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Cameroon: Is the Absence of War Peace?


Over the years I have keenly observed various speeches made by Cameroon's head of state, some senior government officials, and even casual conversations among fellow Cameroonians. I am baffled at how many of them define peace in this 21st century. During the 2014 Africa-U.S. leader summit, I was 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. He was absent, however, and 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". These words left me pondering over what truly constitutes peace in any given society. Does the absence of war truly mean peace?

What is Peace?

In the study of peace and conflict resolution you are likely to come across Johan Galtung's conflict triangle 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, (Galtung Violence Triangle, 1969) 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, resulting in direct violence in the form of war. Therefore we see how the three forms dovetail and overlap with one another.

Galtung (1969) references two types peace: positive and negative peace. 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. It is vivid and evident to all.  The reverse is true for negative peace. It is that which is forced down people's throats, in a police state where authorities embrace little or no dissent, for instance. Negative peace is when people don't have freedom of expression, thus, are not allowed to speak out and express their dissatisfaction with 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

Considering the above, is Cameroon peaceful?  And if it really is, what kind of peace is it experiencing? The absence of war is just a 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. Considering the fact that this disease is caused by poor public health systems, 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 dead and 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 security 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 being a peaceful nation to the global community.

Furthermore, consider 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 in 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. But aren't the freedom of religion and the right to protest human rights that are universally observed? Denying people these basic rights contributes towards the argument that structural violence does indeed exist.

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.

From the examples above, it is evident that Cameroon observes a negative peace, which has been the case 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 when the government is accountable to them. For peace to prevail, everyone must also have access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, education, clean water, employment, functioning healthcare systems and healthy living environments. In addition, there should be equal opportunity for all regardless of sex, political affiliation, ethnicity, etc. Once we begin to achieve these things, we can then talk about the road to peace in Cameroon. It is important that we fully understand that the absence of war alone is NOT peace.

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.

Photo courtesy of The Commonwealth via Flickr Commons

About the Author

Jude Mutah

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more