Can Macron stave off Russian influence as he travels to Cameroon?

By Nancy-Wangue Moussissa

Posted on Wednesday, 27 July 2022 17:37
French President Emmanuel Macron visits Cameroon
Cameroon's President Paul Biya shakes hands with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron at the presidencial palace in Yaounde, Cameroon, July 26, 2022. REUTERS/Desire Danga Essigue.

Macron's trip voyage to Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau comes as France faces a crisis of legitimacy in the region. The former colonial power was forced to withdraw from Mali earlier this year after anti-French protests took place, weakening its influence in West Africa.

On 26 July, French President Emmanuel Macron began his central African tour in Cameroon, praising the “exceptional nature of the friendship between our two countries”.

Macron says he wants to diversify Franco-Cameroonian collaboration “beyond major infrastructure” to include agriculture, technology, creative industries and sport. Bollore Transport & Logistics has long operated in Cameroon, and recently launched a hub in Kribi, in June.

France has also renewed its commitment to combat terrorism, particularly through the supply of weapons and equipment. Insecurity in the Far North Region has been a key talking point for Biya and Macron.

Since 2014, Boko Haram has murdered 3,000 civilians and soldiers, kidnapped more than 1000 people and displaced around 250,000 people in the said region, according to estimates from the International Crisis Group.

Curbing Moscow’s influence

Cameroon remains a key military power in Central Africa. With a backdrop of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer both visiting different countries on the continent, Macron is striving to reinforce the foundations of “strong and old relationship” in this new five-year term.

Russia’s renewed presence on the continent is causing headaches for France’s traditional ‘backyard’. On 12 April, Yaoundé’s Defence Minister Beti Assomo and Kremlin’s counterpart Sergei Choigou signed a military agreement. In response, the French ministry of foreign affairs sent its diplomat Christophe Bigot to Yaoundé at the beginning of May.

Russian private security group Wagner has been involved in coups in Mali, Central African Republic, and Burkina Faso.

During a press conference on 26 July, President Paul Biya assured his French counterpart that this was a “routine” procedure, renewing a “preexisting deal”.

Russian private security group Wagner has been involved in coups in Mali, Central African Republic, and Burkina Faso. Although Macron has denounced the hypocrisy of certain African States for not taking a strong stance against Moscow and condemning Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, France has not yet been able to find a coherent way to push back.

On Tuesday, Macron also addressed the need for Cameroon to address looming food scarcity, concerned that this will give Moscow leverage in its battle of influence. He accuses Russia of utilising energy and food insecurity as “weapons of war”. Like many countries, Cameroon is facing a drastic inflation on oil, fertilisers and food, whilst dealing with shortages in fuel in Yaoundé.

The Anglophone crisis

The burning question Macron was expected to discuss was the Anglophone crisis.

At the press conference in Yaoundé, Macron expressed France’s support for the decentralisation process, saying “regionalisation is a response to the serious crisis that continues to affect the country in its North-West and South-West regions”. Biya did not comment on the suggestion.

Human Rights Watch has regularly condemned the Cameroon government, pointing out “aggravated repression” on its civilians and opposition members.

On the evening of 26 July, President Macron met with representatives of civil society, including Agbor Nkongho, a Cameroonian Human rights activist and lawyer. The latter speaks of “frank and engaging” discussions. In Cameroon, human rights advocates are facing “psychological, emotional or cyberbullying” from separatists and official authorities, “online and offline”.

Hold France accountable

The French head of state also noted the need to go over the colonial history linking France and Cameroon and announced the opening of the French archives “in their entirety”, to “shed light on this past”. This, he said, may allow the country to pull back the veil on how Cameroon missed its chance to make a peaceful transition.

During his last five-year term, President Macron had already taken steps to recognise atrocities committed by France during the war in Algeria.

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