Since 2017, armed conflict has been rampant in the Central African country of Cameroon. It began in 2016 when those living in the English-speaking region of the country began peacefully protesting due to the marginalisation of its minority population by the government. This included reduced access to resources, limited development projects, and the general treatment that left them feeling like second-class citizens.
In Cameroon, only those living in the northwest and southwest region speak English while the rest of the country speaks French. After a francophone judge was appointed in the area, protests stemmed from the use of the French language within schools and courtrooms and the use of the civil law system used by the francophone magistrate instead of common law. Many in the region, including politicians, called for greater decentralisation or complete separation from the rest of the country. However, the protest was met with violent crackdown which resulted in hundreds of arrests, attacks on protesters and, in many cases, death.
Things only became worse in September 2017 with the emergence of armed separatists and the subsequent clash between the anglophone rebels and the francophone government. Separatists declared the independence of the region, which would be called Ambazonia, and war against the government with the launch of combat operations. For the last two years, Cameroon’s crisis has only intensified.
A report from the Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that government forces have been responsible for the murder of at least 170 civilians, the torching of hundreds of homes along with using ‘indiscriminate’ force against citizens between October last year and March 2019. Many have revealed that entire neighbourhoods have been destroyed and depopulated. In 2018, the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa published a list with all 106 villages that were set on fire with claims that up to 71 villages have completely been abandoned. HRW also revealed that there were reports of sexual violence by security forces and attacks on health facilities and personnel.
Surprisingly, the same report revealed that separatists have allegedly been accountable for the kidnapping of 300 children under the age of 18, dozens of assaults and the death of two men, throughout the same period. Eyewitnesses have stated that separatists have assaulted government workers and teachers who did not comply with demands to boycott. As of May 2019, nearly 2,000 people had been killed during the crisis, with up to 530,000 displaced and 35,000 citizens fleeing to neighbouring Nigeria.
Where Does the Franco-Anglophone Divide Come From?
The divide began during the colonial era when Cameroon was a colony under Germany. This all changed after Germany’s defeat in World War I, when Britain and France attacked Cameroon and the territory was divided between both parties. The problem here was that, while Britain took the North, France took a much larger portion of the African country, around 80%, leading to the minority anglophone population.
Both colonisers heavily influenced the regions they were responsible for, particularly in terms of language and culture. In 1972, twelve years after gaining independence from its conquerors, the French-speaking region passed a referendum to abrogate the post-colonial federal system, and opt for a United Republic of Cameroon instead. Those that were in the anglophone region were expected to assimilate to the French-speaking area.
Over time, the Anglophone Cameroons were repeatedly marginalised by its francophone-dominated government, whether it was how the local administration was run or the large economic gap between the regions.
While the separatists are fighting for separation, independence or authentic decentralisation, the government are adamant on their position to use military force against what they call ‘terrorists’. Either way, the conflict has been in a deadlock with each party refusing to speak to the other. As more people flee their homes and the humanitarian crisis deepens, the sensible solution would have to start with the government stepping forward and taking accountability for the abuses carried out by their security forces and protecting its citizens, no matter what region they originate from, while the separatists must be open to engaging in open dialogue and committed to using non-violent action.
Author: Aisha Mohamed