Since late 2016, members of Cameroon's minority Anglophone community have demonstrated against their perceived marginalization, exposing historic fissures in Cameroon's diverse society and placing further strain on a government facing serious political and security challenges. The administration of long-serving President Paul Biya has responded forcefully, prompting international criticism. The unrest may be of interest to some Members of Congress, given possible implications for stability in Central Africa and U.S.-Cameroonian security cooperation to counter Boko Haram, the Nigerian-origin Islamic extremist group. (See CRS In Focus IF10279, Cameroon; and CRS In Focus IF10173, Boko Haram (The Islamic State's West Africa Province).)

Demonstrations began in October 2016 as lawyers across Cameroon's two predominantly Anglophone regions (see Figure 1) organized strikes to protest the predominance of French language and jurisprudence in Cameroon's legal system and the appointment of Francophone judges to Anglophone courts. Teachers and students joined the demonstrations in November, protesting the placement of French-speaking teachers in Anglophone region schools. Security forces cracked down on marches in November, leading the U.S. Department of State to call on the government to exercise restraint.

Figure 1. Cameroon

Source: CRS graphic. Literacy data from Cameroon's Central Bureau of the Census and Population Studies, 2005.

In early December, authorities violently dispersed demonstrators in Bamenda, the capital of North-West region, arresting dozens and reportedly killing at least four people. The crackdown drew condemnation and calls for investigation from United Nations human rights experts and Amnesty International. The African Union human rights commission also expressed concern, highlighting the "disproportionate" use of force against "peaceful and unarmed" protesters. The clampdown has continued: after negotiations between state officials and representatives of the Anglophone community stalled in mid-January, the government banned two prominent Anglophone groups and arrested three top activists. The three face charges under an anti-terrorism law that has drawn criticism for its expansive definition of terrorism and harsh penalties. On January 17, telecommunications providers cut internet to Anglophone regions—reportedly at the instruction of the government. The blackout has reportedly hamstrung business activity in affected zones. Officials have warned journalists against reporting on the unrest and threatened social media users with fines and imprisonment for "spreading false news."

Historical and Political Background

France and the United Kingdom each colonized parts of Cameroon; French Cameroon achieved independence in 1960, and in 1961 was joined in a federation by part of British Cameroons, to the west. The federation was dissolved in a 1972 constitutional referendum and replaced with a unitary republic. The 1972 constitution enshrines both English and French as official languages, and the country operates under a dual justice system under which Anglophone and Francophone regions follow different legal codes. Still, Anglophones have long complained of under-representation in government and unequal access to public goods and services. There have been periodic calls for the secession of "Southern Cameroons," the British colonial-era term referring to current-day Anglophone areas. The linguistic divide extends into politics: the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the largest opposition party, draws support from Anglophones and has advocated a return to federalism—a prospect that government officials have dismissed. The recent protests do not appear to have been primarily driven by SDF leaders, however.

President Biya (84), in office since 1982, is one of Africa's longest-serving leaders. A constitutional amendment passed by parliament in 2008 abolished presidential term limits, making him eligible to stand for another seven-year term. He has yet to confirm whether he will run. Biya has no clear successor, spurring concerns of a power struggle should he step aside or become incapacitated while in office. Legislative elections are also slated for 2018; Biya's party, the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement, holds large majorities in both chambers of parliament. The ruling party has Anglophone members, notably including Prime Minister Philemon Yang, in office since 2009.

The Anglophone protests add to a broader context of domestic strains and regional security threats facing the Biya administration. The government violently suppressed large street protests in 2008, but high unemployment and corruption continue to kindle discontent. In the north, Boko Haram attacks have displaced some 192,000 people and triggered a humanitarian crisis. Cameroon also hosts some 88,000 Nigerian refugees and 260,000 refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR). Analysts question whether Cameroon's centralized political system can respond to grievances in the ethno-linguistically diverse country.

Issues for Congress

Since 2014, Cameroon has become a significant recipient of U.S. security assistance in Africa due to its involvement in the fight against Boko Haram. Cameroon also hosts some 300 U.S. military personnel engaged in regional surveillance operations, who first deployed in 2015. In mid-2016, the Department of Defense (DOD) reported to Congress that U.S. security assistance intended to support Cameroon's counter-Boko Haram efforts (from both the State Department and DOD) had totaled at least $111 million since FY2015, on top of programs budgeted on a multi-country basis. DOD subsequently notified Congress of an additional $19 million in counterterrorism training and equipment for Cameroon. Cameroon's military has received additional U.S. support in the context of its peacekeeping deployment (over 1,000 personnel) to neighboring CAR.

Congress has enacted laws requiring the State Department and DOD to vet foreign security forces for gross human rights violations prior to providing certain types of U.S. training and equipment—though vetting challenges alone do not necessarily lead to the suspension of military cooperation (see CRS In Focus IF10575, Human Rights Issues: Security Forces Vetting ("Leahy Laws"). Notably, current allegations of abuses against protesters implicate the elite Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), with which the United States is "partnering closely" in the context of counter-Boko Haram operations. Amnesty International has separately accused elements of the BIR of committing extrajudicial killings and torture during counterterrorism operations. More broadly, Members may examine the sustainability of U.S. security assistance investments in Cameroon in the context of questions about President Biya's future tenure.