In Cameroon, an incident last week in which a gendarme shot and killed a young child in Buea—a regional capital that has been the site of clashes between anglophone separatists and federal government forces—is the most recent outrage to make international headlines. Yet every day, the country’s civil conflict inflicts a brutal toll on the population, with surprisingly little outside attention. For five years, a deepening crisis has pit anglophone separatists against federal authorities, leading to thousands of lives lost and hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced—disrupting the education of hundreds of thousands of children in the process. Despite humanitarian appeals for assistance to Cameroon, talks regarding aid delivery often produce disappointing results, and high-level diplomatic attention to the country’s unraveling is scarce.
Clearly, the exhausted people of Cameroon deserve help and support. But the world should not overlook another element to the instability gripping the country: the uncertainty around what will happen when President Paul Biya is no longer in office. Biya, at eighty-eight years old, has held his country’s highest office since 1982, governing in a highly centralized and opaque style that has kept power and economic opportunity concentrated among elites in his Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (RDPC). While Biya and his loyalists have attended to the window-dressing of democracy, in reality elections are manipulated exercises with foregone conclusions. Organized opposition that shows signs of being a genuine threat is met with repression and intolerance. Speculation abounds regarding who will succeed the ailing Biya, whether or not that process will be constitutional, and what role the overstretched security services—who have been charged with simultaneously defeating the separatists in the west and combatting Boko Haram in the north—might play in a jump-ball scenario. The answers will either make an already bad situation worse or orient the country toward a long and doubtlessly arduous path out of its downward spiral.
Now is the time for Cameroon’s regional and international partners to send clear messages about the costs and consequences of potential power-grabs that further degrade the institutions of the state while making explicit the support that those committed to genuine political inclusion, reform, and the rule of law can expect to receive. Importantly, those worried about Cameroon’s future cannot defer to France, whose long and complex history of influence in Yaoundé has led many observers and civil society leaders to be deeply suspicious of French motives. France’s recent support for unconstitutional, dynastic succession aimed at ensuring continuity and predictability in neighboring Chad has only heightened these concerns. Few would argue that what Cameroon needs is more of the same governance that brought the country to its current state.