Soldiers with the Cameroonian Naval Commando Company participate in a live-fire range under the supervision of U.S. Marines at Isongo Training Area, Limbe, Cameroon, Feb. 18, 2017.

Soldiers with the Cameroonian Naval Commando Company participate in a live-fire range under the supervision of U.S. Marines at Isongo Training Area, Limbe, Cameroon, Feb. 18, 2017. (Robert Piedra/U.S. Marine Corps)

Even before the failure of French policy toward the Sahel, there have been calls in Washington for the United States to distance itself from France and assert an independent policy, although few have had clear suggestions for how to go about that. The stakes now are much greater: Besides the growing jihadi threat, Russia has emerged as a potent regional player, exploiting anti-French and anti-Western sentiment to enhance its influence and skirt international sanctions by using sub-Saharan Africa to generate revenue. Cameroon’s government will fall sooner rather than later, and most likely its next regime will track closer to Russia. The U.S. must act now.

The clock is ticking

Cameroon’s government will change hands soon for no other reason than the fact that its longtime dictator, Paul Biya, is now 90 years old. Biya in the past decade has been pulling the country away from France and into the Russian orbit. Cameroon and Russia signed a security cooperation agreement in 2015. In April 2022, Cameroon and Russia signed a second security cooperation agreement that extended the scope of the first. In July 2023, the two countries inked an agreement lifting some visa requirements. Also in July, Biya attended the second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, and has voiced support for Russia in its war in Ukraine. In October 2023, the Cameroonian president’s official website posted photos of a meeting with the Russian ambassador under the headline, “Cameroon-Russia Cooperation: We want to go farther.”

Perhaps more pertinently, there is little chance Biya’s death will bring about a democratic transition. What will happen is that individuals now waiting in the wings are poised to seize power. They probably will continue if not strengthen the country’s pro-Russian tilt. Chief among these powerbrokers are Franck Biya, the president’s son; Ferdinand Ngoh, the general secretary of the presidency; and Joseph Beti Assomo, the minister of defense. All three reportedly have warm relations with the Russian government.

The reality in former French colonies is that France has been losing local elites, who themselves are rejecting France or who are being toppled by those who do. Russia has positioned itself to benefit, while the United States has not. In Cameroon’s case, the United States recently distanced itself from the country because of human rights abuses by Cameroonian security forces (including American-trained units) in their counterterrorism operations, as well as in their repression of Anglophone Cameroonians in the once-separate portion of the country known as Southern Cameroons or Ambazonia. These concerns prompted the United States in 2019 to restrict security assistance to Cameroon and become more openly critical of the Biya regime. Washington did this reluctantly, as Biya’s Cameroon was seen as a good counterterrorism partner. Cameroon has made valuable contributions to a regional effort to combat jihadis in the Lake Chad basin region involving Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria, with assistance from the United States and France.

Why Cameroon matters

Counterterrorism remains one reason: We value the country as a counterterrorism partner and would like it to remain useful. Another reason is geography. Cameroon is at the epicenter of a tumultuous and fragile region. It stretches from the Lake Chad basin to the Gulf of Guinea. It shares borders with the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and the Republic of Congo. Chad and Nigeria are struggling with active jihadi insurgencies; CAR is a failed state with an active Wagner presence; Chad is a fragile state often described as the next to “fall” due to the precarity of its pro-French leader, Mahamat Déby, who seized power unconstitutionally in October 2022 after his father’s death.

Another reason is natural resources. Cameroon sits on large oil and gas deposits and is rich in mineral ores. None of these may be, on their own, significant enough to inform U.S. policy, but they become important in the context of Russian efforts to skirt sanctions and generate wealth.

Lastly, anti-French and anti-Western sentiment in general in much of Africa centers around the allegation that France and the United States have propped up autocrats and stifled real democratic change. Striving to head off an undemocratic transition in Cameroon would be an opportunity to demonstrate a real commitment to democracy.

Policy recommendations

The way forward is for the United States to change its current paradigm of engaging in sub-Saharan Africa. First, it must become proactive rather than reactive. In Cameroon’s case, this should be relatively easy, as events are moving slowly forward with the inevitability of a powerless ship drifting toward a shoal. Second, it could more stridently champion democracy, as well as look beyond the elites in Yaoundé, the capital city. This means meeting with civil society and opposition leaders, including in exile. For Cameroon, this must include Anglophones, including leaders of the Southern Cameroons diaspora in the United States and exiled opposition leaders.

Certainly, the State Department and other executive branch agencies should not be shy about talking to people in or from the South Cameroons living in the U.S. for fear that Yaoundé will get upset. This is not to suggest that America supports an independent Ambazonia. The point is to widen the aperture and engage with a broader section of Cameroonian society. Talking with Anglophones would send a message to all Cameroonians that the U.S. is interested in a better future for the country and all its parts. At the same time, the U.S. should also identify among Cameroon’s power brokers individuals more amenable to American interests and find ways to back them, including leaders from Southern Cameroons. In the past, France could have been counted upon to have a favorite and work to ensure that favorite’s ascendancy. However, France no longer is willing to play the game of engineering African politics, it seems. This, too, must be part of the U.S. government paradigm shift as it applies to former French colonies: Stop assuming the French are on top of things, for they are not. Those days are over.

Michael Shurkin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He is also director of Global Programs at 14 North Strategies, an Africa-focused consultancy. He formerly was a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. and served as an analyst in the CIA.

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