Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > Uncategorised > War and no peace in Southern Cameroons

War and no peace in Southern Cameroons

Cameroon: I mourn in deafening silence

Thursday 23 February 2023, by siawi3


War and no peace in Southern Cameroons

Gordon Crawford
Maurice Beseng
Nancy Annan

The longue duree of the conflict in the Southern Cameroons, the rise of the current Ambazonian movement, as well as the dismal prospects for conflict resolution.

Image credit Sgt. Kyle Fisch for the US Army via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

In power since 1982, Cameroon President Paul Biya has ruled autocratically for more than four decades. While Cameroon is officially bilingual, one manifestation of such authoritarian governance is the persistent marginalization of the minority English-speaking population in the Northwest and Southwest regions, the former British Southern Cameoons. Since 2016, in the face of state violence, peaceful protests by Anglophone groups have morphed into armed conflict in which separatist groups are fighting for an independent Republic of Ambazonia. In its sixth year, this hidden and neglected war has killed thousands and forcibly displaced more than one million people. Biya’s autocratic regime remains intent on a military solution to a political problem, uninterested in peace negotiations, and with little or no external pressure.

The colonial and post-colonial roots of this contemporary conflict are well-known to English-speaking Cameroonians. Originally a German colony (1884-1916) called Kamerun, after World War I, it was divided between France (80 percent) and Britain (20 percent), under League of Nations and then United Nations mandates. Britain subdivided its territory into Northern and Southern Cameroons and governed them as part of Nigeria. A botched reunification process occurred at independence in 1960 and 1961. French Cameroun and Nigeria gained their independence in January and October 1960 respectively. In February 1961, an UN-organized plebiscite was held to decide the future of Northern and Southern Cameroons, with the choice of joining either independent French Cameroun or Nigeria, but not independence as a separate state. Northern Cameroons voted to join Nigeria, while Southern Cameroons voted to join Cameroon. The terms of reunification between Southern Cameroons and French Cameroun were then agreed upon at the Foumban constitutional conference in July 1961, resulting in the Federal Republic of Cameroon, consisting of two federated states: West Cameroon (former Southern Cameroons) and East Cameroon (former French Cameroun).

The Federal Constitution came into effect in October 1961, with the federal system perceived to uphold the bi-cultural and bi-lingual nature of Cameroon within which the state of West Cameroon retained some autonomy, inclusive of separate governance structures and distinctive legal and educational institutions. However, federalism was short-lived, despite article 47 of the Constitution stating it to be “indissoluble.” In May 1972, President Ahmadou Ahidjo held a controversial national referendum that led to the abolition of the federal constitution and the creation of a unitary state called the United Republic of Cameroon. The 1972 referendum removed West Cameroon’s autonomous governance structures, most notably the West Cameroon House of Assembly.

In 1984 President Biya re-named the country, in French, as La Republique du Cameroun, returning to the name before reunification with Southern Cameroons. Writing in 1985, the barrister Fon Gorji Dinka described the 1972 referendum as a “constitutional coup” and the 1984 decree as an “act of secession” of La Republique du Cameroun from the 1961 union with Southern Cameroons. Current Anglophone separatist groups call themselves “restorationists,” fighting for the “restoration” of the state of Southern Cameroons or Ambazonia, and perceive this as an anti-colonial struggle given that British colonization was replaced by colonization by La Republique du Cameroun in 1961.

Although the current violence in Southern Cameroons is unprecedented, today’s conflict is a consequence of longstanding Anglophone grievances coupled with a strategy of “denial and repression” by the Francophone-dominated state towards Cameroon’s so-called Anglophone problem. Being Anglophone in Cameroon goes beyond language to encompass a cultural identity that has a history linked to Britain and a set of distinctive institutions. For decades, many Anglophones have felt that the Francophone-dominated state’s policy of assimilation has attempted to erode that identity, and feel treated as second-class citizens within Cameroon, with marginalization experienced in the socio-cultural, political, economic, and linguistic fields.

Anglophone opposition has risen at different times. In the early 1990s, political liberalization enabled Anglophone-specific trade unions, interest groups as well as political groups to emerge, advocating for Southern Cameroonian interests, notably the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC). Of particular note were the All-Anglophone Conferences (AACI and AACII) held in 1993 and 1994 and attended by more than 5,000 delegates from Anglophone organizations and associations. AACI’s Buea Declaration I called for a return to two-state federalism, but total disregard of such demands by Biya’s regime led to secession being placed on the agenda in the declaration from AACII. The aim was stated as “the restoration of the autonomy of the former Southern Cameroons which has been annexed by La République du Cameroun.” SCNC in particular advocated for secession, but notably by non-violent means through the “force of argument rather than the argument of force.”

These long-standing grievances re-emerged in late 2016 with peaceful protests by lawyers and teachers against the francophonization of the legal and educational systems in the English-speaking regions. Lawyers were unhappy about the appointment of French-speaking magistrates educated in civil law and unfamiliar with common law, as practiced in the Anglophone regions, while teachers were concerned about the influx of French-speaking teachers. Separately, they undertook strike action and demonstrated in October and November 2016 respectively. These peaceful protests were violently dispersed by the security forces using tear gas and bullets, with some fatalities and many arrests. Following this violence, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) was established, advocating a return to pre-1972 two-state federalism. CACSC initiated “Operation Ghost Towns Resistance,” with closures of schools and businesses in the Northwest and Southwest regions on selected days as a tactic of non-violent resistance. The government’s response in January 2017 was to ban the Consortium, along with SCNC, and arrest their leaders on treason and terrorism charges, as well as a three-month internet blackout. Writing in April 2017, sociologist Piet Konings and anthropologist Francis Nyamnjoh likened the Francophone-dominated state’s approach to Anglophone grievances to that “of a workman whose only tool is a hammer and to whom every problem is a nail.” One consequence was that separatist voices became stronger.

State repression of, first, legitimate expression of grievances and, second, peaceful advocacy of federalism, led to increasing calls for secession of Southern Cameroons. Following the banning orders, existing separatist organizations, largely active in the diaspora, came together to form the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front (SCACUF), with Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, previously involved in CACSC, appointed as chairperson. While advocating secession, his strategy remained non-violent, echoing SCNC’s position in the 1990s. Divisions shortly became apparent, however, with Ayaba Cho Lucas, leader of the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC), one of SCACUF’s constituent organizations, advocating armed struggle.

While SCACUF’s leadership remained largely outside of Cameroon, notably in Nigeria, civil disobedience continued in the Northwest and Southwest during 2017 with widespread support for the weekly “Ghost Town” days. The state’s response was military occupation, with arbitrary arrests and detention of young men on the pretext of supporting secessionism. In response, the AGC announced the deployment of their armed wing, the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF), with the first attack on September 9, 2017 in which three soldiers were killed. On October 1, 2017, the anniversary of Southern Cameroons’ independence from Britain, the independent Republic of Ambazonia was declared by SCACUF, alongside mass demonstrations in which 17 people were killed by state security forces. The SCACUF transformed itself into the Interim Government of Ambazonia (IG) on October 31, with Ayuk Tabe as President. The state intensified its militarization of the Anglophone regions, and on November 30, 2017 President Biya declared war on the secessionists, described as “terrorists.” Armed conflict continues to date.

War causes misery. Over five years later, the impact on the four million population has been severe. While figures are approximate and underestimated, at least 6,000 people have been killed and hundreds of villages razed, with 1.1 million people displaced by 2020, including 70,000 registered refugees in Nigeria, and 2.2 million in need of humanitarian assistance. School closures have caused education disruption to hundreds of thousands of children for years. Gross human rights violations committed by both warring parties have been widely documented, including by the Cameroon-based Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa. The military is accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, unlawful imprisonment, torture, as well as the burning and destruction of homes, schools, and health centers. Armed separatist groups are accused of kidnappings and extortion of civilians, killings of alleged informants (so-called “blacklegs”), and beatings of teachers and students for non-compliance with the school boycott. Evidence indicates that the security forces are responsible for a greater proportion of the various atrocities, with the World Bank stating that government forces have caused 10 times as many civilian deaths as separatist armed groups. Rape and other forms of sexual violence have increased dramatically, described as “pervasive” and “rampant” in a UN report, and perpetuated with impunity by the military and non-state armed groups. As in other conflicts, rape has been used as a weapon of war, terrorizing local communities into submission and grossly violating women and girls.

The Cameroon government’s approach to the war was described recently as one of “hammer and lies,” in other words, military force alongside a disinformation campaign. The government continues to fight a counter-insurgency war, while simultaneously denying that a conflict exists, preferring to refer to a “security crisis” in the English-speaking regions, one which is largely resolved with a Presidential Plan of Reconstruction and Development in place from 2020. The lie to this is evident by Biya’s deployment of a new military commander and special elite forces to the two regions in September 2022. Essentially Biya seeks a military victory by crushing the separatists. But how strong is the Ambazonian movement and what threat does it entail to the Cameroonian state?

Like similar movements, the Ambazonian movement has political and military wings. Leaders of the political wing are mainly based in the diaspora or imprisoned in Cameroon, with significant divisions between them. The military forces, known locally as the “Amba Boys,” comprise up to 30 armed groups across the two regions. Initially, the main political split was between the Interim Government (IG) led by Ayuk Tabe and the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC) led by Cho Lucas. However, in January 2018 Ayuk Tabe and nine other IG leaders were arrested in Nigeria and extradited to Cameroon. They were detained without trial, then all sentenced to life imprisonment by a military tribunal in August 2019. With Ayuk Tabe detained, US-based Samuel Ikome Sako was elected as interim IG president. However, infighting ensued with a split in early 2019 between “IG Sisiku” and “IG Sako.” Despite its initial rivalry with the Interim Government, the AGC supported the IG Sisiku faction and formalized cooperation ties in August 2019. In 2021, the AGC also formed an alliance with Biafran separatists in Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra. Cho Lucas has also encouraged Francophone Cameroonian groups to take up arms against Biya’s regime.

Militarily, while the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) remains the largest group, there is a proliferation of smaller armed groups, for instance, the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF), Ambazonia Restoration Forces, Red Dragons, Tigers of Ambazonia, and Vipers, comprising around 4,000 fighters in total. Allegiance with the political factions varies, with Red Dragons and SOCADEF believed to be aligned with IG Sako, for instance, while other armed groups operate quite independently. Initially, equipment was rudimentary, including hunting rifles and machetes. But the armed groups’ combat strength has increased through the acquisition of more sophisticated weaponry, including improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket launchers, with a greater intensity of operations. Precise figures are unknown, but both sides have lost considerable numbers of combatants.

The fragmentation of political leadership has led to disagreements and multiple policy directions. In response to the Swiss peace initiative, IG Sako formed the Ambazonia Coalition Team (ACT) in September 2019 to present a joint platform for negotiation. However, IG Sisiku refused to participate. Opposing policies over “lockdowns” (or “Ghost Towns”) and the so-called “liberation war tax” on civilians also indicate a lack of unity. The multiplicity of voices over policy directions is symptomatic of the disconnect between the diasporic leadership and their militias in Cameroon, with the absence of political authority on the ground.

While the war is unremitting and the government was forced to deploy special elite forces in September 2022 to bolster its counterinsurgency efforts, fragmentation and division amongst Ambazonian groups have weakened the movement.

As recently stated, the international response to the Cameroon Anglophone conflict has been “feeble.” with little or no pressure from Western governments and no political intervention from the AU or UN. Why is this? The Cameroon government’s “lies and disinformation” strategy has been relatively successful in hiding the reality of the war, and Western governments have prioritized economic and geo-strategic interests that require friendly relations with Biya’s regime. For the UK, for example, this included an off-shore natural gas deal in June 2018, and a UK-Cameroon Economic Partnership Agreement in April 2021. For France, its longstanding Françafrique policy prohibited criticism of the Cameroon government, evident in July 2022 when President Emmanuel Macron’s visit made no public reference to the Anglophone conflict. Stronger statements have come from the US Congress. House of Representatives’ Resolution 358 (July 2019) and Senate Resolution 684 (January 2021) which called for both warring parties to end all violence and pursue broad-based dialogue to resolve the conflict. However, neither congressional resolution has led to any significant action by the US government.

The African Union’s lack of response contrasts with the AU-led peace process in the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, for instance. Cameroon’s membership of the AU’s Peace and Security Council has ensured its internal conflict has not been discussed. Similarly, successful lobbying by Cameroon’s diplomats has kept the conflict off the agenda of the UN Security Council.

More than forty years of autocratic and centralized rule under Paul Biya means that the Francophone-dominated state is intent on maintaining its control over Southern Cameroons, with little or no concession to Anglophone grievances, and currently unwavering from pursuing a military solution to a political problem, whatever the cost to the English-speaking population. The lack of international pressure has contributed to enabling the regime’s hard-line stance. However, the outlook of the Anglophone population would seem to have changed irrevocably. The unprecedented military occupation, repression, and violence from the Francophone-dominated state have given rise to a shift in consciousness. Although the desire for peace is profound, the political status quo is no longer tolerable. Any peace settlement will necessitate that the Anglophone population determines its future, for instance by means of an internationally-supervised referendum on constitutional arrangements, with options including federalism and independence.

If the decolonization process of the Southern Cameroons in 1960 and 1961 was botched and contravened the original UN Trusteeship Agreement, then decision-making on Southern Cameroons constitutional future has to be fully democratic some 60-plus years later.

Gordon Crawford is a research professor in the Global Development, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University.

Dr. Maurice Beseng is a visiting research fellow in security and development at the Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations, Coventry University in the UK.

Dr. Nancy Annan is an assistant professor in peace, conflict and development at the Centre for Trust Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University.






I mourn in deafening silence

By Melchisedek Chétima

Are the international community and the African Union really powerless to stop the fratricidal war in Cameroon, or are they just indifferent?

Image credit Ivo Brandau for OCHA via Flickr CC.

Residents of Ngarbuh-Ntumbaw, which is in Donga-Mantung—one of the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon plagued by conflict between separatist groups and government forces for the last four years in the northwest of the country—suspected nothing when they went to bed on the night of February 13, 2020, hoping that the next day would be like any other. Unfortunately, their morning was brutally interrupted by an alleged army operation which started at dawn and turned into veritable carnage. Indeed, an unprecedented massacre took place on February 14 in the village. Children and pregnant women were among the victims, and the shocking images of their burned and bullet-riddled bodies were widely shared on social media, sparking outrage.

A controversy ensued over the number of victims. According to various reports, there were 22 dead, including 14 children and two pregnant women. This number was confirmed by the spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ruppert Colville, and by the Bishop of Kumbo, a locality in the northwest region, not far from Ngarbuh-Ntumbaw. At this time, it is still difficult to determine the exact circumstances of this horrific killing. But the opposition, local NGOs and some civil society actors, including barrister Félix Agbor Nkongho and the journalist Mimi Mefo, accused the army of being responsible for it.

The Cameroonian government has formally denied these “fake allegations,” arguing that it was an “unfortunate incident,” which occurred following the exchange of fire between the security forces and secessionist rebels. But Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher, Ilaria Allegrozzi, has contradicted the government, claiming it was a planned massacre by security forces and armed ethnic Fulani. HRW has also released a report confirming that at least 21 civilians, including 13 children, were killed. On the other hand, relatives of victims presented a fresco bearing the names of twelve of the children killed in this carnage at a requiem mass in Kumbo.

Defense and Communication Ministers have announced the establishment of a commission of “inquiry;” a euphemism often used to calm the controversy and to cover up the misdeeds of the army. In general, the Cameroonian authorities respond in three ways to the accusations against its army: first, they deny all of these accusations, evoking gross manipulation to tarnish the image of Cameroon; second, they accuse local human rights NGOs of having a hidden agenda and of using their humanitarian covers to import weapons from abroad (e.g. the NGO Ayah Foundation is actually accused of bringing in arms for the benefit of the Ambazonian separatists); and third, if indignation seems to be gaining strength, the government will announce the establishment of a national commission of inquiry, preventing the international community from getting involved.

However, investigations are rarely carried out. If they are actually carried out, the reports are never published. In the course of time, the indignation gradually dies out; the perpetrators of the crime go unpunished, and everyone forgets the drama, except the relatives of the victims.

For instance, in July 2018, a horrible video of the killing of two women and their children—including a seven-year-old girl and a two-year-old baby—was circulated on social media. The then Minister of Communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, formally condemned a “vast orchestrated conspiracy” against the Cameroonian regime, before acknowledging the responsibility of the army a few weeks later, undoubtedly under the weight of international pressure. An investigation was announced, and the government claims to have arrested seven soldiers who are on trial, but no other details have been released to date.

Today, a majority of Cameroonians have lost faith in political actors and don’t believe any promises from them. Rather than winning the battle of hearts and minds, the government until now hasn’t shown much interest; instead it seems driven by a desire to defeat the separatists militarily. In the meantime, the conflict has become more and more deadly.

This conflict also reveals the failure of an authoritarian and hyper-centralized system, which ensures its survival on the basis of systemic and endemic corruption. Cameroon has literally become a bula matari—a Kikongo word meaning stone breaker—used by Crawford Young to describe the colonial and postcolonial state in Africa. The Cameroonian state has managed to defang and fragment the opposition by using both violence and bribes. The state succeeded in squashing people’s protest impulses either by co-opting or coercing those who dissent.

To be very clear, I am not an apologist for Ambazonia, an imaginary state whose independence was symbolically declared on October 1, 2017 by the English-speaking separatist leaders. There is no doubt that the latter have committed serious violations and crimes against civilians. However, I stress that the radicalization, resistance, and ability of the separatists to recruit adherents have been continuously fueled by atrocities committed by state forces. When civilians are killed, resentment is generated, especially among young people, who sometimes end up joining the secessionists to avenge their killed parents.

Whether in the war against the separatists or against Boko Haram in the north, reports from several sources indicate that thousands of civilians suspected or accused of conniving with the “terrorists”—another euphemism used, not only to label the separatists and Boko Haram, but also to combat any social protest in the country—are arrested and detained in inhumane and degrading conditions. For example, in Kossa in February 2015, 32 men were arrested after rumors spread that the village was providing food to Boko Haram.

We should remember that what is now known as the “Anglophone crisis” began with corporatist demands from lawyers and teachers who, in 2016, took to the streets to protest against what they called “francophonization” of the judicial and educational systems in the two English-speaking regions. Instead of engaging in dialogue with the protesters, the central administration chose a path of repression, arresting hundreds of demonstrators, killing at least four people and wounding several others. Faced with growing complaints against its repressive policy, the government finally met with the consortium of teachers and lawyers, but failed to find common ground, leading to the arrest of some of the people negotiating, including barrister Félix Agbor Nkongho. Subsequently, a video showing Cameroonian police ruthlessly mistreating students at the University of Buea in the southwest region has further radicalized a section of the population, especially young people. In this video, policemen are seen forcing students, including women, to plunge their face into the mud.

In this way, the horrific images from Ngarbuh are not an isolated incident. They are instead part of a systematic approach. They provide visual evidence that atrocities are committed against civilian populations, including children and women. Some of these violations are now documented and stored in a digital database housed at the University of Toronto in Canada.

Despite numerous calls from national and international NGOs, the international community has so far remained silent, a situation that the former President of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, vigorously denounced following the publication of the recent massacres of children in Ngarbuh. Rawlings also criticized the failure of the African Union to stop the spiral of deadly violence that is affecting civilians. Recently, the United Nations has stepped up to the plate, requesting an independent investigation to shed light on this tragedy. The US has also called on the Cameroonian authorities for real dialogue, saying that the military response favored by the government will only strengthen the separatists.

French President Emmanuel Macron also denounced the intolerable human rights violations after pressure from an activist at the Paris International Agricultural Show. “I will call President Paul Biya next week and we will put maximum pressure on him to stop the situation. […]. I am doing my utmost,” Macron said.

Yet, France has always offered its diplomatic umbrella to the Cameroonian regime, particularly when the European Parliament adopted a resolution on April 2019 to condemn the gross human rights violations perpetrated against opponents and dissidents. During an official visit to Nigeria in July 2018, Macron publicly underlined his support to Paul Biya. But the Ngarbuh massacres could be a turning point in the political relationship between Cameroon and France. Some Cameroonian politicians have already strongly condemned Macron’s words. They propagate conspiracy theories on social media which allege that France and the USA are the main actors in this “hybrid war,” acting through their “separatist puppets.” Some media like Vision 4 and Afrique Media have also taken up this idea of a ​​destabilization plan sponsored by foreign powers to control the succession of Biya, who recently celebrated his 87th birthday; 38 years of which he’s been in power.

At the same time, some political actors supported students to organize a demonstration in front of the French Embassy on February 24 to denounce the “condescending attitude” of Macron towards his Cameroonian counterpart. Rallies were also organized in other cities of Cameroon, including Garoua and Bafoussam.

In such a context, Paul Biya can continue to sleep peacefully and to retain power for a long time to come. He was re-elected with 71 percent of the votes for a new seven-year term in the presidential elections held in October 2018. His party, the Cameroonian’s People Democratic Rally (CPDM), has at least 150 of the 180 seats in the National Assembly. The road is clear for Biya to keep his prophecy of 2004: that of governing Cameroon for another 20 years. As Achille Mbembe joked, he might even be able to rule from his grave. The use of repression, both by the army and armed movements, which have assumed the right to administer death as they see fit, will also probably continue.

Meanwhile, the people of Ngarbuh will continue to mourn the loss of their loved ones without any justice for their deaths. How long should the Anglophone populations continue to live in the cauldron of the crisis? And are the international community and the African Union really powerless to stop this fratricidal war, or are they just indifferent?

Melchisedek Chétima is a historian of West and Central Africa.