Relationship between citizens and their army is changing fast like never before in Cameroon, with unintended implications for peace and stability. Created on the back of fighting a bloody domestic insurgency against colonialization, the over fifty year old army anchors firmly its doctrine around ensuring the security of the regime. The military establishment perceives protection of the ruling government, its raison d’etre as key institution and guarantee of its privileges and prestige. For the army, providing security services against threats to society is secondary and derived from ensuring the protection of the regime. The assumption runs like this: regime change will undo their special privileges as well as bring chaos, instability and ultimate failure of society too.
A perennial and wide gulf has therefore existed between the army and majority of the population in areas of politics and democracy. The two successive regimes after independence have always had vested interests to preserve the ‘perception-divide’ in order to secure their owned survival. In their collective consciousness, the population perceives the regime willingness to direct the coercive power of the army against civilians as credible, a stopgap against any popular movements for change. The government has always manipulated the gap, employing the army to achieve domestic political ends. Military privileges have not only remained unchanged, but have increased, even when crippling salary cuts have been imposed on all civil servants, following the economic crisis, of the 90s.
But the dynamics seems to shift, albeit silently. Wide spread and systematic attacks by Boko Haram, a violent terrorist group has rallied Cameroonians behind their army. While exact figures remain unknown, Amnesty International recently estimated that over 380 civilians and dozens of security personnel have been killed by the Nigerian-imported fundamentalist group, in the Far North region of Cameroon, since the beginning of the year. The performance of the army so far, has mobilized the whole nations around their new role as provider of ‘people’s centered’ security services— against indiscriminate suicide bombs, kidnappings, hostage takings, tortures, abductions and child soldiers. The army has therefore become the army of the people, emerging as an organic platform for displaying patriotism, substituting football as an unparalleled rallying point for Cameroonians. The socialisation is given rise to an emerging social contract between the population and their army, with likely profound impact on politics as well as security— the exercise of legitimate civilian control by the executive over the army.
Cameroon’s defense policy seeks to balance between internal stability and specific relations with its neighbors. But the orientation of the army, the core of the armed forces, is shifting from internal to external defense. Besides the border conflict with Nigeria and fight against piracy, the defense posture has always been inward-looking. The army’s role, previously, was limited to fighting urban criminality, high way robbers, deter coup d’état and civil strives, as well as other threats to regime’s survival. For instance, the BIR, the leading and able-fighting elites force was created in 1999, to cope with a paramilitary, highway criminality threat, known as ‘coupeur de route’.
But the fight against Boko Haram is transforming Cameroon’s defense posture. The spillover of the violent terrorist group from Nigeria into Cameroon, in 2014, and its regional reach, remains the greatest ever external challenge to national security and territorial integrity, since independence. No week goes without reports of attacks, as well as the frightening and deadly nature of the group’s tactics.
With the coming of Boko Haram, the army is projecting force externally in an unconventional war, for the first time. And in doing so, the role of army as security provider is more and more apparent, to citizenries. They are not just defending the country’s territorial integrity but also providing direct security services to the population— protecting them from growing risks of suicide attacks. The army appears to be re-conceptualizing its role to include that of trusted provider of peoples-centered security services. As a consequence, enhancing socialization as well as trust between the army and the people. But more importantly, the army increasingly view the security of the population as emerging ‘social contract’.
As the army projects force externally, it also acquires civilian attributes, too. Due to the changing configuration of threats, Cameroon has opened to greater participation in international peacekeeping missions abroad. Unlike the past, the army is actively participating in peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions in the continent and the Central African region, with likely socialization implications. For example, for the first time in history of Cameroon, a faction of the army that participated in the AU-led peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic was able to successfully organize a protest for their unpaid wages.
Newly found socialization
Cameroonians perceive their army in a new way, like never before— as guarantor of their security, livelihoods and lifestyles. The socialisation remains unprecedented in the history of the country. Citizens have mobilized across ethnic, demographic, gender and religious affiliations to support the army. Mobilization extends even beyond all political divides including the opposition and the ruling party. In fact, the army has become the new found symbol of expression of nationhood. Mobilization has taken different forms. Nation-wide marches in support of the Armed Forces have more recently been accompanied by voluntary financial contributions from citizens. The exact figure of what has been collected so far remains unclear, as well as the cost of war.
While the socialization is very much organic and bottom-up, it has been facilitated by the government. It is not clear why the regime has surprisingly tolerated and even facilitated its evolution. The Head of State has put into place an inter-ministerial committee for mobilizing funds from the masses. A ‘beauty contest’ seems to be going across the country involving all constituencies including opposition parties— demonstrating who can give the most money to the army. In addition, the significantly increased 2015 military budget was adopted without any disagreements from opposition parties. In public spaces and media, Cameroonians talk about the army with a new found respect, caution and reverence. The press increasingly take a cautious approach in analyzing the conduct of the war by the army.
Attempts to manage the process from the top has brewed frustrations within the army and the population. Concerns have been raised about transparency and accountability of the solidarity funds so far collected. Allegations of corruption and diversion of funds by government officials are rife. One of the leaders of the opposition, has denounced the political hijacking of the solidarity movement and demanded that the inter-Ministerial Committee render accounts to the population on how the money is spent on monthly basis.
The socialization process appears to run in both directions, in a likely virtuous cycle. As the knowledge gap between the army and people closes, both see their interests and roles in a more complementary rather than contrarian manner. The population interacts positively with the army through various informal platforms. In turn, the socialization strengthens in a significant manner the legitimacy of the army in the eyes of the people. With the country perceived to be in a ‘state of war,’ Cameroonians feel obligated to provide unreserved support to the army. With each suicide attack, the social gap between the people and the army appears closer, reinforcing and reshaping the corporate and social responsibilities of the army, in a way never imagined. A mark contrast to the colonial and early post-colonial eras, where the army was largely perceived by the population as a repressive tool used successively by the two regimes to secure their owned survival.
Riding the tiger
It remains unclear and unpredictable how the army will use the new found legitimacy beyond the fight against Boko Haram. Based on the conduct of war so far, the army appears to command more pride and respect than core institutions of government— like the Senate and National Assembly. More importantly, this legitimacy inclines the army to develop an autonomous identity. A newly forged identity may even project the army as a fourth and decisive arm of power, besides the executive.
The army may likely develop an independent view of society, less influenced and misaligned with that of the executive. The military may increasingly not make distinction between political parties in terms of their commitments to support the army as an institution in the war against Boko Haram. The shift could profoundly influence and impact the loyalty of army to the executive as well as the way the army might position itself in the democratic space. For example, the 2008 nation-wide hunger strike that shocked the foundation of the regime was quelled by the BIR, the largest elite force. But unlike 2008, the army may likely be reluctant to use overwhelming force to quell people-led demonstrations when ordered by the executive. Not only because the military would have acquired a moral capital that it will not like to squander. But mostly too, it would have solidified its identity as an instrument with the mission to fight external aggression rather than quelled popular protest movements. Opening fire against armless civilian would seem like a contradiction to its new role identity. Hence, undermining the executive from exercising unconstrained control over the armed forces, key to regime security.
It is unclear why the regime facilitates the seemingly risky and double-edged sword like military-society socialization process. But it appears it is also benefiting from some sort of short-term legitimacy as a government, able to rally together the increasingly fragmented Cameroonian society around a common enemy. A large consensus has emerged for unwavering support for the Head of State, the Commander in Chief of the armed forces for the swift defeat of Boko Haram. Thus, the fight against the nebulous group has become more important than perceived uncertainties around political transition in Cameroon
The army is emerging as a key player in any possible transition, too. But, how it would position itself depends on overcoming its own internal dynamics. The sharing of credits from the war against Boko Haram appears to generate tensions within the army. While the fight remains a collective efforts by all armed forces, the over six thousand BIRs regiment of the army have been positioned as the face of the war, overshadowing the numerically superior conventional army, which almost doubles the elite force. The BIRs are well trained and equipped as well as empowered with a crosscutting mission of internal and external security. Recently, Cameroon’s 83 year old president singled them out for exceptional recognition of their role in the war. But due to the frustration engendered, the President had to come back, days after to also recognise the role played by the rest of the army. The strength of command and control authority within the army and how it will play against centrifugal forces of tribalism and partisanship remains unclear, too.
With the socialization, the army’s identity increasingly becomes inseparable from politics. It is likely that key officials in the military establishment may want to build on the growing moral capital to carve a role for themselves in any possible transition arrangement. How constructive will be their role remains an open question? The army may either play constructive role like in Burkina Faso, wait-and-see role like in Burundi and destructive role like in Mali.
How it all plays, depends on farsightedness and entrepreneurism of civil society forces, too. Against the complex process, it is hard to predict outcomes with certainty. It is not unlikely that some political actors will want to seize their growing proximity with the military to forge alliances with key elements in the army with consequential impact on the transition. While the Senate as per the constitution is empowered to manage the process of vacancy at the helm of state, it remains weak as a new institution. And like most institutions of government, it suffers from visible credibility deficit as well as recurrent tensions with its sister institution, the older national assembly. It is not clear how it will manage the process in practice. In the event of an impasse, the army would likely tap into its acquired credibility. Even if it wants to stick by the constitution and stay indifferent, it is likely that the army may be actively invited by civil society forces.
The changing military-society relationship marks not only politics but also lays the foundation for undertaking a people-centered reforms of the security sector. Many attempts at reforms have stalled at the level of the Presidency. While Cameroon’s policy for employing force has been guided by the concept of popular defense, it however employs the population as mere instruments rather than substance of security provision. The government could seize the opportunity presented by the socialization, to formally align mandates of security institutions with the delivery of rights-based services to people, in an equitable manner.
Managing the socialization process remains critical for peace and stability as well as laying down lasting foundation for an orderly and inclusive transition in Cameroon. This would need to be managed carefully in order to avoid becoming a double-edged sword for the regime.
Charles Akong: Global Affairs Blogger @ http://mettaboy.blogspot.com/
Tchioffo Kodjo Gael Political Analyst, PhD Candidate @ University of Leipzig
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