Since autumn 2016 the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon have been suffering what has come to be known as the “Anglophone Crisis,” or locally as “the wahala.” This crisis has wreaked havoc on the civilian population, caused children to stop attending school for two years running, adversely impacted the local economy, and provoked fear, even panic within the population.
As of August 2018, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates more than 275,000 people have been displaced in the Southwest region alone. Further, while international organizations estimate nearly 500 civilians have been killed, realities on the ground point to a much larger number of fatalities – possibly 5,000.
Even though many refer to it as the “Anglophone Crisis” the situation in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon is properly a war of secession. This war is being fought between the military of Cameroon, and militias that are often referred to as “Amba,” or “Amba Boys.” The militia’s aim is an independent state called “Ambazonia,” comprised of Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions. Uniquely, the two regions comprise the former British colony, Southern Cameroons.
This war of secession wreaking havoc in Cameroon’s two English speaking regions did not originate as a violent conflict, but as peaceful protests. Specifically, protests lead by teachers and lawyers – a strike – to persevere Anglophone legal and educational systems which they saw as under attack.
The protests were met with a brutal response from government forces and five people were killed, 100 were arrested. The violent response to the protests led to teachers’ unions declaring a strike that lasted several months. A secondary school teacher from the city Buea aptly said, “We told our students that there would be no class on the day of the protest, but that the next day everything would return to normal. At the time it was impossible to imagine that we would not go back to school for months.”
The situation only worsened in the first weeks of 2017. Following the forceful breakup of protests, teachers, lawyers, and civil society as a whole called for negotiations with the government to resolve the tension and volatility. While the government briefly agreed to negotiate, good faith and negotiations ended when two civil society leaders, Barrister Felix Agbor Nkpngho (Agbor Balla) and Dr. Fonten Neba, were arrested and transferred to the prison in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé.
In the eyes of many Anglophone residents the extrajudicial killings, unjustified detentions, and lack of any real governmental willingness to negotiate blatantly confirmed what they had long believed: the government of Cameroon has no interest in addressing their grievances.
This female master’s student and pro-independence activist opined, “Originally I would have been fine with federalism, but the arrest of Agbor Balla and the killing of protesters showed me that (Cameroonian President) Biya does not want to listen to us, and the only way for us to have our demands listened to is to have an independent country.” These feelings are an echo of the thoughts of many civilians after watching the government’s response to the protest.
The first few months of 2017 were mainly peaceful but incredibly tense. As time went on, the prospect of an independent state became more popular amongst residents of Anglophone Cameroon. Palpably so in neighboring Nigeria where a significant number of Cameroonian expat activists created the Southern Cameroons Anglophone United Front (SCAUF). During spring and summer of 2017, the SCAUF gained wide popularity, particularly amongst the youth living throughout Anglophone Cameron.
In the fall of 2017, the SCAUF sought to demonstrate its influence and popularity by calling for two sets of large-scale demonstrations in cities across Anglophone Cameroon. Specifically, a demonstration expressing support for independence on September 22nd, and a larger-scale demonstration declaring independence on October 1st. The demonstrations on September 22nd were rather small – they resulted in no casualties.
However, the October 1st demonstrations were different in nature and outcome. The demonstrators’ goal was to replace the Cameroonian flag at the house of the mayor of Buea with the flag of Ambazonia. These demonstrations were not limited to Buea, they occurred across the region. While Amnesty International estimates there were sixteen fatalities, virtually everyone who witnessed the demonstrations believes the number is in the hundreds, and possibly more than 1,000.
A University of Buea student who watched the day unfold from his apartment said, “I watched as countless people were shot dead just for protesting. Literally, everyone who went out to protests was killed. I saw a bystander who was not even partaking in the protests get shot in the leg, then when two others went to bring him out of the fire all three of them were shot dead by a tank passing by. I wish I had a gun with me as I would have run out and shot the military.” The brutal tactics of the military that day want as far as shooting at civilian protesters from helicopters, an act which was recorded in Kumbo, Kumba, and Bamenda.
Following the brutal military response to the protests, the SCAUF announced that it would form an “Interim- Government of Ambazonia” to be run from Nigeria. As expected, this act was met with outrage from the government of Cameroon and the president, Paul Biya, claimed that he would “eradicate” the criminals and terrorists from his country and the region.
The government followed suit by issuing 15 international arrest warrants for those involved in the interim government. The Nigerian government acted upon these arrest warrants in January of 2018, deporting to Cameroon 47 activists, including then interim-president of Ambazonia.
The arrest of the interim government officials was as the final straw, and from there conflict spiraled out of control. In the weeks following the arrests, the Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF) was founded with the aim of violently fighting for independence. In the second half of January, attacks on military outposts, police stations, schools, and other government buildings more than doubled.
These attacks were met in-kind by the military which proceeded to burn down the villages from where they perceived the fighters to becoming, causing thousands to flee into the forest where many still remain. Unfortunately, the situation in Anglophone Cameroon has been in a downward spiral for all of 2018. As time wears on, the hope that the situation will be resolved peacefully dims.
The conflict’s origins demonstrate quite clearly that the strife was stoked by authorities who were unwilling to negotiate or compromise. It is critical that the government of Cameroon negotiates with separatists and finds a way out of this conflict before more lives are destroyed. Unfortunately, the government appears uninterested. Grim tidings for Northwestern and Southwestern Cameroon are painting themselves before our eyes.