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President Paul Biya has not survived in power for over 37 years by showing great sensitivity to local or international criticism, let alone by accommodating outright opposition. Like other leaders and sympathetic opinion-formers across Central Africa and beyond, he has rationalised authoritarian tendencies and crony relations by insisting on his regime’s essential role in ensuring stability (AE 384/20, 354/21). While governance shortfalls may define the daily lives of Cameroon’s multi-ethnic population, a nation created first by German colonisation and then by division between the British and French empires has traditionally avoided identity-based conflict. Its governance record may be spotty, but Cameroon has been essentially stable.

Biya’s Cameroon is replete with ambiguities: some enlightened business dealings have meant international operators supplying electricity via privatised utility Eneo (51% owned by UK private equity firm Actis) and Victoria Oil and Gas selling natural gas to industrial clients in commercial capital Douala (AE 324/22). Meanwhile, an often opaque governance culture leaves Cameroon scraping along near the bottom of Transparency International and other indices.

The government argues that the 9 February legislative and municipal elections, which should have been held in 2018, show a functioning polity at work – albeit with problems at its edges. The ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement won a predictably sweeping victory. The opposition was divided, as Maurice Kamto’s Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon called for a boycott but veteran Anglophone oppositionist John Fru Ndi’s Social Democratic Front participated.

It was no surprise there was very low turnout among Anglophone communities in the Southwest and Northwest regions, and in major urban areas where many Francophones expressed their disaffection. Conflict between Cameroon’s army and English-speaking separatist militias has killed more than 3,000 people. Some 600,000 are displaced in the Anglophone region, where one in three of the 4m population are in need of aid as the economy withers. Meanwhile, the Boko Haram insurgency continues in the northern Lake Chad Basin, despite the Cameroonian military’s claims to have made progress in the longstanding conflict with the help of Chadian and Nigerian forces. Thousands have died here too, and some 250,000 northern Cameroonians are displaced.

Biya’s party machine may have got out his vote in early February, but cannot paper over Cameroon’s multiple conflicts. African Energy last week asked a senior Cameroonian African Development Bank official where in the country he came from. “We are neither Anglophones nor Francophones, but one sole nation,” he replied sharply. Although communal relations have been a festering sore for years, only recently did the Anglophone-Francophone divide come to define views of Cameroon.

A national dialogue began in Yaoundé last September, but is perceived as yet another instrument of government control. Biya on 12 February made his most expansive gesture yet – Chatham House analyst Paul Melly called it “a heartfelt appeal” – claiming his new decentralisation laws, giving the Northwest and Southwest “special status”, would represent “a genuine peaceful revolution that respond to the desire of our fellow citizens to participate more fully in the management of local affairs”.

More inclusive, decentralised politics, a much greater commitment to economic and social equity and more open, rigorous governance would help to ease Cameroon’s crises. The separatists’ breakaway state of Ambazonia may never be realised, nor emirs loyal to Islamic State rule over the Muslim north, but there has already been a profound shift in the fractured Cameroonian polity. Aged 87, Biya cannot go on for ever, but re-elected in 2018 with an official 71.3% of the vote, he has not named a successor and may feel he can continue into his 90s. The defining question for those engaging with a country once presented as ‘Africa in miniature’ for its geological and cultural diversity is whether Biya’s regime can hold back the potential tide of violent change.