days. It took him just three days to sign the entire year’s decrees.

Strong leadership can make a big difference in states with weak bureaucracies. But unfortunately for Cameroon, for 35 years it has been saddled with both an absentee landlord of a president and a barely coherent public service.

An enduring puzzle is why Cameroonian elites haven’t moved to come up with a more economically efficient means of keeping Biya in power and luxury. For instance, they could make him King, and have him sign decrees whenever he likes, but also have a Prime Minister that is responsible to a parliament and accountable to the people. Not that this would magically improve the quality of governance, but at a minimum, would likely introduce coherence within the public service (unless, of course, all of Cameroon’s elites simply want to appropriate public resources and spend their time in Geneva).

A response to this might be that elites in Cameroon are actually fine, constantly scheming and fighting for favor with Biya and access to governance rents.

But this still leaves open the question of why they wouldn’t want a more predictable means of accessing governance rents — that is not subject to the whims of Biya (who shuffles and jails ministers with wanton abandon). In any case, an elite-level collusion outcome — like the one described above — would create opportunities for the expansion of the pie beyond just oil and other natural resource sectors.

All to say that we should probably be spending more time exploring the seeming lack of elite-level political innovation across Africa (and Political Development more generally).