Cameroon: Is the absence of war peace?


Over the years I have keenly observed the various speeches made by Cameroon’s head of state, some senior government officials, and even casual Jude Mutahconversations among ordinary fellow Cameroonians. I am baffled at how many of them define peace in this 21st century. During last month’s Africa-U.S. leader summit, I was  (I would say fortunate) to attend one of the side events in Washington, DC titled “Investing in Africa,” where president Paul Biya  was scheduled to deliver a keynote speech. Though he was no-show (as usual), his minister in charge of private duties gave the president’s speech in his stead. During the memorably absurd 20 minutes address, a single sentence quickly caught my attention: “our country enjoys peace and stability with democratic institutions, which are solid and functioning normally”. Really?! These words left me pondering over what truly constitutes peace in any given society. Though everyone loves peace and would like to see it reign, the question that beasts my imagination is: does the absence of war means peace?

What is peace?

When you have the opportunity to study peace and conflict resolution; when you get to listen to Johan Galtung classify the various types of violence using the conflict triangle,  you would most probably experience an “aha” moment.  Prof. Galtung, father of the discipline of peace and conflict studies, breaks down violence into three major categories:

  • Direct violence which is the hurting and killing of people with weapons (war), murder, rape, assault, verbal attacks;
  • Structural or indirect Violence which constitutes the slow death from famine, preventable diseases and other forms of torture that results from unjust systems and lack of freedom and democracy. It is killing people without the use of physical weapons;
  • Cultural Violence which justifies direct and structural violence through racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination and prejudice in education etc.

According to Galtung, cultural violence provokes and legitimizes direct or personal and structural violence, whilst simultaneously instilling within us the feeling that structural violence is normal. Direct violence has its origin from cultural and structural violence, and in turn, feeds and strengthens them. Direct violence emanates from conditions established by the other two forms of violence; and to eliminate it, structural and cultural (violence) must go first. In simple terms, certain cultural values (ethnicity, race, tribes, and language) provoke nepotism and tribalism, which are forms of structural violence. When nepotism/tribalism exists in society, people may be forced to protest, pick-up weapons and kill each other, thus war, which is direct violence. Therefore we see how the three forms dovetail and overlap with one another.

There are also two kinds of peace: positive and negative peace.  In simple terms, positive peace is that which renders justice and equality to all. Thus, a society enjoys peace when justice prevails. Positive peace is genuine peace achieved through free will and the participation of everyone in society. It is the absence of violence in all its forms. Positive peace is not forced down people’s throats. It is vivid and easily felt by all.  The reverse is true for negative peace. It is that which is forced down people’s throats. For example, in a police state where authorities embrace little or no dissent. Negative peace is when people don’t have freedom of expression, thus, are not allowed to speak out. In which case, everybody will be miserable as they would not be able to express their dissatisfaction of the authority for fear of brutalization. Negative peace occurs when people live under an authoritarian/totalitarian regime that subjugates them and therefore, obliges everyone to conform for the sake of peace.

The case of Cameroon

President Biya and Opposition leader Fru Ndi at a meeting in Bamenda
President Biya and Opposition leader Fru Ndi at a meeting in Bamenda

Considering the above, is Cameroon peaceful?  And if it really is, what kind of peace is it experiencing? Negative or positive? The absence of war is just an atom or unit of direct violence as emphasized by Galtung. Doesn’t Cameroon experience at least one component of the different kinds of violence enumerated above? How then could one say Cameroon is at peace? This piece will focus on a few (less traditional) facets of bad governance/ lack of positive peace in the Republic of Cameroon.

Can we proudly talk of peace in a country where its citizens are slowly dying from preventable diseases? In 2009 and 2011, Cameroon witnessed one of the worst outbreaks of cholera in its history as a nation. Cognizant of the fact that this disease is caused by poor public health system, water scarcity and risky hygienic practices, nothing was done to prevent it from reoccurring.  In fact another outbreak erupted this year that has so far left close to 100 people death and another 1400 infected. Today, the government of Cameroon is blaming its inaction on the Boko Haram insurgency in the north of the country. What actions were employed in 2009 and 2011 when there was no insecurity threat posed by Boko Haram? Couldn’t the recent outbreak have been prevented if reasonable measures were taken when it first occurred? Cholera is just one of many preventable diseases (measles, Typhoid fever, mumps, etc.) that are plaguing the lives of Cameroonians.  Yet Cameroon boasts in face of the world to be a peaceful nation.

What about youth unemployment? Any country that cannot rightfully deliver to its youthful population has failed, and does not have the word peace in its vocabulary. Youth unemployment is one of the major challenges that Cameroon faces. Millions of youngsters in Cameroon are forced to roam the streets upon graduation from college because of the lack of opportunities.  Some are forced to leave the country in search of greener pastures in the West, resulting in forced migration and brain drain. Those who remain are confronted with high crime rates and striking poverty, which in turn forces many youths into terrible activities such as prostitution, drug abuse, gambling, and scamming as they struggle to earn a livelihood. It is estimated that about 48 percent of Cameroon’s population live below the poverty line. That amount may increase if reasonable measures to end this crisis are not employed. It is torture when youths are faced with the challenge of unemployment because of unjust systems implanted by the government. Structural violence is what forces the youth to migrate abroad in search of better life for the simple reason that the government cannot deliver. It is that violence that is embedded into the social system, and strictly restricts access to rights and opportunities based on gender, affiliation, economic background, sex, sexual orientation etc.  A society experiencing this kind of violence generates wealth for a few and poverty for many, of which Cameroon is a typical example.

Furthermore, have we considered for a moment how the military forces of the Biya’s regime heavily crackdown on the citizens whenever they carry-out peaceful protest?  In 2008, the massive strike against the president’s proposed constitutional amendment to allow him stay power, the rising cost of fuel and other basic commodities in Cameroon saw one of the worst military crackdowns in Cameroon’s history. The peaceful pro-democracy protestors were invaded by the brutal military forces of the president, and the result was massive arrests, detentions and torture. How many times have we heard of or witnessed the police forces in Cameroon fire tear gas and water cannons at protestors in order to subdue them?  In 2013, president Biya ordered the closure of dozens of churches in Cameroon because, according to him, the churches engaged in “unhealthy” and “indecent” practices which do not conform to the primary goal of spiritual growth of its people. What did he mean by “Unhealthy” and “Indecent”? Aren’t the freedom of religion and the right to protest human rights that are universally observed? The denial of such right from the people is structural violence and it is unacceptable.

Cameroon’s roads are highways to the grave. Within the span of five days alone in 2013, (October 7 – October 12) for instance, fatal road accidents in Cameroon claimed the lives of at least 90 people. Narrow and poorly maintained roads are blamed for these deaths. In 2010, about 12,000 people lost their lives to fatal road accidents in Cameroon. Many more died in the years before that. Today is 2014 and no measures have been taken by the government to redress the situation. These accidents could be prevented. Deaths from auto accidents are both direct and structural violence. Because the government is aware of the number of people that die each year from road accidents, and yet no steps are taken to correct the situation, it is murder.

I will not talk about key issues of corruption, embezzlement, other human rights abuses, broken democratic structure amongst others because they are well-known and documented internationally.

Hence, it is evident that Cameroon observes a negative peace, and this has been going on for a long time. It is time to embrace positive peace. And for this to happen, people must be able to live in a secure environment free from fear and devoid of threats and violence, both in law and practice. The police force for example should not brutalize the very people it is designed to protect. Everyone should be treated equally before the law, by justice systems that are independent and impartial, and with effective laws that protect the people’s rights. Peace is also when people are able to take part in political decision making processes that affect their lives, and also the government is accountable to them. For peace to prevail, everyone must also have access to the basic needs that define their wellbeing such as food, shelter, education, clean water, employment, functioning healthcare systems and healthy living environments. There should also be equal opportunity for all regardless of sex, political affiliation, ethnicity, etc. Once all of these (or at least ¾ of it) is achieved, then we can talk about peace in Cameroon. It is important that we get it straight, once and for all, that the absence of war alone is NOT peace. Peace in the sense of the absence of war is useless to someone dying of hunger or cold. It’s worthless for a person who lost a loved one to flood, preventable disease etc.


The sole recommendation I would make is for president Biya and his cronies to relinquish power with immediate effect. The Unity Palace needs a new face—a face that would bring in new and fresh perspectives to jump-start the Cameroonian economy once again. It would be useless to ask president Biya to fix the mess Cameroon is in today, because he has been in power for 32 years and has done nothing but perpetrate violence against the people of Cameroon. The thing that young Cameroonians yearn for most today is for Biya to step-down. His regime has failed the people. We need a new president that would allow the opportunity for peace, positive peace, to prevail.

*Jude A. Mutah is a peace activist. He currently serves as a Research Assistant with the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

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One Comment

  1. Good write up Mr Jude Mutah! Permit me to add that Cameroonian Youth don’t only want Mr Biya to step down from his throne, but they want a complete overall of the draconian and neocolonial system that was put in place after 1961, that have eroded all forms of confidence from the government over the governed in stag disrespect of the enlightened principles of the social contract. Again Cameroonians are tired with the auction of their country to foreign rule be it francophone or anglophone! There a steaming magma underneath the Cameroons that if care is not taken now and not later, the volcanic eruption will be unsustainable!

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