Among the many French and British African colonies which achieved independence in the early 1960s, Cameroon seemed destined for greatness. A diverse reflection of peoples from across Africa, Cameroon has both Christians and Muslims, and French and English-speakers. The country enjoys substantial natural resources, as well as excellent agricultural potential.
Sadly, greatness has eluded the Cameroonian people. The country's governance over the past six decades has been deficient in practically every respect. Weak democratic institutions are largely to blame; there is no doubt that Paul Biya will be the winner of the just-completed elections. Like every election in Cameroon since 1982, the 2018 polls were most certainly rigged.
Cameroon's current turmoil is an inevitable consequence of the illegal 1972 referendum to unify the country and relegate anglophone Cameroonians to minority status, and decades of authoritarian rule by Paul Biya and his Beti minority, who comprise just 10% of the country's population. Because of minority rule – and the inevitable corruption historically concomitant with such governance in Africa – Cameroon has not made as much progress in economic development as neighboring countries, especially Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.
The abolition of the federal system deceived the Anglophone community
Cameroon achieved independence as a federation of the former French Cameroon and part of the former British Cameroon. The people of the former British Cameroon voted in a UN-organized referendum to join with the former French Cameroon in a federal system. The English-speaking part of the Federal regime became West Cameroon, with its own legislature and its own President. The elected President of West Cameroon was designated de facto Vice President of the Federation under the constitution.
Decline began in 1972, when then-President Ahmadou Ahidjo decided to hold a nationwide referendum on abolishing the federation, replacing it with a unified government. Not surprisingly, 75% of the Francophone population voted to end the semi-autonomous status of English-speaking West Cameroon. Cameroon became a unified state.
From the beginning, the political leadership of anglophone Cameroon considered the unification an illegal violation, under international law, of the original UN referendum to establish a federal system with equal political status for the francophone and anglophone regions. Only the people of West Cameroon had the right to decide whether or not to end their status as a member of this federation. The 1972 referendum made them into just another minority.
English-speaking intellectuals from West Cameroon began traveling to western capitals, including Washington, in the 1980s to call attention to their people's unhappiness with this illegal move.
After 1982, the Cameroonian Government entered an indefinite period of minority rule
In 1982, the founding President of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo, decided to retire after 22 years in power. He was succeeded by his Vice President, Paul Biya. This change added to the unhappiness of anglophone Cameroonians: Biya inaugurated a long period of minority rule, arranging for his ethnic group, the Beti, to hold a monopoly over political and economic power. To this day, the Beti continue to rule the country, as Biya continues to rule as President.
Violent protest among Anglophones became inevitable
As frustration mounted, incidents of anti-regime violence within Anglophone Cameroon grew in frequency and intensity to the point of quasi-civil war. The government’s security problems were multiplied by Boko Haram, which began attacking the northern region near Lake Chad from its main territory in northeast Nigeria.
The Biya administration has attempted, unsuccessfuly, to repress the anglophone rebellion with a harsh crackdown. The anglophone community's resilience may be strengthened by significant ethnic support on the Nigerian side of the border.
Despite its economic potential, Cameroon has lagged in development thanks to these basic issues with fair representation and democratic institutions. As for the immediate future, the Cameroonian government will not find peace unless it negotiates a new relationship with its anglophone community. Another Biya term will not represent progress towards a solution to the country's crisis. A return to the pre-1972 federal system would constitute a major step forward.