Cameroon: Investigation exposes UK covert military backing

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 17:45

A soldier stands guard in Yaounde
A soldier stands guard on a street in Yaounde, Cameroon January 28, 2022. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

The investigative journalists at Declassified UK have revealed the country's role in providing covert military support to President Paul Biya's regime in Cameroon.

The investigations unit has accused the dictatorship of being run by ‘just five men’, and say there is ‘extensive corruption’ among the highest-ranking officials.

President Biya has been governing Cameroon for nearly 40 years, and he has been widely criticised for his authoritarian approach and sweeping executive powers. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) accuse the government’s armed wing of torture, executing children and burning buildings.

Papers obtained by Declassified UK reveal that Britain has been supportive of Biya’s regime, conducting six secret counter-terrorism operations in Cameroon last year. Projects involved training and ‘capacity building’ for troops tackling the Boko Haram and Islamic State groups.

The documents show that Britain is currently responsible for building ‘training villages’ in Salak, a village in the Far North Region of Cameroon. A British army short-term training team was deployed to Salak in January 2021. There was a “train and advise activity with the Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR) and Direction Générale de la Recherche Extérieure” until around mid-April 2021.

Salak has been previously mentioned in a report by Amnesty International, in which the NGO detailed ‘unofficial detention centres’, where hundreds of people loosely suspected of belonging to the rebel group Boko Haram were tortured. The report also highlighted the presence of international forces in Salak, including the regular presence of the US and French military personnel at the BIR base in Salak.

Paul’s partners

The UK has a fairly good relationship with Cameroon. In March 2021, the two countries signed an Economic Partnership Agreement. The minister for Africa at the time, James Duddridge, said the deal would “make sure around £200m ($269.7m) of trade between the UK and Cameroon can continue”.

In May 2021, the chair of the house of commons international trade committee, Angus Brendan Macneil, wrote to the government to consider ending the trade agreement, citing human rights abuses in Cameroon.

Macneil said: “Numerous human rights organisations have reported that government security forces in Cameroon are guilty of arbitrary detention, torture, sexual abuse and the killing of civilians.”

According to him, “the government needs to be clear about how its trade policy relates to its aspiration to promote ‘British values’ abroad”.

The US government terminated Cameroon’s ability to benefit from its preferential trade terms in December 2019 because of “gross violations of internationally recognised human rights”.

London’s ties

On 15 December 2021, Ambassador James Roscoe, the UK’s acting deputy permanent representative to the UN, made a speech in New York detailing $6m of humanitarian aid to Cameroon in the next year, as well as condemning the rebels’ attacks on civilians in the Far North. “We welcome the efforts of the Multinational Joint Task Force to tackle Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa in the region,” he said.

“The UK government continues to support regional stabilisation efforts through our support to the regional stabilisation facility, working with international partners and regional governments,” he said.

The bottom line

According to the UK ministry of defence briefing papers obtained by Declassified UK, British diplomats often overlook Biya’s ‘shortcomings on human rights and democracy’, partly because his government voted with the UK to condemn the use of chemical weapons by Russia and Syria.

The documents say the UK sees Cameroon as a ‘priority lobbying country’ at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Read more about the UK’s relationship with Cameroon’s military forces in Declassified’s full investigation

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options