Tensions are rising since end 2016 in the English-speaking part of the country. Local bishops deplore a « barbaric » repression
A curfew has been imposed at Bamenda, the capital of the English-speaking North-West of Cameroon, on the last 13 November after the explosion of four homemade bombs triggered by cell phones. One exploded near the police headquarters and three other ones in one of the main avenues of the city. There were no casualties, but during the night of the 9 to 10 November, a soldier who was guarding a bridge at Akwem, on the border with Nigeria, was killed by “a squad of terrorists” in the Southwestern administrative region. Three gendarmes were also murdered in the Northwest region, “with weapons of war”, say Cameroonian officials. One was shot dead on the 6th November in Jakiri, while hunting down “hooded terrorists” who had attempted to set ablaze a Government Technical School. Another gendarme was killed in the night of 7 November at a check-point in Bafut,,while a third was killed by a bullet at the Bayelle Government School, in Bamenda
These incidents are signs that a low-intensity war is looming in the Western part of Cameroon where tensions have been rising over the last months. The government attributes the attacks to members of a secessionist group called the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front, whose leaders are in exile. One of them, the computer engineer, Julius Sisuku Ayuk Tabe denied however on twitter that he was involved. The term “Ambazonia” is derived from “Ambas Bay”, at the mouth of the Mungo river, which is the natural boundary between the French part of Cameroon and Southern Cameroons, which belonged to the British Cameroon before the independence in 1961.
On the 1st October 2017, Sisuku Ayuk Tabe declared the independence of Ambazonia,, a 25 000 sq km territory, whose English-speaking inhabitants complain about the violation of their linguistic and economic rights. In a video posted on internet, he declared that the people of Southwestern Cameroon are suffering a cultural genocide” and must reaffirm their “inalienable, natural and legal rights to self-determination”. Although their region which includes the oil rich Bakassi peninsula and large banana plantations is one of Cameroon’s wealthiest, local people feel that they do not benefit from these resources. In October 2016, English-speaking lawyers also called for the implementation of the Common Law, inherited from the British in the area where people are judged according to the French civil code. Teachers are also angry because, although the law guarantees bilingualism, francophone colleagues are appointed in schools where the pupils are English speaking.
A first wave of protests took place by end 2016. It expressed the anger of the youth which feel discriminated since bilingualism which is officially recognized, is a pure fiction in practice. English speaking Cameroonians account for 20% of the 25 million population of the country but this proportion is not respected in the administration and in the government where they only retain one ministry portfolio out of 36.
The roots of the conflict trace back to 1918, when Germany’s Kamerun was divided after the world war between the French and the British. In 1961, after the independence of both sides, the British Southern Cameroons, merged with the French Cameroon into a federal Republic while British Northern Cameroons opted for joining Nigeria. President Ahmadou Ahidjo’s decision to put an end to the federal regime in 1972 after a referendum which was not considered as credible by observers (with over 95 percent of yes officially) is at the heart of the current controversy. In Western Cameroon, many people consider that Ahidjo had perpetrated the annexation of their territory.
Since end 2016, the protests have acquired a growing political signification while repression has become harder and harder. On the 17 January 2017, the internet was cut for three months, under the pretext of preventing hatred speech. As a result, economic activities were seriously affected. In order to defuse tensions, President Biya created a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. But for Anglophone militants this move was too little too late. In August 2017, a pardon was given to some hundred detainees who were released from prison. But on the 22 September, some 50,000 people demonstrated in both Southwest and Northwest Cameroon in favour of independence. In many places, the blue and white flag of Ambazonia was hoisted for a few hours and a curfew was declared by the authorities. The independence declaration on the 1st October by Sisuku Ayuk Tabe triggered a ferocious repression. At least 17 people were killed on that day during clashes between pro-independence militants and the police and the military, according to Amnesty International. Several soldiers were injured. Police stations were set on fire while firearms were stolen by the demonstrators during the riots. According to a leader of the opposition Social Democratic Front, Joshua Osih, who says he is not pro-secessionist, security forces fired real bullets at the protesters.
In total, since October 2016, at least 55 people have been killed, several hundred injured and hundreds more arrested in the Anglophone regions, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). “Due to such murderous repression, the secessionist ranks are growing by the day” wrote ICG in a report published last October.
The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres has expressed its concern personally to Paul Biya on two occasions, at the end of September in New York and in Yaoundé on the 28 October. The shock of the insurrection and the repression has also affected the eight Francophone regions of the country where demonstrations have been organised against the split but also in favour of dialogue by the civil society. On the 4 October, the Bamenda Provincial Episcopal Conference condemned the violence perpetrated by some groups of young people on the one hand and the acts of brutality committed by the Forces of Law and Order. The bishops “called on the Government to restrain such “barbaric action of the Forces of Law and Order” and condemned “the shooting of unarmed youths by the Forces of Law and Order”.
“President Biya holds the cards needed to resolve the crisis, but he does not appear genuinely interested in doing so”, analyses the ICG. But governors are even opposed to mere decentralisation because it would deprive them from their power, deplore analysts.
The consequences might be anyhow very serious for the country. The forthcoming general elections scheduled for October 2018 and even the African Cup of Nations scheduled for June 2019 may be affected in a country which cannot afford to open a third front, having to face Boko Haram in the North and the Central African warlords in the Eastern part, warns the ICG.