The usually bustling streets of Bamenda, capital of Cameroon’s North West region, are deserted. It’s a Monday, and local separatist forces have enforced their weekly closure of schools, businesses and public offices. Any breaching the ban face retribution from militia gangs roving the desolate city. A few hundred miles away in the country’s South West region, the scene is quite different. A woman’s anguished wails pierce the air: “Let them come and kill me too”. Nearby a four-month-old baby lies dead and, from behind the camera, a man lambasts government troops.
These disparate pictures are borne of the same desperate situation – Cameroon’s so-called “anglophone crisis”. Violence first flared in 2016 when teachers and lawyers in the country’s English-speaking regions began protesting alleged ethnolinguistic discrimination. French-speakers – who account for around 80% of Cameroon’s population – were being drafted into anglophone courts and schools, demonstrators argued. Their movement caught the imagination of English-speakers nationwide who felt marginalised by the primarily francophone authorities.
Interpreting the strikes as a first step toward civil revolt, the Government cracked down. Anglophone leaders were arrested, internet in the North West and South West (NWSW) regions was blocked and a curfew instigated. Then, in September 2017, the Government measures went from repressive to deadly with the killing of at least 40 protestors. This bloodshed incited rebellion and secessionist militia groups sprung up across the anglophone territories.
In the 20 months that have followed, the conflict has deteriorated rapidly. Some 1,850 deaths have been recorded and amid the killing, kidnapping, rape and building burning over half a million NWSW residents have been uprooted. And now aid workers have sent a stark message: the catastrophe in Cameroon is the world’s most neglected displacement crisis.
That’s according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which this week published its annual displacement rankings. Jan Egeland, the group’s secretary general who has recently returned from Cameroon warned that “every day the conflict is allowed to continue, bitterness is building and the region edges closer towards full-blown war”.
With up to a thousand secessionist fighters active in the country, that’s a fear that could soon become reality. They belong to a whole host of different groups – the Red Dragons, Tigers and Ambazonia Defence Forces, to name a few – and what they lack in centralisation they’ve made up for in local support. NWSW natives are proud of their anglophone heritage, says Nigeria-based Cameroon analyst Nna-Emeka Okereke, and will often aid the guerrillas in their struggle.
“But there are now criminal gangs that have emerged terrorising the population. There are also government sponsored militias established to penetrate the [separatist groups] who are also involved in anti-people criminalities,” he added, speaking with InsideOver.
Cameroon’s bilingual makeup is product of another ugly chapter in the restive state’s history. Initially a German colony after the 19th century ‘scramble for Africa’, it was carved up by the French and British post-World War One. In 1961, following independence, the anglophone minority was given the choice of joining either Nigeria or French-speaking Cameroon. With no option to form an independent state, they opted for a federal republic with their francophone neighbours.
And while both French and English are official languages in the central African country, the anglophone minority has long complained of discrimination. English-speakers point to infrastructure spending to demonstrate this. Much of Cameroon’s lucrative cocoa-growing industry is located in the South West, as is the country’s offshore oil production. Despite this, 2018 saw President Paul Biya’s French-speaking home region allocated almost twice the funding of the anglophone regions combined, public investment budgets show.
With this alleged discrimination entrenched at the highest levels of government, it’s little wonder the crisis has spiralled into violence. The scale of atrocities has shocked observers, however. Just last month Cameroonian soldiers operating in the North West of the country were accused of burning down 70 houses before dragging a man from his home and executing him in the street. It appeared to be a reprisal attack on residents thought to have secessionist sympathies, said Human Rights Watch, a conflict monitoring group.
“When the soldiers came, I ran, and they chased me. I managed to hide in the Baptist church,” recounted a local teacher, adding: “When I came out, I found that my house was completely burned and now I have nothing left.”
There is evidence of serious human rights abuses on the part of the separatists, too. Armed anglophone militants have burned dozens of schools and attacked teachers refusing to support their cause, aid agencies have reported. One teacher said he had been shot in the legs by seperatist gunmen.
“The assailant told me that I was still coming to school in defiance of calls for a schools boycott. He then asked me to raise my hands, but before I could do so, he shot me. I fell to the ground,” he said.
But despite the conflict’s ever intensifying nature, the crisis is not receiving the international attention it demands, experts have warned. And while some have accused the Cameroonian authorities of worsening the situation by restricting foreign aid, Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council puts the blame squarely on the international community’s “culture of paralysis”. This is echoed by the U.N., whose humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said recently that the number of those needing assistance in the NWSW regions has increased eight-fold since last year, and now tops 1.3 million.
But with both parties wedded to their irreconcilable positions, there’s little hope of a breakthrough. Separatists continue to dream of independence and the government is committed to a military solution – and in between moderates are unable to rally. The idea of an international mediator has been floated, but Cameroonian authorities seem wary of foreign involvement.
Addressing a public meeting in Buea, capital of the South West region, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute last month insisted that the state is open to dialogue on all grievances, bar secession. “There is too much suffering, we cannot continue like this,” he said. Amid the wrongful actions of both his government and their opponents, it is a sentiment all can surely agree with.