Yaoundé/Nairobi/Brussels — Two years after Cameroon’s contested presidential election, political rivalry has taken a worrying direction as the incumbent’s supporters trade ethnic slurs with backers of his main challenger. The government should undertake electoral reforms, bar discrimination and work with social media platforms to curtail hate speech.
What’s new? Cameroon’s opposition leader Maurice Kamto continues to dispute the 2018 presidential election results, while his supporters and President Paul Biya’s exchange invective that often descends into ethnic slurs. Fuelled by online trolling, such hate speech is leading to violence.
Why does it matter? Tensions between the Biya and Kamto camps, increasingly framed along ethnic lines, threaten national stability, already rocked by the separatist insurgency in the country’s Anglophone regions. These strains risk tearing at Cameroon’s national fabric, with more bloodshed likely if the government takes no corrective action.
What should be done? The government should correct deficiencies in the electoral system that undermined the 2018 elections and outlaw ethnic discrimination. Facebook, the country’s most used social media platform, should work with the government, opposition and civil society to limit inflammatory content or misinformation lest intercommunal relations break down further.
Political and ethnic tensions unleashed by the disputed 2018 presidential election still roil Cameroon, already facing a separatist insurgency in its Anglophone regions. Defeated opposition politician Maurice Kamto continues to challenge the vote’s outcome, while President Paul Biya shows no sign of wanting to relinquish power after 38 years in office. Their supporters are now insulting each other with ethnic slurs online, especially in the country’s most popular social media forum, Facebook. Ethnic strains are rising alongside hate speech, trends that, if they escalate, could endanger Cameroon’s stability. To cool things down, the government should enter talks with its opponents about the electoral system and move to make that system fairer. It should introduce legislation barring ethnic discrimination and empower the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism to enforce quotas for the country’s many ethnic groups in public institutions. For its part, Facebook should do more to filter out hate speech and promote verified content to limit the spread of misinformation.
The dispute over the 2018 presidential vote, which many observers, including the Catholic Church, criticised as flawed, continues to shape Cameroonian politics. Since electoral authorities declared him runner-up to Biya, Kamto has contested the result, culminating in his February 2019 arrest on charges of insurrection, sedition and inciting violence. Even after leaving prison in October 2019, he has regularly lambasted the government for its failure to reform the electoral system. He and his party boycotted municipal and parliamentary elections in February 2020. Their abstention left the ruling party with an overwhelming majority in parliament, meaning that the government’s main rivals are not there to engage it in debate about the country’s major problems.
Kamto and his allies continue to butt heads with the government on the country’s most divisive issues. Kamto, himself part of Cameroon’s Francophone majority, criticises the government for holding elections in which few Anglophones could vote due to violence and a separatist-led boycott. He accuses Biya of mishandling the Anglophone crisis by prioritising force over dialogue. During street protests, he has advocated for the release of jailed separatist leaders, leading the government to depict him as a dangerous rabble rouser. Among both Biya’s supporters and Kamto’s, many frame the political dispute as a competition for power between their respective ethnic groups – between, on one hand, Biya’s Bulu group, indigenous to the Francophone South region, and the Beti of the Francophone Centre with whom the Bulu identify; and, on the other, Kamto’s Bamileke, indigenous to the Francophone West.
The COVID-19 pandemic and regional elections that the government has called for in December have only exacerbated tensions. Kamto asked parliament to vote on whether the president, who was absent from public view for some weeks when coronavirus infections started to spread, was still fit to govern. On 22 September, after Biya announced that elections of regional councillors would take place in two months’ time, Kamto launched peaceful street protests with the stated aim of ousting the president.
As the political temperature has risen, Cameroonian politicians and the public are making more use of social media to press home their messaging and their views. While the growth of social media has been a boon for free speech, the sector is weakly regulated. Activists of all political persuasions use it to propagate misinformation, widen ethnic divides and even incite violence. Inflammatory content online pitting Bulu and Beti against Bamileke has stoked tensions. Online videos of anti-Biya protests in Geneva in June 2019 prompted MPs from the South – largely Biya loyalists – to accuse emigres from the West, who are generally regarded as Kamto supporters, of tribalism. Violence broke out among these groups in Sangmelima in the South in October 2019, although it caused no fatalities. While it is hard to make a direct causal link, the juxtaposition of online antagonism and real-life skirmishes raises concern that the former could stoke the latter.
Neither side has taken action to temper its supporters’ rhetoric. Senior Cameroonian officials voice concerns over the online vitriol but have done little to reduce it. Any action the government takes in the name of curbing hate speech is usually a smokescreen for repressing its opponents. As for the opposition, it has done little to moderate its supporters’ tone, either, instead blaming the government for tribalising politics to sow division among Cameroonians who oppose Biya. For their part, national communications watchdogs remain under-resourced and distrusted by the public, without clear mandates to tackle what could be a threat not just to the government but to the country’s stability. Facebook itself does not devote adequate resources to stopping toxic online discourse.
If the logic of ethnic politics takes root, today’s tensions could extend into still worse inter-ethnic disputes as the ruling party and opposition position themselves for the end of Biya’s presidency. Such a scenario could pose a grave threat to a country that counts over 250 ethnic communities. It would be particularly tragic given that intercommunal relations have traditionally been reasonably harmonious, at least nationally (there have been frequent bouts of local ethnic violence, usually over land). The government, opposition and social media companies can all play a role in soothing frictions:
First and foremost, the government should initiate dialogue with the opposition outside parliament to build consensus on electoral reform. President Biya and his party have little enthusiasm for such reform, but it appears to be the only way to bridge the widening gulf between them and their rivals. Without it, opposition frustration will grow and feed even more ethnic division, a genie that at some point will be hard to put back in the bottle. Reforms might include introduction of a single ballot, as opposed to the multiple ballot system Cameroon currently uses that is open to manipulation, a more independent national elections body, timelier and more transparent election results.
The government should bar ethnic discrimination in public-sector employment by introducing amendments to expand the scope of the law proscribing “contempt of tribe”. It should also reform the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, a body established in 2017 but which is under-resourced and currently only has an advisory role, to redress such discrimination.
Facebook should ramp up its capacity – including through hiring more content moderators familiar with Cameroonian political culture – to sift through online content and identify inflammatory posts, with the aim of more proactively censoring such material. It should increase its outreach to actors across the political spectrum and work with them to better evaluate toxic content. For their part, the government and opposition parties should push their supporters to adopt responsible online community standards.
Working with government institutions, the opposition and civil society actors, Facebook should redouble efforts to ensure that it has verified their pages. By promoting verified pages, the company can assist users in differentiating bona fide information sources from misinformation.
Obstacles stand in the way of such steps. President Biya himself may resist measures he perceives as jeopardising his position. Many in the ruling party, with their eye on keeping power after Biya’s departure, will feel the same. Politicians on all sides have been too slow to condemn divisive rhetoric. Moreover, trusting the government alone to curb inflammatory speech would run the risk that it would use such measures to crack down on rivals. Outside pressure, for the most part behind the scenes, from those with influence in Cameroon – notably the U.S., the African Union, France and other European countries – will be crucial in pushing for electoral reform.
Still, both camps possess politicians who recognise the danger. President Biya himself should be wary of leaving behind a country riven apart not only by fighting and mounting separatist sentiment in Anglophone areas but also by wider tensions endangering Cameroon’s historically relatively amicable inter-ethnic relations. Acting now to mend fences with his opponents and cooperating with Facebook to stem hate speech would go some way toward minimising that risk.
Yaoundé/Nairobi/Brussels, 3 December 2020
Easing Cameroon’s Ethno-Political Tensions
Political and ethnic tensions in Cameroon have risen in tandem since the country’s contested 2018 presidential election, sowing further division in a country reeling from fighting between separatist insurgents and a heavy-handed military in its Anglophone regions. Supporters of President Paul Biya and leading opposition politician Maurice Kamto, released in October 2019 after nine months in prison on charges of insurrection, sedition and inciting violence, increasingly pitch their rivalry in ethnic terms. The politicisation of ethnicity is driving polarisation, with hostility on the rise between, on one hand, Bulu and Beti, perceived by numerous Cameroonians as close to Biya and prevalent in the South and Centre regions, and on the other, Kamto’s Bamileke, a community indigenous to the Francophone West but also with a heavy presence in cities across the country. A rash of communal attacks involving these groups in the southern town of Sangmelima in October 2019 illustrates the violence that could unfold as a result.
The Biya-Kamto acrimony has its origins in the 2018 election, which the opposition leader has repeatedly said was fraudulent and should be annulled. The opposition wants a new vote and hopes to push through some reforms beforehand. It fears that the 87-year-old president could resign or die before his term is over in 2025, necessitating a snap election as per the constitution, which would make any reform harder to achieve before a vote. Under the country’s current flawed electoral system, the ruling party would be better able to control a snap election than a regular one where the opposition has time to campaign. The Biya-Kamto dispute has spilled over into other issues of national importance, from the Anglophone crisis to the government’s handling of COVID-19. In December 2019, Cameroon’s Catholic bishops warned that political elites were sowing divisions that could lead to ethnic conflict. Making matters worse, internet trolls from across the political spectrum have used Facebook, the most popular social media site in the country with nearly 4 million users, to disseminate hate speech.
This report, building on previous Crisis Group publications on the 2018 presidential contest and February 2020 local elections, traces how the crisis has ratcheted up ethnic tensions. It lays out electoral reforms that could help resolve the dispute and calm associated communal animosity. It also explores what the government, opposition and social media companies, notably Facebook, can do to minimise inflammatory online content. It does not address the policies needed to resolve the Anglophone crisis or deal with COVID-19 but argues that meeting these challenges is impossible unless Cameroon’s leaders first soothe ethno-political tensions nationwide. During research between June 2019 and October 2020, Crisis Group spoke with government officials, politicians, diplomats, academics, civil society actors, traditional leaders, journalists and social media professionals.
Crisis Group is part of Facebook’s Trusted Partner Program and in that capacity has been in contact with Facebook officials in various countries concerning misinformation on the platform that could provoke deadly violence. For this report, Crisis Group spoke to and exchanged information with numerous Facebook officials throughout 2020. Their feedback is reflected throughout the text.
Our interactive timeline tracks ethno-political tensions in Cameroon since July 2018
II. Rising Political Tensions
The disputed 2018 presidential election marked a sharp deterioration of Cameroon’s crisis, which the opposition boycott of the 2020 parliamentary and local polls has worsened.
As political tensions have steadily risen, they have taken on a worrying ethnic dimension, fuelling a concomitant escalation of ethnic division between Biya’s supporters, on one hand, and those of his chief opponent Kamto, on the other.
A. Kamto’s Rise and the Acrimonious 2018 Election
Maurice Kamto’s rise as opposition leader is recent. In 1992, he supported what was then Cameroon’s leading opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), when it put forward John Fru Ndi for president. By 2004, however, he had joined Biya’s government as junior minister of justice. He resigned in 2011, complaining of deteriorating rule of law and development failures. The following year, he founded, and then became head of, the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC). The new party, benefitting from the SDF’s long-term decline, has become the government’s leading adversary, at least in Francophone areas, where it has attracted many former SDF backers. In the run-up to the 2018 election, Kamto won the backing of several small parties and politicians, including Akere Muna, a prominent Biya challenger, who withdrew from the race and endorsed the MRC leader. Kamto’s growing profile and apparent popularity suggested there might be a real contest, at least in large urban centres. Still, Biya’s nationwide support and control of state resources meant the opposition challenger faced an uphill struggle.
In Francophone regions, the election was largely peaceful, though shortcomings in the conduct of the campaign and vote were reportedly widespread. In some places, ruling-party members burned the MRC’s campaign materials, while in others government officials blocked its meetings. In the North, traditional elites reportedly instructed people for whom to vote (almost always the ruling party) and on election day, some people voted under the name of other registered voters without their knowledge, at times with polling agents’ complicity. Despite having previously offered assurances that it would not do so, the electoral body, Elections Cameroon, placed polling stations inside a military facility in Ngaoundere and in traditional chiefs’ palaces elsewhere, where voters felt pressured to vote for the incumbent. Observers claimed that polling officers attempted to bribe them and that officials arrested opposition poll monitors. They also reported missing opposition ballots in some places, ballot stuffing and disputes over tallies.
Campaigning and voting barely took place in the North West and South West, the two Anglophone regions. Anglophone separatists imposed a one-week curfew (or “lockdown”) to enforce their boycott. Both the rebels and the army intimidated would-be voters – the rebels by kidnapping party supporters and destroying ballots; the army by posting soldiers at polling stations to distribute ballots (normally, police and election workers perform these tasks). In the North West, Elections Cameroon also slashed the number of polling stations from 2,300 to 74, citing security concerns, but thereby deterring potential voters who did not want to travel long distances to cast their ballots. Meanwhile, clashes between separatists and the army led thousands to flee to Francophone regions, into the bush or to Nigeria, thus sacrificing their franchise. On election day, about a dozen people died in such clashes. Not surprisingly, turnout in Anglophone areas was low: roughly 10 per cent, contrasting with the national rate of 54 per cent, according to figures released by the Constitutional Council.
The election outcome sparked immediate controversy. The day after voting, Kamto declared himself winner, pre-empting the official result. Two weeks later, on 22 October, the Constitutional Council, the only body with a legal mandate to announce results, proclaimed Biya winner with an overwhelming 71 per cent of the vote, with Kamto coming in second with only 14 per cent. Prior to announcing the results, the Constitutional Council heard and dismissed petitions in which two opposition candidates, Kamto and the SDF’s Joshua Osih, pleaded for an annulment on grounds of violence in the Anglophone regions, widespread fraud and incorrect tallies. Most non-partisan observers thought it likely that Biya had won more votes than any of his rivals, even if the president’s numbers were inflated, and foreign governments recognised his victory. At the same time, important figures such as the head of the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference, Bishop Samuel Kleda, expressed doubt about the president’s wide victory margin.
With ill feelings running high, the dispute moved into the streets. Clashes pitted opposition protesters against security forces in early 2019. On 26 January, MRC supporters held protests in the political capital Yaoundé, the economic capital Douala, and Bafoussam in the Francophone West region, despite the authorities refusing to grant permission. Police and gendarmes intervened forcefully, using tear gas, water cannons and, in Douala, rubber bullets, injuring at least six demonstrators and arresting over 100.
The Cameroonian diaspora in Europe also protested. Reacting to police violence in Cameroon, a few hundred people gathered at the Cameroon embassy in Paris on 26 January. Some managed to enter the embassy grounds and ransack its offices. Similar protests took place at the Berlin and Brussels embassies with varying degrees of intrusion. The government accused Kamto of orchestrating these protests. Such allegations appear to have little basis: while some Paris demonstrators had affiliations with political parties back home, most of the protesting diaspora did not. In fact, many of Biya’s opponents abroad opposed Kamto’s participation in the 2018 election, fearing validation of a rigged process, and chose not to either register or vote.
The authorities were quick to crack down. Ruling-party politicians were shocked and furious that a former minister such as Kamto would defy the government so openly and take his dispute to the streets rather than seeking to resolve it in the courts. On 28 January 2019, the police arrested him and several senior MRC members. Over the following nine months, the government took hundreds more MRC supporters into custody, releasing some of them at intervals, including a group of 103 on 4 October, although some remain in detention for allegedly taking part in prison riots.
Kamto’s arrest in many ways was simply business as usual for a government that has long used lengthy pre-trial detention, or corruption charges, as means of blocking perceived rivals. Indeed, since 2017, the government has used similar tactics to silence Anglophone militants. Ruling-party insiders and other informed observers judge that the decision to arrest Kamto was also motivated by fear among some in Biya’s camp that, if unchecked, the opposition leader could disrupt the ruling party’s plans to retain power when the president finally leaves office.
B. “Dialogue” on the Anglophone Crisis and Prisoner Releases
Throughout much of 2019, the president maintained a hardline stance toward the Anglophone insurgency, despite increasing international concern. The government carried out a brutal counter-insurgency campaign while blocking and delaying dialogue initiatives. Separatists, for their part, continued to attack security forces. From the start of the conflict to September 2019, over 2,000 civilians were killed and 530,000 internally displaced, while 50,000 more sought refuge in Nigeria. In September 2019, some 700,000 children faced a fourth year without school – the separatists’ “lockdown” having shuttered schoolhouses. The conflict had crippled the region’s once vibrant economy.
A dialogue initiative did little to end the violence. On 10 September, under mounting international pressure to bring an end to the bloodshed, Biya announced a national dialogue to address the conflict. Preparations fell far short of Anglophone expectations, giving too much weight to Francophone voices. Although the government extended late invitations to about a dozen separatist figures, excluding those detained in Yaoundé, it did not make proper arrangements to ensure their immunity from arrest, leading the separatists to boycott the event. It also refused to allow a proposed Anglophone General Conference, intended to produce a coherent, pragmatic Anglophone negotiating position, to go ahead. As a result, Anglophones who participated in the dialogue came with no structured team or consensual set of demands, even if many welcomed the rare opportunity to air concerns.
As the conference unfolded between 30 September and 4 October, it became clear that Biya would make no more than minor concessions. Biya’s prime minister, Joseph Dion Ngute, himself an Anglophone, presided at the event and produced a set of conclusions. These stimulated rowdy debates, but in reality had been unilaterally prepared by the government and subsequently validated by the president. The main recommendation was special status for the Anglophone regions under the constitution’s decentralisation provisions, which provide for regional councils, increased local responsibility and dedicated budgets for local development.
Most Anglophones reacted angrily. Separatists stepped up their campaign of violence immediately after the dialogue ended, describing its proposals as illegitimate and refusing to moderate their call for the “liberation” of Anglophone areas by force. Even Anglophones who initially viewed the dialogue as a positive sign were rapidly disillusioned.
The conference did lead to the release of hundreds of political prisoners. Partly in response to criticism of the conference and increasing international concern at the growing number of political incarcerations in the country, Biya began releasing prisoners toward the end of the dialogue. On its penultimate day, the authorities dropped charges against and freed 333 Anglophone detainees, although neither prominent separatist leader Sisiku Ayuk Tabe nor any of the nine colleagues arrested with him in Nigeria in January 2018 were released. The following day, Biya used his presidential powers to release 103 MRC supporters, including Kamto, but not the party’s deputy leader, Mamadou Mota. MRC militants welcomed their leader’s release, as did the UN, France, the U.S. and the African Union.
But the releases did not relieve tensions between the government and opposition. Both continued to trade barbs over the Anglophone crisis and the legitimacy of the past election. Fresh out of jail, Kamto criticised the government-scripted dialogue and argued that talks with hardline Anglophone leaders were still necessary to stem the violence, a position firmly rejected by the government. He maintained his stance that Biya had stolen the 2018 election, though at that point did not call for more protests.
C. Flawed Parliamentary and Local Elections
Legislative and local elections only widened divisions. In November, upon Kamto’s release, the government announced that it would go ahead with long-delayed parliamentary and municipal elections. Soon thereafter, the MRC leader made it known that his party would boycott them and encouraged other parties to follow suit, saying the polls would likely be marked by massive fraud. Kamto also argued that the vote should be delayed over concerns that the conflict-ridden Anglophone regions were not ready and that holding the elections without first resolving the situation there would be tantamount to accepting the country’s partition. The government countered that the elections were a constitutional requirement and should proceed, as they had already been postponed twice.
Kamto’s message chimed with the concerns of many Cameroonians who believe that the country’s 2018 election was flawed. Many point in particular to the country’s multiple ballot system, which facilitates corruption and bribery. According to this system, each voter receives separate pieces of paper for each candidate. After choosing one candidate, the voter puts the marked slip into an envelope and places it in the ballot box. The voter is then permitted to exit the polling station with the empty, uncast ballots for other candidates. A common method of bribery or voter intimidation is for ruling-party officials to wait outside and ask to see the uncast ballots. One glance at the slips reveals which one is missing, and thus whom the voter chose. At that point, the party official may reward or berate the voter according to how he or she voted. The system thus creates pressure on voters to cast ballots for the ruling-party candidate.
Kamto raised other concerns, too. These included other means of voter intimidation, such as the role of the army and traditional elites, as noted above, and the government’s determination to manage parts of the process, including registering all observers rather than ceding that task to the electoral body. In 2019, opposition parties had advocated for revising the electoral code, adopting a single ballot, redrawing constituencies for parliamentary seats and completing computerisation of the electoral process – a job begun in 2012, but which had by the 2018 election only registered 6.8 million voters in its database from a potential 12 million in the country. The authorities largely ignored these calls (though in 2020 Elections Cameroon did continue slowly computerising voter rolls). As the local elections approached, at least one other political party joined Kamto’s boycott.
The boycott was controversial. However much Kamto’s supporters and other opposition parties believed he was right to call out the electoral system’s failings, many were surprised by his refusal to participate, believing it would leave his party with no voice in domestic politics. Kamto’s calculus was likely influenced not only by shortfalls in the system, but also by the fact that government officials were frustrating the MRC’s efforts to register its candidates and hold rallies, which he knew would weaken its performance if the party stayed in the polls.
The boycott almost certainly reduced turnout. The Constitutional Council announced a low national voter participation rate of 43.79 per cent, but independent observers reported far lower turnout in some large conurbations, for example in Yaoundé and Douala, where it ranged between 15 to 28 and 17 to 39 per cent, respectively. In the Anglophone regions, turnout was even lower, estimated by civil society observers at a mere 5 per cent. As in 2018, separatists imposed a lockdown to enforce their own boycott amid the deployment of hundreds of additional soldiers. Again, thousands of Anglophones fled, fearing insecurity, as separatists kidnapped candidates and targeted electoral officials. Bus companies suspended service to and within the region, businesses remained shut and streets were empty. In many towns, separatist militias fired shots in the air on election day and clashed with soldiers guarding ruling-party campaign convoys.
In addition to low turnout, reports of rigging tainted the elections. In the two Anglophone regions, the opposition accused ruling-party supporters of ballot stuffing, both to win and to conjure a mirage of higher participation. Voters’ sense that the government would control the outcome lowered expectations, and the consequent apathy helped ensure a mainly calm election in Francophone regions. In at least two towns, however, angry rival party monitors fought over voting materials. In one of those towns, Bourha, in the Far North, an irate mob attacked an Elections Cameroon official and ransacked a government office, protesting fraud after a local Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) candidate declared himself winner over his National Union for Democracy and Progress opponent.
The election, and particularly Kamto’s decision to boycott along with its ramifications, heralded a new phase in Cameroon’s political crisis. With Kamto’s party out of the contest, the CPDM won an overwhelming majority of parliamentary and local council seats. It increased its dominance in the National Assembly, taking 152 of 180 seats. The SDF slumped to five seats, lodging nineteen of the 40 petitions for parliamentary vote cancellation at the Constitutional Council. The Council ordered reruns for thirteen legislative seats, all in Anglophone areas, which took place on 22 March but returned the same results. The CPDM also won control of 316 of the country’s 360 local councils, while the SDF garnered just four councils, underlining the scale of its decline. With the MRC out of the game due to its boycott and the SDF severely weakened, the country is effectively drained of credible opposition representation in national institutions just as it faces its most profound crisis since independence.
Violence in the Anglophone regions, meanwhile, continued unabated. On 14 February, security forces and pro-government vigilantes killed over a dozen women and children in Ngarbuh, Ntumbaw in the North West. The government at first denied any responsibility. But following a number of investigative reports by journalists and NGOs and ramped-up pressure from France, on 21 April the presidency admitted that security forces had killed the victims. Still, it maintained that the deaths were accidental, occurring during a firefight with separatists.
On 6 September, Biya announced a regional councillors’ election for December, drawing a bitter reaction from Kamto, and seemingly signalling a new confrontation between government and opposition. Kamto said street protests, which he described as peaceful but aimed at ousting Biya from power, would start on 22 September. With Cameroonians divided over his approach, described by the government as insurrectional, Kamto’s supporters held minor marches in Douala and parts of the West region. The government increased security deployments in these areas and in Yaoundé, arresting many demonstrators. Although the MRC will not participate in these indirect polls, in which CPDM-dominated local councils elect regional counterparts, it seems determined to use the elections to mobilise discontent with the government. It may see the December polls as the last chance to do so for some time, as no further elections are planned for five years.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also fuelled tensions. At times, Cameroon’s official infection rate was among the highest in Africa (by August 2020, the coronavirus had claimed close to 400 lives in the country). From early in the crisis, Kamto sought to take advantage of Biya’s disappearance from public view as cases increased. On 27 March, he challenged Biya to prove he was alive and assume leadership of the COVID-19 response. Two weeks later, he asked the speaker of parliament’s lower house to seize the Constitutional Council in order to declare a power vacancy. The president reappeared on 16 April in an audience with the French ambassador, ending speculation that he was incapacitated or even dead. The result of all this political theatre was more bad blood between Biya and Kamto.
Competition between the two men to launch fundraising campaigns to combat COVID-19 fed further polarisation. The spat started when Kamto created the Survie Cameroon Survival Initiative (SCSI) to pool diaspora contributions to fight the pandemic, raising €300,000 within days. The government, fearful that the MRC leader’s effort would eclipse the president’s own pandemic solidarity fund, banned Kamto’s initiative, accusing his party of breaking the law by raising money from overseas. Kamto ignored the ban and continued pursuing his target of €1 million. He hoped that the police, gendarmerie, health and finance ministries would co-manage the funds, together with a member of his coalition, to mount the country’s coronavirus response.
The government took further measures to address COVID-19 even as it impeded Kamto’s initiative. On 15 April, Biya ordered the justice ministry to free more prisoners in order to decongest jails and lower the risk of mass transmission in the facilities. The order was carefully crafted to exclude those serving sentences for prison riots, such as the MRC’s vice president. Later in May, the government rejected a donation of medical supplies from Kamto and arrested six SCSI volunteers distributing masks and hand sanitiser in Yaoundé, while the police summoned senior MRC party officials for questioning. The government and extra-parliamentary opposition continue to attack each other at every opportunity, and it remains unclear how the COVID-19 standoff will end.
E. Political Strains Turn Ethnic
Today’s political divisions endanger decades of relative harmony among Cameroon’s different ethnicities. Despite ethnic strife during the civil war from the 1950s to the early 1970s, many Cameroonians regard the country’s diversity – it has approximately 250 ethnic groups, of which none dominates nationally – as a safeguard against communal violence. They see inflammatory language as a tool that politicians use during elections but that typically does not sour the overall climate of tolerance among ordinary people. Of late, however, political strains may be turning ethnic to some degree, as the Kamto-Biya divide sets a pro-Kamto West, inhabited mostly by Bamileke, apart from a pro-Biya Centre-South, dominated by Beti and Bulu. Ethnic discord has even seeped into the Catholic Church, which suffers disputes along these same lines. Activists linked to both the ruling party and opposition have fanned ethnic tensions by portraying their rivals as having an exclusive communal base and attributing ethnically stereotyped negative characteristics to each other.
Ethnically charged language appears to be stoking these divisions. Government supporters, in part using their control of public and some private media, consistently underline the MRC leader’s Bamileke origin, insinuating that his party has an inherent ethnic bias. Kamto himself seemed to reinforce an ethnic interpretation by suggesting he was denied victory in 2018 because of his ethnicity. On 4 July 2019, ten pro-Biya parliamentarians from the South suggested that the MRC and Bamilekes were responsible for violent demonstrations at embassy sites in Europe, an unfounded attempt to paint anti-government protest as ethnically driven. Officials and pro-government academics have made other worrying pronouncements, including through state media, some of which include incitements to violence.
Contrary to pro-government rhetoric, a closer look at the MRC’s leadership shows that no one ethnic group dominates the party. When Kamto was detained, his deputy, Mamadou Mota, who is not a Bamileke and who hails from Tokombere in the Far North, actively led the party. When Mota, too, was detained, a Beti woman from the Centre region, Tiriane Noah, took over. The party’s secretary general is an Anglophone from the North West. Moreover, many wealthy Bamileke continue to be a key source of funds and support for the ruling party, likely fearing that doing otherwise might jeopardise their business interests.
Partisan rhetoric has lent itself to stereotyping and hate speech. Government supporters have coined the term tontinard for MRC members, a slur derived from the word tontine, an informal self-help loan scheme widely practiced among the Bamileke. Detractors associate the tontine with greed, a characteristic that some government supporters are keen to attribute to the Bamileke, many of whom are prominent in Cameroon’s business world. In response, opposition supporters have minted a new insult for CPDM followers, sardinard. That term is derived from the ruling party’s practice of sharing bread and sardines during rallies. It is used to denote the illegitimate use of public resources to buy political support. Many MRC backers use this word to portray the Beti and Bulu as corrupt and incapable of prospering without government patronage.
In the South, an area long dominated by the ruling party, mounting ethnic tension appears to have contributed to riots in 2019 by groups of indigenous Bulu targeting Bamoun and Bamileke, who originate in the West. On 10 October, hundreds of townsfolk in Sangmelima attacked mostly Bamilekes, Bamouns (also from the West and related to the Bamileke) and northerners with sticks and stones, destroyed their property and looted their shops after locals blamed a Bamoun from the West for complicity in the murder of a local motorbike taxi driver. Locals continued their rampage for two days, causing several hundred people to flee to their region of origin. The rioting prompted calls by some social media activists for Bamilekes to arm themselves but the government quickly held intercommunity talks, which calmed the situation. The violence was exacerbated by underlying tensions over land rights, particularly accusations that migrants to the area, often Bamileke, buy up land illegitimately and occupy the best placed shops.
While political tensions have most sharply reflected rivalry between Bamileke, on one hand, and Beti and Bulu on the other, 25 April 2019 clashes in Obala, a small town 45km from Yaoundé in the Centre region, suggest that other ethnic fault lines could open up if political turbulence continues. During these incidents, local Beti clashed with Hausa immigrants from the North, whom locals perceive as opposition sympathisers. After one person was killed in a dispute between a Beti native and a Hausa migrant, youths from the two groups attacked each other with machetes and arrows, wounding twelve people.
A new government policy requiring city mayors to be selected from the region’s indigenous population may make things worse. In December 2019, the government enacted the policy as an amendment to a law on regional and local authorities. The new policy sowed resentment, especially among Bamileke, many of whom have migrated from the western highlands to major towns and cities in the central, southern and coastal areas. They see the new policy as a ploy to deny them political agency in the cities where they have settled and where migrant ethnic groups would otherwise likely dominate councils. The law builds on a 2006 statute stipulating that local councils reflect the area’s “sociological composition”. It will also likely frustrate migrants by obligating parties to exclude them from leadership positions, especially in Yaoundé and Douala, where people of migrant origin are a majority.
III. Social Media, Inflammatory Content and Misinformation
Unable to freely express themselves in media dominated by Biya’s administration and its allies for decades, government opponents, independent journalists and bloggers have leapt into the new social media space to get their messages across to Cameroon’s domestic and diaspora audiences. In response, the government and its supporters have also upped their presence online. But just as platforms such as Facebook have democratised the media landscape, they have also opened it up for bigots and merchants of hate. Both pro-government and anti-government activists now use social media to spread inflammatory discourse, propaganda and misinformation.
Social media use has exploded in recent years in Cameroon. The country of 26 million people had an internet penetration rate of 30 per cent as of January 2020, with 59 per cent of the 7.8 million internet users going online via smart phones. Bloggers, activists and private television channels on social media have eaten into the audiences of state media franchises. For example, at least two small private television channels in Cameroon have pages on Facebook, where they have pulled in over 480,000 followers each, exceeding or roughly equalling the online audience of the state-owned CRTV. Three political bloggers on Facebook, Mimi Mefo, Paul Chouta and Boris Bertolt (two of whom are abroad and one in jail in Cameroon), have over 100,000 followers each. They, along with others with large followings, generate debate on controversial issues and report news that state-controlled media prefer to skip. None of these particular actors themselves engage in hate speech.
Often caught flat-footed by social media’s fast-moving, interactive nature, the government has worked hard to ensure that its online presence keeps pace. Since 2018, President Biya’s staff have overhauled his website and his previously little followed Facebook and Twitter accounts, making regular posts, blocking critics and promoting his statements. He now has over 900,000 followers on Facebook, making him Cameroon’s most followed politician (and meaning that his online audience dwarfs that of state-owned media outlets). His communications team has seen to it that he is a verified user, the first political figure in Cameroon with that status at the time. In a clear sign that he understands social media’s importance, the president announced his July 2018 decision to run for re-election via Twitter. At the same time, the government has increased the army and police’s social media visibility, aiming to both polish the security forces’ image amid the Far North and Anglophone conflicts and counter criticism of military abuses. The ruling party has also set up a team of pro-government cyber-activists to occupy space online.
As both opposition and government voices have proliferated online, so too have the inflammatory opinions of provocateurs, whom politicians often tolerate or encourage. When addressing national issues, many social media users deploy old and new insults, such as tontinard and sardinard, against rivals. Some directly incite violence, running live video shows calling for attacks against particular ethnic groups or cheering the security forces’ violent crackdown on protesters. Government supporters sometimes express the false view that the Brigade Anti-Sardinards, a group of anti-government protesters in the diaspora, is acting as an armed wing of the MRC. On the other side of the spectrum, a U.S.-based Cameroonian published a video circulated widely on Facebook in July 2019 in which he called on Bamilekes to organise themselves against a Bulu-led government. This foray was condemned by prominent Cameroonian social media users, but others continue enjoining ethnic violence.
The feedback loop between events in-country and in the diaspora has been greatly facilitated by the spread of social media. As discussed above, the January protests at embassies in Europe came just hours after, and were likely inspired by, police brutality against peaceful demonstrators in Douala and broadcast worldwide via social media. When, in July 2019, MPs from the South, Biya’s area of origin, accused emigres from the West, Kamto’s area of origin, of being behind the anti-Biya protests in Geneva, the charge was shared widely on social media.
Misinformation is also on the rise, manipulating people’s emotions amid political tensions and further fuelling inflammatory discourse. It proliferates every time a contentious new issue emerges. Much of it aims to spread disinformation about key political actors and events. For example, on the eve of the October 2018 presidential election, social media users falsely claimed that Kamto was bribing another candidate to support him. Following the election, as the dispute over the result emerged, a video made the rounds among Cameroonians giving the false impression that the German parliament had recognised Kamto’s victory, in an apparent attempt to discredit the official tally. Users have also circulated misleading images purporting to show human rights violations by security forces, which either did not happen or occurred outside Cameroon. The government pointed to such instances to claim that all such reports are false, thus attempting to cover up real abuses.
IV. Limits to Managing Ethnic Tensions, Inflammatory Content and Misinformation
Cameroon’s authorities can draw on a number of laws and institutions in efforts to soothe ethnic tensions and stymie hate speech. Likewise, Facebook, Cameroon’s most popular social media site, has adopted policies aimed at achieving the same. Thus far, however, these measures appear to fall short.
Cameroon’s government and President Biya have historically aimed to manage ethnic tensions by distributing important posts in the cabinet, public sector and parastatal bodies to people from all ethnic and regional backgrounds. This practice was codified in a 1982 law, updated in 1992, that lays out precise regional quotas (a person’s regional origin is closely linked in Cameroon’s legal system and popular perceptions to his or her ethnicity) for public-sector hiring.
This approach suffers from important weaknesses, however. In practice, public-sector managers have a great deal of discretion in hiring, which they exercise with little oversight. Little stops them from ignoring the law, or even citing it as justification for hiring kin or co-ethnics. As a result, many Cameroonians believe that the law serves to circumvent the principles of meritocracy in recruitment. Another problem is making a clear-cut determination about a person’s region of origin: the law says to look at the traditional homeland of the father’s ethnic group, not the birthplace or domicile of the person in question. This rule can make the determination of origins contentious in a country with high rates of internal migration.
In theory, the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism could help, but its impact has been minimal thus far. The government created the commission in January 2017 to address Anglophone grievances and promote linguistic and cultural diversity. But its powers are merely consultative. Biya drew the commission’s fifteen appointed members from the ranks of civil society as well as former government ministers and its current head, former Prime Minister Mafani Musonge, reports directly to the president. While its activities have so far mostly related to the Anglophone crisis, in August 2019 it held a seminar on the risks of ethnic hate speech. It has also set up a mechanism for reporting such speech on its website. Overall, however, it has made little progress in addressing ethnic intolerance nationwide.
When it comes to regulating media, it is unclear whether Cameroon’s government – whose attitude toward journalists is often repressive – can both protect the right to free speech and check the rise of inflammatory online content. The government recognises that social media can be destabilising. As far back as 10 November 2016, the National Assembly speaker and leading ruling-party figure Cavayé Djibril, expressed what he said was the government position that social media was becoming a new form of “terrorism”. Yet the government tends to move only against media that it sees as a threat to its own position, as opposed to looking at the entire industry as a space requiring regulation. The May 2019 arrest of a blogger known for sharing material critical of the government is just one of many cases in point. The blogger remains in pre-trial detention on criminal defamation charges.
The government has also regulated the use of social media by its own employees, particularly those leaking sensitive information. On 28 March 2018, then-Prime Minister Philemon Yang issued a circular in which he denounced officials who had used social media to reveal confidential documents following a series of leaks, including classified police bans on senior state officials leaving the country. Three months later, the government ordered all gendarmes to quit social media platforms, concerned that sensitive security information could be made public. Thereafter, the secretary of state for the National Gendarmerie required gendarmes to obtain authorisation to open a social media account and asked them to delete all forums in which they were acting as moderators or administrators. The secretary of state was reportedly worried that military personnel were using social media to breach the requirement that they keep political opinions or work-related information to themselves.
Restrictions of this nature may be justified to ensure the security of government business, but in a country where human rights abuses are widespread, there is a risk that they serve to silence whistleblowers. Some of the information that police officers and gendarmes might leak is evidence of human rights violations, perhaps in the form of audio or video recordings.
When the government has taken measures to counter misinformation, its attempts have either proved ineffective or been politically motivated. In 2016, it set up a fact-checking website for Cameroon, operated by a strategic communications firm the government also contracts to promote sympathetic narratives. Since January 2017, the government has also sent text messages to citizens warning that those who spread misinformation will be prosecuted under the country’s cyber-crime laws. It is unlikely that this measure will stem the problem, however, and many Cameroonians doubt that it will be applied in a politically neutral fashion.
In the meantime, the government passed a bill in December 2019 criminalising “contempt of tribe”, although again it is unclear how much it will help curb ethnic tensions. The law punishes inflammatory language aimed at ethnic groups with a prison term of up to two years and a fine of three million francs ($5,000), which can reach twenty million francs ($35,000) if the rhetoric appears in the press or social media. It is too early to know if the government will apply the new law neutrally, so as to discourage all politically driven hate speech, or whether it will target individuals it considers threatening. Nor is it clear whether the law, whose terms are far from clear-cut, will enable the authorities to police the vast online space, assuming they are willing to do so. Applying it to thousands of social media posts would present a significant challenge for a government with low capacity for regulating social media.
Cameroon’s National Communication Council (NCC) could help address hate speech, but it is hobbled by limited operational capacity and public mistrust. The body was created in the early 1990s, partly to curtail inflammatory discourse as the country embraced free speech with the return to multi-party politics. In January 2012, the government expanded its remit to encompass internet communication. Its activities are limited to raising awareness among journalists, however, and it would likely struggle to tackle the sheer volume of content online.
Public opinion about the NCC is mixed. Its members include long-time government critics and independent-minded individuals, and, to its credit, it has tried to remain free of political interference, sanctioning journalists mostly when they publish unsubstantiated and damaging details about people’s private lives. Journalists’ unions, however, question the NCC’s independence and consider its sanctions against independent media excessive. While trying to stay autonomous, the commission has come under increasing pressure to toe the government line. For example, when it penalised pro-government media for inflammatory content related to the Anglophone crisis, powerful government supporters took the NCC to court.
Another body involved in policing Cameroon’s cyberspace is the National Agency for Telecommunication, Information and Communication (ANTIC). It is the country’s internet security watchdog, looking out for elements of cyber-crime including false identity, data safety, impersonation, fraud, fake domain names and online scams. Part of its mandate is to tackle fake internet news, including by raising public awareness of cyber-crime laws. Despite its broad remit, Crisis Group’s observations suggest that the body also struggles to police the thousands of voices on social media.
Social media companies are under pressure to curtail the surges in misinformation, inflammatory language and hate speech in Cameroon, with Facebook, the country’s most popular social media platform, facing particular scrutiny from both the government and ordinary users. Free speech advocates say the increasing use of Facebook has promoted open debate and boosted the profile of political commentators who are invisible in traditional media. Yet even some Facebook officials worry that inflammatory language in Cameroon carried on the platform, combined with controversy in many countries over the company’s alleged tolerance of misinformation and hate speech, may significantly damage its reputation.
Facebook has expressed its concern to Crisis Group about the situation in Cameroon, where it says it strives to uphold freedom of expression in an environment hostile to journalists and social media users. It has, for example, ensured that the page of a popular blogger in detention for alleged libel has remained active. The company uses a range of policies to protect high-risk users. Further, it submits itself to biennial assessments of its performance in upholding civil and political rights and works with a network of trusted partners who provide independent analysis of local trends which informs its judgment of user risk, of which Crisis Group is one, as described in the introduction above.
The company recognises that some types of content, such as hate speech, can lead to imminent, offline harm. Facebook officials say the company is increasing its capacity to research local context and to identify specific harmful material, including tripling the size of its teams working on safety and security worldwide. It uses artificial intelligence to proactively detect hate speech in 45 languages, which include French and English, Cameroon’s official languages. But with so many local dialects of both languages in use, this artificial intelligence system likely struggles to catch all the incitement. The company therefore further relies on users and a volunteer network to report inflammatory content and fake accounts. It has also carried some online campaigns to promote its online rules (commonly known as its community standards) targeting Cameroonian users. It uses third-party fact-checking organisations in the country to control the spread of misinformation.
Apart from in-platform work to moderate content, Facebook has physically reached out to Cameroonians. Company representatives visited the country in August 2018 and August 2019 to train government and civil society actors in its community standards and explain how the company can expunge pages and profiles promoting inflammatory content and misinformation.
Nonetheless, Facebook has no quick fixes, as few Cameroonian citizens or government departments report abuse or inflammatory language, often because they are not aware that the company can take corrective action. Facebook points to banning some users but has no country-specific breakdown it could share with Crisis Group. Observation of Facebook posts, limited to public rather than private posts, indicates that inflammatory content remains widespread.
There are several reasons for this limited impact. First, without significant evidence of the use of artificial intelligence bots or mass influencers in Cameroon’s online political debate, filtering out toxic material depends largely on identification of malevolent content, case by case, for which Facebook lacks dedicated Cameroon operations as it has chosen to boost global thematic teams rather than invest in country-specific understanding. The part-time use of voluntary groups seems unlikely to compensate for this lack of internal capacity. Secondly, Facebook’s algorithms used to monitor hate speech are not suited to identifying idiomatic expressions, often in a mix of English and French, which are specific to Cameroon.
Even more worrying, it appears that, at least until recently, the company’s algorithms for determining what material is given prominence in users’ newsfeeds may have given undue weight to incendiary content. The platform tends to spread content that is widely viewed, and users are more likely to engage with provocative material, whether they agree with it or not. The impact of Facebook’s new algorithm, which is designed to address this problem, is not yet apparent. Nor are the changes themselves well understood. Finally, Facebook’s in-person engagement with Cameroonians seems limited. Company representatives’ visits in 2018 and 2019 were short and did not include meetings with the political opposition, a key stakeholder in the issues that need addressing.
Welcome attempts by Facebook to work with ANTIC to verify Cameroon government pages as part of its efforts to certify bona fide sources of information do not seem to be yielding much change in behaviour online. Apart from the presidency and the communication ministry, which were early adopters, the company verified over a dozen government pages in 2020, but a significant gap remains. The justice ministry, whose head in October 2017 called on the country’s ten regional judiciaries to crack down on criminal acts on social media, especially anonymous accounts, is itself apparently not verified on Facebook but has two pages with its name. The lack of certification leaves internet users vulnerable to consuming news from fake pages and profiles purporting to be government pages.
As a result, among both government and opposition users, there is mistrust of the company, despite the range of tools it deploys, and both sides often see it as working against their respective interests. Government officials complain that Facebook is biased against the authorities in its choice of posts to take down or not take down, despite complaints, although there is little evidence of the company removing pro-government posts even if inflammatory. National prosecutors make scant use of contacts with Facebook to request information and metadata that could be used to prosecute bona fide cases of hate speech under existing laws. In contrast, many Cameroonian internet users complain that Facebook has taken down posts critical of the government, although here the company could be responding to pro-government activists’ complaints. In any case, government critics see little company action when they flag posts that they judge inflammatory.
V. Defusing Tensions
Cameroon’s mounting political and ethnic strains reflect a longstanding struggle between a ruling party that, although not itself always united, is seeking to keep the post-Biya transition in-house, and outside challengers, of whom Maurice Kamto is most prominent at present. The 2018 election dispute and the country’s compromised electoral system have severely exacerbated those tensions, which in turn play out in disputes over the Anglophone conflict and the government’s handling of COVID-19. Both the political crisis and resulting ethnic tensions are set to sharpen as speculation mounts over who might eventually succeed Biya. Both government and opposition politicians are likely to look to their ethnic bases when mobilising support for succession bids.
If they are intent on curbing tensions – a big if, at this time – government and opposition politicians will need to look to ways of working together to address issues relating to the flawed 2018 election and reduce animosity among ethnic groups. The ruling party’s crushing victory at the February 2020 polls, which has emptied Cameroon’s institutions of critical voices, means that, if they indeed want to seek consensus and avoid unrest, ruling party politicians will need to engage in direct talks with their rivals outside parliament. Conversely, if Biya’s party ignores opposing points of view, especially on electoral reforms, many Cameroonians will likely turn to protest, which the security forces will probably meet with lethal force, as in the past. The escalation in Anglophone areas following the repression of demonstrations in Bamenda and Buea in 2016, which sparked the prolonged crisis there, is a stark reminder of what can happen when political tensions get out of hand.
In the meantime, the government, political parties and social media companies should take steps to contain hate speech. Social media companies, particularly Facebook, ought to take greater responsibility for curbing inflammatory online content and devote sufficient resources to filtering out toxic material, as well as more actively encourage Cameroonian politicians to adopt community standards. All political parties, the government and civil society need to promote moderation and a more ethical use of their platforms in order to stop the entrenchment of hate speech, which could push the country toward ethnic competition that risks turning violent.
A. Electoral Reform to Build Political Consensus
This latest episode of political tensions in Cameroon stems in large part from the disputed 2018 presidential election. Independent observers and participants in Cameroon’s recent elections agree to varying degrees that the electoral system needs to be more transparent and credible. The government taking measures to address these problems could have two notable benefits. First, it would signal good faith and so dampen antagonism between it and the opposition, increasing the chances of reaching consensus on how to handle issues such as COVID-19, and most importantly, the Anglophone conflict. Secondly, agreeing upon broad principles now, thereby allowing Elections Cameroon time to apply lessons it has identified from previous polls before the next electoral cycle, could lay the groundwork for better elections later and ensure opposition buy-in. Many in the ruling party will resist such moves as counter to their perceived interest in holding on to power. But others will likely understand that Cameroon’s stability ultimately depends on advancing on such critical issues in a consensual manner.
In this vein, the government should open a dialogue with the opposition – outside parliament, given the ruling party’s capture of the institution – to seek agreement on necessary reforms, drawing on lessons from past elections, especially those of 2018 and 2020. Talks should be private to ensure frankness even as their agenda ought to be public to provide for a degree of transparency. They could be facilitated or mediated by an ad hoc panel drawn from religious bodies, civil society and the ranks of former civil servants and Cameroonian diplomats or those working in international organisations, as well as members of Elections Cameroon.
International actors can play their part. While they should stay in the background, as the government would react poorly to perceived attempts to internationalise election reform, diplomats in Yaoundé could nevertheless nudge the parties toward talks and impress upon them a sense of urgency. Pressure, which should take the form of private conversations among partners, including the U.S., the African Union, European countries – especially France which retains strong influence in Cameroon – and senior government figures in Yaoundé, could help tip the balance in the direction of talks, and eventually, reform.
Reforms optimally would reflect consensus and result from discussions between the two sides, though there are three obvious areas for change. First, Elections Cameroon could assume responsibility for more of the electoral process. Set up in 2006 to be independent, Elections Cameroon has made improvements by computerising the voter register and, in most instances, ensuring that ballots are delivered on time to polling stations, notwithstanding other flaws with recent polls. But the government manages the accreditation of domestic observers through its ministry of territorial administration, and of foreign observers through that same ministry and the foreign affairs ministry. The government arguably should have a role in accrediting foreign observers, but in the past, it has unfairly shut out their potential domestic counterparts. The authorities could adopt a two-step system wherein Elections Cameroon would accredit national observers and the government or other parties could challenge its decisions. A similar system is already in place for vetting candidates for elective office.
Secondly, the government should adopt the use of a single ballot, one of the recommendations Elections Cameroon discussed during its own review of the 2018 vote. As explained above, Cameroon’s multiple ballot system for presidential, legislative and local elections, whereby voters receive separate slips of paper for each candidate from which they select one, is open to abuse. A single ballot system, in which the names of all candidates would be printed on the same sheet of paper, would make it much harder for a third party to know after the fact for whom someone has voted, thereby curtailing opportunities for vote buying, intimidation and influence peddling. It would avoid the widespread instances in which opposition candidate ballots are in short supply. It would also reduce the amount of paper that needs transporting to and from polling stations and speed up the voting process.
It seems unlikely, despite what some government supporters argue, that voters would be confused by a single ballot. The current system, involving multiple bits of paper, already has drawbacks and requires poll workers to help voters in the polling stations, and candidates would have the opportunity during campaigns to educate the electorate on a new system using mock ballots. The electorate likely would be able to deal with such a basic issue as a single ballot, which is already widely employed across Africa (indeed, Cameroon’s system is a continental anomaly). Moreover, if Cameroon adopts the change soon, electoral officials would have several years to prepare voters before the next election.
Finally, the government should consider allowing more rigorous investigations of election irregularities. At present, the law reserves final proclamation of results in presidential and legislative elections not to Elections Cameroon but to the Constitutional Council. It relies for its information on the National Vote Counting Commission, over which a council member presides. But neither the council nor the commission, both of which are based in the capital, far removed from voting areas, is able to determine if voting was fraudulent or not, underlining the need for verification at the source and not in Yaoundé. This system has led to a loss of confidence in elections’ integrity among the opposition as well as ordinary Cameroonians.
The problem could be addressed in one of two ways or a combination of both. The government could pass legislation mandating the Constitutional Council or the Vote Counting Commission, or both in tandem, to work with local high courts to address voting irregularities close to the places where they occur, by hearing from witnesses and reviewing evidence in rapidly held hearings close to where problems have occurred. They could thereby tally verified votes within three days of voting, as is the case with municipal elections. The Constitutional Council would then have twelve of its allocated fifteen days to compile verified results. Cameroon might also consider allowing bailiffs, who are sworn independent professionals, working at the local level, to collect evidence of irregularities and to work on Sunday, the country’s usual election day, for which they now require specific authorisation. The bailiffs’ reports could then assist both local courts and the council in determining the integrity of elections where there are disputes.
B. Measures to Avoid Communal Violence
Cameroon’s ethic of vivre ensemble (“living together”, an expression often used to indicate that multiculturalism is one of the country’s highest ideals) is under growing strain. Checking rising communal antagonism will require political consensus and fairer, more transparent application of existing laws. Action in two areas in particular could lower the temperature: boosting the capacity of the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism and clarifying the enforcement of recent laws against hate speech, including ethnic slurs. Social media companies, meanwhile, should devote more resources to identifying problematic content, better explain decisions to remove inflammatory posts and users, and verify that the webpages of more people and organisations in Cameroon are genuine.
1. Calming ethnic tensions
Cameroon has a number of laws aimed at redressing ethnic discrimination, as well as the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. As it stands, however, neither the legal arsenal nor the commission is equal to the task.
The existing legal framework is insufficient. It includes the 1992 amended law governing the ethno-regional quota system in public employment, but as described above, it is often abused and not enforced by legal sanction. Another 2016 law criminalises discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, gender or medical status, but not ethnic identity. The 2019 law prohibiting “contempt of tribe” targets online hate speech but not ethnic discrimination in employment practices.
Parliament could pass new or revise existing legislation to outlaw ethnic discrimination, allowing watchdogs to take firmer action against practices favouring one group over another, notably in public-sector employment. Such action would help dispel public perceptions of bias on the part of powerful government supporters advancing their parochial ethnic interests. A new or revised law could also improve the application of the regional quota system by enforcing more transparency.
Reinforcing the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism could also help. On paper, the body has promise for redressing discrimination. But at present it is purely consultative, and its autonomy is compromised insofar as it reports only to the head of state. The government and legislators should grant it expanded, ombudsman-type powers, through a new or amended law revising its mandate.
An expanded mandate should allow the commission to monitor policies geared toward achieving regional balance in public appointments, such as civil service quotas. It should also be able to produce recommendations concerning how such policies are applied and seek judicial redress on victims’ behalf, thus circumventing the high political and administrative hurdles as well as financial costs of litigation for ordinary citizens. While ethnic quotas are unlikely to solve antagonisms in themselves, they are part of Cameroon’s legal system and go at least some way toward addressing the perception of imbalance in the distribution of government posts. They should at least apply fairly and transparently. The government should fund the commission so it can hire new staff, expand its monitoring and set up offices outside the capital. It should allow the body to present its work to the public and parliament, even if debate may be limited because the CPDM now dominates the assembly.
While some in the ruling party are likely to regard such changes warily, they would present advantages for President Biya. He should have an interest in making reform part of his legacy, given his stated concern that public institutions reflect the country’s diversity. The authorities already have a policy of promoting vivre ensemble, intended to recognise ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences and to ensure that various groups are represented in public life. Cameroon’s political elites should honour it.
2. Doing more to reduce inflammatory online content and misinformation
Given today’s political frictions, coupled with the explosion of internet use in Cameroon, it is no surprise that ethnic tensions born of the political crisis have both led to and been fuelled by a spike in hate speech and damaging misinformation online. Curbing such behaviour will not on its own resolve Cameroon’s ethno-political tensions, but it can help mitigate risks of violence.
One danger is that of the government politicising measures aimed at curbing hate speech. Cameroon’s regulatory bodies are under-resourced, but were they to acquire additional capacity, they could come under pressure to apply restrictions on social media content in partisan ways, namely by targeting government opponents. Political tensions could heighten further as a result.
In this light, Facebook itself should act on posts flagged by users and take down those that stoke hatred and violence. Policies to reduce inflammatory content and misinformation have special relevance for the Silicon Valley giant, given its large number of users in Cameroon, which is set to grow substantially as a younger tech-savvy generation emerges and politicians continue to use the medium to push their messages. The company can take a number of steps on its own initiative.
First, it should improve its own capacity – including hiring content moderators familiar with Cameroon – to evaluate inflammatory or fake content that risks provoking ethnic tensions and violence, and to remove such content from its platform. Given the particularities of Cameroonian hate speech, Facebook should increase its monitoring of French-language posts in the country and develop its understanding of linguistic nuances.
At the same time, it should work with other actors in Cameroon that can help identify and curb offensive content. It should boost its outreach to politicians across the spectrum and push them to notify the company of inflammatory speech, while also helping them implement guidelines for social media use by their supporters and verify bona fide content in order to differentiate it from misinformation. Facebook should increase its verification of pages of key institutions and influencers across the spectrum to reduce anonymity. It should also forge partnerships with Cameroonian civil society, NGOs and academics to solicit independent views as to whether particular content constitutes hate speech (though having a volunteer network should not free the company from developing its own resources dedicated to content moderation). Strengthening such relationships would also allow the company to better explain the procedures and criteria behind its decisions to remove inflammatory posts and users.
As for the government and political parties, they should also take responsibility for ensuring that their supporters stay clear of hate speech. They should do so in recognition that they are dealing with an increasingly digitally savvy electorate, but also to reclaim space lost to inflammatory online activists, including by regular posting of accurate information. Despite Cameroonians’ scepticism vis-à-vis political elites, the ruling and main opposition parties command sufficient followings to have an impact if they call for more ethical use of social media.
They should also promote their views through their own dedicated webpages, which they should ask social media companies to certify. Ideally, all government departments, public institutions and political parties should be producing content in the country’s two official languages of English and French on pages and profiles certified by Facebook and Twitter.
Political actors in Cameroon are driving up ethnic tension at a time of national crisis marked by the conflict in the Anglophone regions, deteriorating security elsewhere and a COVID-19 crisis that is throwing ever more of the country’s youth out of work. Intercommunal frictions are not a new phenomenon, but many citizens worry that the current wave has lasted over two years and that the animosity between Kamto and Biya will continue to poison ethnic relations across the country to an unprecedented degree. The government can avoid a slide in Cameroon’s fortunes and rising instability by reforming its electoral system as a matter of priority and by strengthening institutional bodies and laws to combat ethnic discrimination. Social media companies, notably Facebook, have a major role to play in tamping down tensions, by increasing their own capacity to filter out toxic content and ensuring that they do not themselves become catalysts of social upheaval and bloodshed.
Yaoundé/Nairobi/Brussels, 3 December 2020
Appendix A: Map of Cameroon