The signing of a new defence agreement between Cameroon and Russia at the end of April is said to have shaken the offices of the Quai D'Orsay, the French foreign ministry, which sent its director for Africa to the Cameroonian capital at the beginning of May.
Christophe Bigot, Macron's 'Monsieur Afrique', who has not made any statements about his visit to Yaoundé, met with the prime minister of the Cameroonian government, Joseph Dion Ngute, at the beginning of the first week of May. According to the official version reported in the Cameroonian pro-government media, the meeting covered economic and cultural cooperation, as well as the fight against terrorism. No mention was made of Russia or the defence agreement signed in April.
Contrary to this version, local media claim that Bigot's visit is entirely motivated by the handshake between Yaoundé and Moscow. In the context of the war in Ukraine, France fears further rapprochement between Russia and Cameroon. France would struggle to maintain its influence in its former colonies in Africa, which now form an international community known as 'Françafrique', which has traditionally favoured partnerships with Paris over other governments.
Media outlets such as 'Africa Intelligence' point to a French "fear" that has mobilised French diplomacy. Others such as 'Actu Cameroun' announce in advance a possible official visit by President Macron to the country to strengthen relations and distance Cameroon from Russia's reach of influence. Bigot's high profile corresponds to these theories.
Christophe Bigot is the most senior official responsible for Africa in the foreign ministry, apart from the foreign minister. He is a 'ministre plénipotentiaire', i.e. an official who is the highest representative of his state vis-à-vis other states. Before being appointed director general for Africa and the Indian Ocean, Bigot was French ambassador to Israel, Gambia and Senegal. He also served in the Directorate General for External Security, a section of his CV in which he specialised in counter-terrorism and military cooperation with African states.
France has strong economic relations with the African country. It also has strong defence relations. These relations were regularly renewed and ratified in 2016 and 2019, particularly in the area of training.
France's influence in the region has declined over the last decade in the Sahel, and has led to the entry of Russia as a new partner for many African governments. This loss of control probably stems from Western intervention in Libya, and the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011. France's popularity has gradually declined and is causing a rethink of the African scenario.
The partnership between Russia and Cameroon is not entirely new; it is a second step in relations between the two countries that began in 2014. While Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula, he reinforced his policy of expansion in Africa. A first agreement that already provided for military and economic cooperation was concluded that year between Russia and Cameroon.
According to Thierry Vircoulon, coordinator of the Africa observatory of the French Institute of International Relations, the latest agreement between Russia and Cameroon is a continuation of existing relations between the two countries. "Both are part of the context of a war. The first with Crimea in the background, and the second with Ukraine," Vircoulon told the French international broadcaster.
Cameroon has a very varied deck of cards when it comes to military cooperation. Yaoundé's strategy would be to avoid dependence on a single country in this area, which would lead it to conclude multiple agreements without tying itself to anyone. On the Russian side, this is a clear victory, allowing it to show support on the international stage. Cameroon abstained from voting against Russia's expulsion from the UN Human Rights Council in April 2022.
The new agreement between Cameroon and Russia, which runs for the next five years, focuses particularly on military training, specifically for peacekeeping missions or the fight against terrorism and maritime piracy. Joint military exercises are expected to take place, as well as intelligence exchanges and extended stays of Russian specialists in Cameroon.
The agreement has left some points open and subject to modification, such as the purchase of Russian military equipment, an option that could be considered in the future.