By Rebecca Tinsley*
A new report on the Rwandan genocide finds the Mitterrand government was at fault for its support of the Kigali regime. While the Duclert report, commissioned by President Macron, concludes that France was not complicit in the 1994 slaughter, it renews debate about the former colonial power’s role on the continent. The central African nation of Cameroon, a former French and British colony, is now testing whether France’s policy has evolved since Rwanda. The Norwegian Refugee Council has called the Anglophone Cameroon conflict the world’s most neglected crisis for the second year running.
A bitter anniversary
April 6th marks 27 years since the start of the Rwandan genocide. In the 1990s, as the Duclert report acknowledges, France’s aim was to maintain its economic and military position in Africa, even if that meant supporting a genocidal regime to counter Anglo-Saxon influence. France supplied weapons and training to the Hutu-dominated armed forces in the early 1990s. Rwanda expert Linda Melvern has documented how French soldiers lured members of the Tutsi minority out of hiding at Bisesero, leaving 40,000 of them to be slaughtered by the Hutu lnterahamwe. Rwandan authorities believe France still shelters individuals implicated in the genocide, including former First Lady and genocide mastermind, Agathe Kanziga.
In Cameroon, a French-English bilingual country, an armed “Anglophone conflict” has escalated over the past four years. Although France has deep economic, military and diplomatic interests there, it has held back from pressing Cameroon officials to find political solutions to the political root causes of the conflict.
A Political Problem, Not a Military Solution
English speakers in the former British Southern Cameroons believe that the majority-Francophone government denies them the self-determination they were promised at independence. In 2016, Yaoundé imposed Francophone judges and teachers in the Anglophone regions, eroding their common law system and Anglo-Saxon school curriculum. Anglophone lawyers and teachers protested peacefully, but security forces responded with disproportionate brutality, according to Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group. The regime’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of moderates’ concerns ignited an extreme separatist movement and a spiral into armed conflict.
Now, impartial human rights groups report that hundreds of villages have been burnt, schools and hospitals attacked and abandoned, humanitarian workers harassed, uncooperative civilians shot or beheaded, and the economy shattered. The UN estimates that 700,000 are internally displaced, and 60,000 are sheltering across the border in Nigeria. Refugee claimants are in France, the UK, the UAE, North America, and more. There are no accurate casualty figures, but local NGOs estimate 5,000 have been killed. Anglophone civilians bear the brunt of the violence.
An estimated 800,000 Tutsi were killed in Rwanda in 1994. Cameroon’s death toll is not to this point, but it rises daily. With no end to the violence in sight, observers believe that only mediated talks can stop the bloodshed.
French influence is essential to push Cameroon to address the Anglophone conflict by attending negotiations, such as the Swiss-led peace talks on offer since 2019. The Vatican has added its voice, offering to help with mediation.
However, in a letter to French MP Jean-Jacques Bridey (dated December 10, 2020), the Quai d’Orsay repeats the Yaoundé regime’s claim that its Major National Dialogue in October 2019 resolved Anglophone grievances. Yet, most separatist leaders avoided the Dialogue, fearing arrest and indefinite detention without trial. Moreover, the root causes of the conflict were not addressed, and the violence has only intensified since the Dialogue concluded.
France has previously justified its stance because Cameroon is helping fight Boko Haram. Indeed, France has supplied weapons and funding to Cameroon’s military for this purpose. However, research in Foreign Policy shows that Cameroon has redeployed weapons intended to fight Boko Haram to the Anglophone regions, where they are used to commit atrocity crimes against Cameroon’s own citizens.
On January 1, the US Congress adopted a resolution condemning the human rights abuses against Anglophone civilians and calling for sanctions against those implicated in atrocities. The resolution also noted France’s friendship with 88-year-old President Paul Biya. A close friend of the French establishment, Biya has ruled since 1982. Transparency International ranks his regime as one of the most corrupt in the world.
Although President Macron admitted, when pressed at an event last year, that “intolerable human rights abuses are occurring in Cameroon,” France’s economic and diplomatic support persists. Yet, the Quai d’Orsay has the leverage to persuade Cameroon to talk rather than fight with its Anglophone minority, reforming its broken governance along the way.
French interests are best served by building a peaceful, stable and secure Cameroon, where corruption and systematic human rights violations are a thing of the past. There are daily atrocities in the Anglophone regions, and France knows from the Rwandan genocide that turning a blind eye is futile.
France has earned the admiration of the international community for its counterterrorism activities in the Sahel. Yet, if France is unwilling to act in the Anglophone conflict, it risks its reputation and chance to show leadership.
Perhaps President Macron is aware of this quote from the Harry Potter series: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
*Rebecca Tinsley is the author of When the Stars Fall to Earth: A Novel of Africa