Liberté, Egalité, Impunité
Cameroon’s courting of Russian support has left France on the back foot.
Emmanuel Macron landed in Cameroon last month as the first French president in a decade fighting for his country’s primacy in the region. Accompanied by a formidable entourage of diplomats, businesspeople, and French-Cameroonian cultural figures, he was keen to strike a different note to his predecessors as he launched his new interpretation of Françafrique. Yet, Macron arrived in Yaoundé amid a return of great power politics. In April, Cameroon’s announcement of a military agreement with Russia – at the peak of international condemnation of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine – had sent shockwaves through the Quai d’Orsay in Paris.
The five-year Cameroon-Russia defence agreement is extensive, including joint training, consultation of military experts, and collaboration in the fight against “terrorism” and piracy. Despite rumours, the delivery of Russian military hardware seems unlikely given the ongoing war in Ukraine. However, the pact does open the door for entities like the Wagner Group. Russia’s unofficial private military company has already deployed in neighbouring CAR and Mali, where it has been widely accused of atrocities. Russia has exploited insecurity in these countries to usurp French influence, but Cameroon – the crown jewel of Françafrique – would be its biggest prize yet.
Cameroon has taken on an increasing importance to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. Most significant for Russia is Gazprom’s long-term deal to be the exclusive off-taker of the Perenco Cameroon export plant’s annual 1.5 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Moscow badly needs these exports given the strong international sanctions in place. These punitive measures have disrupted several other Russian projects such as the Etinde Gas Field, offshore from Cameroon’s conflict-hit South-West Region, in which its energy giant Lukoil has a 37.5% stake.
The critical importance of Gazprom’s Perenco LNG is clear from Russia’s activities in its enclave of Kaliningrad, which is supplied with gas through a pipeline that runs through Lithuania, a member of the EU and NATO. Amid concerns that these bodies could cut gas supplies to Kaliningrad, Russia recently positioned an LNG platform there. Multiple reports have identified tankers making deliveries to it – many from Gazprom in Cameroon. Cameroon’s resources are not only important for Russia’s economy, but the national security of its geopolitical gem, Kaliningrad.
On the other side of the relationship, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya understands how to play the international system as only an autocrat in power since 1982 can. Well experienced in insulating his government from foreign pressure, Biya knows that signing the agreement essentially guarantees Russian support at multilateral fora. This ensures Cameroon can avoid scrutiny over issues such as the Anglophone crisis and its atrocities, a blow to human rights experts monitoring the conflict.
The particular timing of the pact may have been a rebuke to the US’s long-awaited announcement of Temporary Protected Status for Cameroonians, which cites “the extreme violence perpetrated by government forces and armed separatists”. The US withdrew large amounts of defence funding from Cameroon, a former central partner in the War on Terror, in response to allegations of human rights abuses in 2019.
Amid this backdrop, the key questions ahead of Macron’s visit were threefold. First, what would a new Françafrique look like? Second, what influence could Macron have over Cameroon’s critical questions of political succession, security, and human rights? Third, what price and promises would Cameroon be able to extract from France – and what might Russia offer in response?
How did his visit go?
Quick to be conciliatory, Macron did his best to charm his way into the regime’s good books. Yet on substance, there was relatively little beyond positive talk of a food resilience programme and a laudable initiative to open the French archives from Cameroon’s brutal war of independence. On security, Cameroon reportedly requested French assistance in the Far North, where Russia would be waiting, though any details are yet to be confirmed. And despite an awkward moment when an RFI journalist asked Biya how much longer he would stay in power, Macron side-stepped questions on the octogenarian’s longevity, though his meeting with Biya’s son and alleged heir, Franck, spoke volumes.
On the Anglophone crisis, Macron’s interventions were deeply disappointing. He endorsed decentralisation and dialogue as the solution to the conflict, ignoring the fact that Biya’s existing efforts have only provided his regime a fig leaf to avoid more scrutiny. Three years on from the 2019 “Major National Dialogue,” any promise it held in resolving the fighting has long evaporated; and the government itself has admitted that giving the Anglophone regions “special status” has yet to have the desired effect. The lack of commitment to resolving the crisis only deepens opportunities for Russian involvement in the future. On human rights, Macron was quieter still, despite the immense challenges across Cameroon on that front.
In trying hard not to undermine France’s precarious position in Cameroon, Macron failed, at least in public, to combine diplomatic niceties with tough love for his autocratic counterpart. In so doing, he neglected his duty as the leader of a country that claims to stand for human rights and freedoms. Paris’s goals may have been fulfilled, but Macron did not deliver the hope that many Cameroonians were desperately looking for.
This is a big problem. No country, irrespective of Russian or Chinese interest, has greater influence over Cameroon than France. If Macron is unable to make headway on these issues, it is difficult to see who possibly could. This disappointment is only compounded by Macron’s subsequent visit to Benin, which saw some 30 political prisoners released. Was even that not achievable in Yaoundé?
In Cameroon, Macron pioneered his new vision for Françafrique, but in so doing he lost France’s vital voice on human rights. He failed to reckon with France’s legacy in Africa without losing sight of the French values of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – not Impunité.
Was Macron’s visit enough to dissuade the Biya regime of Russia’s ambitions? Only time will tell. But if Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov landed in Yaoundé soon, few would be surprised.