The latest background report from the International Crisis Group, examines Cameroon’s history, its contemporary politics and the relations between its main social groups. The report uncovers points of potential instability and suggests how to tackle them. The country’s history shows a pattern of apparent stability followed by violent crisis. For long periods, problems have been masked but not dealt with, and consequent frustrations have led to explosions of violence. Today, the nation-building project has become frayed, as the economy has stagnated, and unemployment and inequality have risen. While potential organising forces are weak and dissipated, popular anger is high.
“Cameroon’s eventual ability to play a positive role in the region and to avoid being pulled into various cross-border conflicts depends on improving governance and avoiding potential instability within its own borders”, says Richard Moncrieff, Crisis Group’s West Africa Project Director. “Cameroon is of vital importance to regional security.”
The country’s institutions are weak, and multiple conflict risks exist. The regime retains its old conservative reflexes, but the experiences and expectations of a youthful population have moved on. The political opposition is weakened by internal fractures and an erosion of democratic space, leaving few channels to express legitimate discontent. National-level splits and politically manipulated ethnic tensions present a serious danger to national cohesion. Instability in countries to its east and in the Gulf of Guinea are testing the authorities capacity to react coherently.
The dangers are exacerbated by a complete unwillingness on the part of the government to engage in dialogue or negotiate with any of the myriad movements opposing it. Its reflex reaction remains to buy off those it can, while treating those it cannot as illegitimate and subversive. Jobs, money and favours are all distributed according to loyalty to the regime, and justice is highly politicised. The possibility of a democratic change of regime, or even leader, is low.
These tensions are for the moment contained, but the possibility of a perfect storm of national crisis feeding down to the local level cannot be excluded. In the past, trouble has come either from the street or from the palace. If the two elements combine, trouble at one level could multiply across the country, as entrepreneurs of violence exploit opportunities and turn communities against each other. A change of president is the most likely single spark. The risk is particularly acute, as after only two presidents in 50 years, there is a widespread perception that the next incumbent will take power for a long time. The stakes could hardly be higher.
“Cameroon’s ruling elite need to stick to the rules, including those they have themselves signed up to. While the formal aspects of democracy are important, the foundation needs to be rebuilt, and that requires a fundamental change of heart”, says François Grignon, Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director. “Without this change of heart, the distance between the population’s expectations and the regime’s refusal to change could prove too much for Cameroon’s much praised stability”.
Latest posts by International Crisis Group (see all)
- A Ceasefire and Negotiations the Right Way to Resolve the Libya Crisis - 10 March 2011
- Egypt Victorious? - 24 February 2011
- Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration? - 24 February 2011