For the last 100 years, food has been used as both a weapon of war and in some cases the driving force behind it. Hunger, in particular, has been at the heart of many of the revolutions of the past. Just over a decade ago the Arab Spring was launched because of the rising price of food. It is therefore understood by many that food, and fear of hunger, can overthrow regimes, shift political power, and even change the course of a nation. But how does food insecurity and the potential unrest it drives impact America? The west African nation of Cameroon is a perfect example of how food insecurity can undermine a stable regime and change the balance of power in an entire region critical to US foreign policy objectives.
Led by 87-year-old President Biya since 1981, Cameroon is seen in Africa as a stalwart of stability in an unstable neighborhood. But all is not rosy in Cameroon today. As has happened across the world, rising food costs and resulting food scarcity often drive human conflict. In fact, conflict in Cameroon threatens the entire sub-region because of food insecurity. With an ongoing insurgency in the Anglophone regions, Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa in the Far North, and non-state rebel intrusions from Central African Republic, Cameroon faces significant deficits in its ability to protect and feed its population. As the largest donor across all sectors in the sub-region – health, military assistance, and food – the United States logically would be expected to lead any response efforts to an unfolding breakdown of the humanitarian situation. It is important that Americans understand how interconnected stability in Cameroon is to the sub-region and ultimately to U.S. taxpayers.
Surrounded by conflict-laden countries, Cameroon hosts over 430,000 refugees. The bulk of assistance is from the United States through the United Nations World Food Program, which provides millions of U.S. dollars of shelter and food to these refugees. In addition, Cameroon is a key trading hub to exporters around the globe. Cameroon plays a role as the regional “food highway”. Many of Cameroon’s neighbors are dependent on its open borders, open ports, and open roads for their trade. Its landlocked neighbors receive much needed food and fuel imports through Cameroon’s main port, Douala.
Cameroon security challenges inside its borders threaten the stability of the government. The first is an ongoing insurgency in the nation’s two Anglophone regions since 2018. This struggle has internally displaced over 679,000 of the three million people living there and those left, over one million people, are believed to be in a severe food crisis. In the insurgency in Northwest and Southwest Regions, Anglophone separatists attack some of the most critical industries in Cameroon, killing workers and burning cocoa, coffee, banana, and plantain fields. By targeting the agricultural productivity of the country, separatists effectively choke off production in these regions. This eliminates large swaths of employment and creates severe food shortages driving food insecurity, and hunger further fueling the conflict.
Meanwhile, Cameroon’s Far North region has faced ongoing conflict from extremist groups Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa since 2014. Raids by the terrorists are common on Lake Chad and along the Nigerian border. These raids target cattle, food, fuel, and kidnaps-for-ransom. The violence has internally displaced over 297,000 Cameroonians and combined with severe weather has caused severe food shortages in that region. The country also hosts over 114,300 Nigerian refugees, victims of conflict forced across the border fleeing violence. Cameroon’s response is a military strategy that had been successful through 2018. However, on the heels of Cameroon’s 2018 presidential elections, Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa increasingly targeted Cameroonian security forces and pushed further into the country. The conflict activity has also reached Cameroon’s border with Central African Republic where incursions by non-state rebel groups target already vulnerable UN refugee camps which host over 274,000 refugees. As Cameroon searches for the force balance that allows it to address security challenges, insecurity reigns in the troubled areas in the Lake Chad basin, along the eastern border with CAR, and in the Anglophone Regions.
So, what is at stake for Cameroon’s neighbors and why should Americans care? Equatorial Guinea’s second and fourth largest imports in 2017 were from Cameroon. Without regulated trade and cross border staples fluidity from Cameroon, the majority of Equatorial Guineans would face severe levels of food insecurity. Cameroon is the Central African Republic’s main trading partner. It accounts for 58 percent of all of its exports and 41 percent of imports in 2018 alone. Because CAR is landlocked, nearly all exports and imports are over land through Cameroon. Any impact to the CAR-Cameroon border could destroy CAR’s economy. Many of Cameroon’s neighbors are already in dire straits. Almost half of the CAR’s population is food insecure. In Chad, 43 percent of children under five are stunted. And in Equatorial Guinea, where data are hard to obtain, over 26 percent of children under five are stunted. The United States is the number one responder to food security shortfalls in the sub-region. Through the USAID Food for Peace, Cameroon received over 70 million USD, CAR over 118 million USD, and Chad over 187 million USD. Disruption to food flows through Cameroon to these countries caused by a complete breakdown of political stability would have catastrophic effects to these countries and require an immediate response by western governments and non-governmental organizations.
Between the security challenges stretching Cameroon’s armed forces, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s stability is precarious—and therefore, so too is the entire West and Central African region’s food security. As we know from history, food insecurity and instability can enter a dangerous feedback loop. Conflicts, and their consequences, never stay confined within a nation’s borders. What Americans should understand is that an unstable Cameroon doesn’t just hurt Cameroon, as tragic as that is alone. Cameroon is the doorway into Central Africa. Knock down that door, and the hunger crisis that awaits the world would be large in scope and terrible in outcome. As the largest foreign assistance provider in the sub-region, the United States would be on the hook to lead response efforts, footing the bulk of any bill.
Editor's Note: Agri-Pulse and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the US agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.
Commander Michele Lowe joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in July 2020 as the U.S. Navy Federal Executive Fellow. Michele joins the Council with over twenty years of experience in operations at sea, military strategy execution, and foreign policy formulation at U.S. Embassies. She last served as the U.S. Defense Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde,Cameroon where she was advised three U.S. Ambassadors on military matters in Cameroon Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea.
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