Chronicles of Cameroon’s Multidimensional Crisis during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo by Colette Nzogang/CDC Global
Photo by Colette Nzogang/CDC Global

Among other things, Cameroon has responded to the pandemic by relying on local political practices as well as diplomatic experiences with neighbouring countries in order to maintain its sub-regional leadership. By analysing how COVID-19 shapes local governance, this piece looks on the one hand at the entanglement between conflicts and the pandemic and on the other hand, it shows how the ‘sedimentation’ of the new pandemic unveils local political practices which affect Cameroon’s relationships with neighbouring countries.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic entered Cameroon after emerging in Wuhan, China and spreading to Europe. Since then, this novel pandemic spread slowly in Cameroon but its current second wave has become devastating. This health crisis appeared in a country already plagued by various other crises that undermine the “peaceful haven”. Bayam Salam, a local reseller, has aptly summed up the current trends of socio-political life in Cameroon in the context of COVID-19, when she said: “The Coronavirus finds that Cameroonians were already dead. We are now waiting to be buried”.

In Cameroon, the #COVID-19 crisis appeared in a country already plagued by various other crises that undermine internal stability.

The politics of COVID-19 in crisis 

Since 2018, Cameroon’s political landscape has been characterised by the rising demands for political transition, the radicalization of the opposition in Diaspora, and the State’s restricting of social media space. To maintain its authority, the government reacts with violence and the outbreak of COVID-19 offered an opportunity to reinforce this approach to state-society relations. Thus, the government response strategy to the new pandemic has been used, inter alia, to control all forms of challenges to the state. In September 2020, under the pretext of social distancing and respecting the lockdown, the Ministry of Territorial Administration banned a march organised by the main opposition party, Cameroonian Renaissance Movement (CRM). However, the CRM supporters still went ahead with their protest march on 22 September 2020, resulting in a violent response from the state throughout the country. The CRM’s president, Maurice Kamto, was also put under house arrest. In Douala, as a form of intimidation, a police force was also deployed at the Cameroon People’s Party (CPP) headquarters. 

As a response to the state’s heavy-handedness, Cameroonian citizens continued to voice their displeasure and protest, and the Diaspora took to social media to express their views. While this practice by Cameroonians of taking to social media and online platforms to protest against the government existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the state violence and lockdown imposed as a result of the pandemic has reinforced it. 

In these protests, women have not remained on the side-lines either. The Mother of the Nations, a movement launched by Edith Kah Walla, has been pleading for the end of oppression and a return to peace in conflict zones. In December 2020, the Cameroonian female Diaspora launched a resistance movement against the government called the Boby Ntanap revolution. In the main cities of Douala, Bamenda, Buea as well as in foreign countries like Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Germany, half-naked women protested for political change and the end of the Anglophone crisis. 

In addition to these body politics strategies, Cameroonians have remained defiant against the state. Despite the spread of COVID-19, a large part of the population refuses to wear face masks, to respect social distancing and to obey the lockdown rules. These practices are indicative of the breakdown in trust between the Cameroonian people and their government, especially since the latter is unable to end ongoing conflicts.

Persistence of asymmetric conflicts in the age of the pandemic 

The presence of Boko Haram in Cameroon has created the insecurity which involves a tangled web of gangsterism, terrorist acts, wars of succession, and political battle from northern elites. Despite the enactment of the anti-terrorism law in 2014 and the COVID-19 outbreak, Boko Haram attacks have intensified in the Far North Region. This intensification is linked to the shift of the Anglophone crisis into an asymmetric war. It now consumes more military personnel and logistical resources. To restore peace in the English speaking Region of Cameroon locally called NOSO, the organisation of the “Grand Dialogue National” and the creation of the NOSO Reconstruction Plan” do not seem to be sufficient. The COVID-19 pandemic has also not helped to end the cycle of violence in the region. Neither the Cameroonian army nor the secessionists called “Amba boys” have responded favourably to the ceasefire called by the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guetteres. Additionally, there has been a resurgence of femicide, infanticide, and attacks on humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The stalemate and the perpetuation of asymmetric wars in Cameroon can be explained by the depletion of the financial resources of the State. These two conflicts consume a large part of the State budget and the COVID-19 Special Fund for economic resilience is not able to reinforce the government’s humanitarian crisis response. 

The paradox of humanitarian State actions 

The increased forced displacements related to the Anglophone crisis, the crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the attacks by Boko Haram have reinforced the humanitarian crisis in Cameroon. Among others, the economic model of subsistence is weakened by the pandemic, which reinforces food insecurity and poverty. In addition, natural disasters and infrastructural underdevelopment are making it difficult to address other health issues such as cholera. This social precariousness is considered by some government members as an opportunity to introduce relief measures for the citizens. While the population expects the State to improve the level of development and strengthen the economy, the government instituted a series of donations of sanitisers, soap, face masks, and water containers as a means to fight COVID-19. The state keeps a monopoly on these donations by prohibiting initiatives from opposition parties. However, in some rural areas, these state donations have been strongly criticized by  local Chiefs

While the state has struggled with governance within its borders, it has displayed effective diplomacy with its neighbours. In east Cameroon, despite the increase of refugees, the government has managed to avoid the importation of the CAR conflict onto its territory. The Cameroonian authorities have also effectively mitigated tensions linked to CAR citizens’ allegations that Cameroonian truckers brought COVID-19 into their country. Through peaceful negotiations, the closure of the border by CAR was quickly resolved. These diplomatic feats are proof that Cameroonians have mastered the art of peacebuilding that can effectively be used to resolve internal crises.

Dr. Christelle Amina Djoulde and Prof. Gilbert L. Taguem Fah are both faculty at the University of Ngaoundéré and respectively executive director and founder of the Community Research and Development Centre in Cameroon.

Article by:

Amina Djouldé Christelle
Senior lecturer at the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts, Letters and Social Sciences of the University of Ngaoundéré, Cameroon
Gilbert L. Taguem Fah
Lecturer at the University of Ngaoundéré and founder of the COREDEC-Centre

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