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Hope and Introspection in Neighboring Cameroon as Nigeria Swears in New President

Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan with newly sworn-in President Muhammadu Buhari during his inauguration ceremony on May 29, 2015. Public Domain photo from the US State Department.

Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan with newly sworn-in President Muhammadu Buhari during his inauguration ceremony on May 29, 2015. Public Domain photo from the US State Department.

Cameroon and Nigeria share a long, tangled and sometimes tumultuous history going back to the era of British colonial rule when the British Cameroons was governed as part of the Nigerian Federation. During a 1961 plebiscite organized by the United Nations, British Southern Cameroons voted to gain independence by uniting with the French Cameroun while British Northern Cameroons voted to integrate the Nigerian federation. Today, Southern Cameroons has become the northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon, while Northern Cameroons has been absorbed into parts of the Borno, Adamawa and Tabara states of Nigeria.

Cameroon and Nigeria also share a long 2,000-kilometer border with the same ethnic groups straddling both sides. Both countries have been involved in longstanding border disputes, the most significant being the dispute over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsular, which was finally resolved when the International Court of Justice ruled in Cameroon’s favor in 2002.

Today, Nigeria is Cameroon’s leading trading partner, overtaking France, a former colonial power. Furthermore, at least two million Nigerians live in Cameroon (some put that figure as high as six million) while about one million Cameroonians live in Nigeria. Government-daily Cameroon Tribune describes both countries as “collés, dos à dos comme des frères siamois”, that is, “joined at the hip like conjoined twins.”

Given Cameroon’s proximity to and tangled history with Nigeria, it is no surprise that major socio-political events in Nigeria usually have an impact in Cameroon. For example, the conflict in Nigeria’s Delta region regularly spills into Cameroon with kidnappings and attacks on Cameroonian military outposts and border villages.

The Boko Haram insurgency is the most patent example of Cameroon literally catching a cold when Nigeria sneezes. What initially began as a local rebellion against the Nigerian government morphed into a full-fledged regional insurgency. As a result, Cameroon has had to deploy about 6,500 troops to northern Cameroon to stave off the jihadist group’s repeated attacks Cameroonian territory, the most violent being the February 2015 attack on Fotokol, which resulted in the massacre of about 100 civilians.

Frustration with Jonathan regime

Relations between Cameroon and Nigeria were strained in the months leading up to the presidential election due to Cameroonian frustration with what was perceived as the Nigerian government’s passive and lackluster response to the Islamist insurgency; passivity which was the catalyst for increased Boko Haram attacks on Cameroon, resulting in large scale population displacement, economic disruption, severe food shortages, widespread insecurity and an unprecedented refugee crisis in Northern Cameroon. As Cameroon’s army spokesperson Colonel Didier Badjeck complained earlier this year:

We're getting fed up with the situation. Nigeria has to take its responsibilities. We cannot continue to support the weight of a war which we don't even know the whys and wherefores.

The widespread anger at President Goodluck Jonathan was clearly captured in this January 11 tweet by an irate Cameroonian:

The Cameroonian army is fighting all alone against Boko Haram on the Nigeria/Cameroon border. Thanks Badluck Jonathan.

It was therefore with unprecedented interest that Cameroonians followed the Nigerian presidential elections. Expectedly, the majority supported the opposition candidate, retired General Muhammadu Buhari, because of his uncompromising rhetoric against Boko Haram, his unequivocal promise to obliterate the group if he became president, and his willingness, unlike President Jonathan, to recognize and welcome the role that neighboring countries were playing in degrading the Boko Haram war machine. As he stated in a pre-election jibe at the Jonathan administration:

It’s a big disgrace for Nigeria. It is now Cameroon and Chad fighting the insurgency more than Nigeria. We will build the capacity and Nigeria should be able to secure its territorial integrity

Ecstasy over Buhari’s victory

To claim that Cameroonians were simply “pleased” with the outcome of Nigeria's presidential polls is an understatement. Eye witnesses described:

Des scènes de liesse populaire… dans certaines villes du nord du Cameroun, à l'instar de Kousseri ou Mokolo après l'annonce de la victoire de Muhammadu Buhari.

Scenes of popular jubilation in some towns of Northern Cameroon such as Kousseri or Mokolo following the announcement of Muhammadu Buhari’s victory.

As a cab driver in Kousseri explained:

c’est normal que nous soyons joyeux ! Boko Haram et Goodluck Jonathan sont l’origine de l’insécurité dans l’extrême-nord du Cameroun. Donc, qu’il soit battu aux élections

rend les populations de la partie septentrionale du Cameroun heureuses n’est que justice

It is natural that we should happy! Boko Haram and Goodluck Jonathan are the cause of insecurity in the far north region of Cameroon. The people of northern Cameroon are happy because thanks to his defeat, justice has been done.

Cameroonian satisfaction with the outcome of the election was also demonstrated by the speed with which president Biya of Cameroon sent a message congratulating his “dear brother,” Buhari, for his “brilliant election,” and assuring the president-elect of “my constant readiness to work with you towards maintaining and consolidating the excellent multifarious relations existing between Cameroon and Nigeria, as well as between our brotherly peoples.” As journalist Annie Payep sarcastically observed:

So Biya has [already] congratulated Buhari. For someone who likes to take his time… this shows the insane love that he felt for Jonathan.

In his post-election declarations, Buhari reiterated his commitment to a regional approach in the fight against Boko Haram.

Exactly what Cameroonian wanted to hear. As Cameroon Tribune stated:

La détermination du chef de l’Etat nigerian de faire de l’éradication de Boko Haram une priorité absolue est un motif d’espoir.

The Nigerian head of state’s determination to make the destruction of Boko Haram a priority is reason for hope.

Thumbs up for Jonathan

In spite of the near unanimous belief among Cameroonians that their country became entangled in a “proxy war” primarily due to President Goodluck Jonathan’s incompetence, they nonetheless hailed him for the dignified and graceful manner in which he conceded defeat. For example, Henry Junior wrote in a Facebook comment:

Jonathan has distinguished himself in a land reputed for its production of men inebriated with power; men who would write scripts of election results and hold on to power zealously and jealously!!!

Scribbles from the Den replied in the same thread that:

Whatever his failures as a President, and they are legion, Goodluck Jonathan's singular act of conceding defeat defused a time bomb and saved Nigeria from a headache it did not need and could not afford. On that score alone, he is one for the history books.

Nkwebo Denis, the deputy editor-in-chief of Le Jour daily newspaper, simply tweeted:

If only it could happen in Cameroon…

For Cameroonians, the joy and pride in the outcome of the Nigerian election was tinged with melancholy and introspection about the political situation in their own country which has been governed by the same president for 33 years:

Lema Abeng-Nsah, publisher of Dunia magazine, tweeted:

In the same vein, Nutella Machiri tweeted:

And on inauguration day, KF Wakai asked the question on the minds of millions of Cameroonians:

A common future

Muhammadu Buhari is now in office and Cameroonians hope that that a new era of cooperation is at hand especially in the war against Boko Haram:

The expectation is that the cooperation will also expand to other areas. As a Cameroon Tribune editorial stated:

Au total, l’ouverture d’une nouvelle ère au Nigeria, suite à l’accession au pouvoir du général Muhammadu Buhari est une nouvelle opportunité à saisir par le Cameroun et le Nigeria pour donner un souffle nouveau à la coopération bilatérale. Condamnés à vivre ensemble, les deux pays doivent regarder dans la même direction et savoir saisir les opportunités qui s’offrent de part et d’autre. Ils ont l’avenir en partage.

All told, the beginning of a new era in Nigeria, following the ascension to power of General Muhammadu Buhari, is an opportunity for Cameroon and Nigeria to give new momentum to their bilateral cooperation. Condemned to live together, the two countries must look in the same direction and learn to seize the opportunities that present themselves. They share a common future.

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