Cameroon, a former French colony in West Africa, is one of the world’s linguistically diverse countries; its 26 million people speak no less than 250 indigenous languages among them.
Political longevity also seems to be a Cameroonian trait. The country’s 89-year-old president, Paul Biya, is the world’s oldest head of state and the second-longest ruling president in Africa, having led his nation for the last 40 years.
Likewise, Henri Etoundi Essomba, Cameroon’s ambassador in Washington since June 2016, served as his country’s envoy to Israel for an astonishing 22 years. His wife, Esther, studied at Tel Aviv University and became fluent in Hebrew, as did his four children.
“I had the privilege of opening the first-ever Embassy of Cameroon in Israel in the early ‘90s, eventually becoming dean of that country’s diplomatic corps. Yet the job was so demanding that he himself never learned Hebrew, despite hiring a professor to teach him the ancient language.
Etoundi Essomba had originally planned to be a priest—not a diplomat. But after attending seminary school, the young man, who is fluent in French and English, lost interest and was eventually accepted into Cameroon’s Foreign Ministry. He was posted to France and Brazil before his assignment in Tel Aviv, where he ended up spending one-third of his life.
“Sometimes, I feel like an Israeli myself,” the veteran diplomat said in a 2015 interview with The Jerusalem Post. “I’ve been contaminated by the lack of patience. Frequently, I have to remind myself: You’re not an Israeli. You’re a Cameroonian.”
And now, for the last six years, Etoundi Essomba has represented his country in Washington.
“Our relations with the United States are good,” he told The Diplomat in a one-hour interview at his Kalorama mission, a vast room with gold-trimmed doors and wall panels, and a grandiose wood-carved desk at one end. “We attach great importance to this relationship, in the sense that our goal here is to connect the US private sector to small businesses in Cameroon. We believe that the economic takeoff of a developing country is sparked by the support you can gave to small enterprises. This is the end goal.”
Poverty breeds extremism in hinterlands
Yet economic development is threatened by deepening insecurity throughout much of Africa. The extremist Islamist group Boko Haram has killed more than 2,000 people and created hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons throughout Cameroon, which at 475,000 sq km is about the size of California, Massachusetts and Vermont combined.
Although the first attacks occurred in March 2014, the jihadist group’s presence in Cameroon’s Far North region dates back to at least 2011. According to Human Rights Watch, some 712,000 people have been internally displaced, and at least 2.2 million people need humanitarian aid.
Separatists, who have violently enforced a boycott on education since 2017, continued to attack students and education professionals, said HRW, adding that in responding to the armed conflict, government forces have also been responsible for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including unlawful killings and arbitrary arrests.
“The challenge of insecurity is a real one,” Etoundi Essomba told us. “In the past, this was restricted to very small part of the country. Then progressively with ISIS expanding it has won influence throughout Africa. It is a real concern, in my judgment, among the major issues, but one that needs to be addressed collectively. Of course, we have been assisted by foreign partners like United States. In the case of Boko Haram, it’s a Nigerian phenomenon but they’re trying to use Cameroon as a base.”
The ambassador pointed out that before Boko Haram became a threat, Cameroon’s 1,500-km border with Nigeria wasn’t even guarded.
“There was no security problem because people used to live in peaceful coexistence. Until the Boko Haram surge, none of these countries deemed it necessary to install security structures on their borders. But we have been forced by the situation to do this,” he said, adding that Cameroon has taken in 75,000 to 80,000 Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram.
“We are grateful for the US bipartisan contribution in this fight against extremism,” he said. “In addition to equipment, the United States has helped by training our security units to identify terrorists and dealing with explosives. It’s been a long-lasting cooperation.”
Repression, corruption have long plagued Cameroon
Long-term, Cameroon’s biggest problem is poverty. Some 63% of the country’s inhabitants are under the age of 25. It ranks 151st among 191 countries on the latest United Nations Human Development Index, and according to human rights groups, the Biya regime routinely limits the ability of Cameroon’s political opposition to function freely.
Yet Biya has consistently been returned to office in elections widely condemned as rigged and fraudulent—and his record on human rights is routinely labeled as atrocious. This is particularly evident when it comes to Cameroon’s English-speaking minority in the Northwest and Southwest Anglophone regions, which supports independence.
“Over the past five years, the human rights situation has grown increasingly bleak as people from Anglophone regions—including journalists, human rights defenders, activists and supporters of the political opposition—have been arrested and jailed for expressing their opinions or peacefully protesting,” said Fabien Offner, Central African researcher at Amnesty International.
Endemic corruption and revenge have long defined Cameroon’s political reality. In fact, one of the ambassador’s predecessors, Jerome Mendouga—who served for 15 years as Cameroon’s top envoy in Washington—was later thrown into the country’s most notorious jail in connection with a domestic bribery scandal.
The Washington Diplomat reported on Mendouga’s plight in an exclusive June 2010 report from Yaoundé, the capital, yet appeals for the former envoy’s release went unanswered, and Mendouga eventually died in prison at the age of 74. No charges were ever brought against him.
Etounde Essombo said it’s not a coincidence that Biya has remained president for so many years.
“The reality is that given the transition we are experiencing in Cameroon, we need someone very cool-headed who knows the country and is able to engage in a permanent dialogue,” he said. “Some people try to rewrite history, but the majority prefers to have someone they trust.”
He added: “Democracy is there. If you look at the way Cameroon is governed, the prime minister is the head of government, and is in charge on a daily basis. You will see that when the transition comes, it will happen smoothly.”