Since January last year, the two Anglophone regions of Cameroon have slid into a conflict that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. The Anglophone northwest and southwest have suffered the havoc of a war of secession that has displaced at least half a million people, leaving 1.3-million in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The conflict is largely based on historical grievances stemming from the fact that the Anglophone minority has been systematically marginalised since the abolishment of the federal system of government in 1972. Although periods, including in the 1990s and 2008, saw increased activism for Anglophone secession, the movements never became violent. But this changed last year after the violent government crackdown on teachers, lawyers and civilians advocating for legal recognition for the English language.
In the 20 months since then, the government and the Anglophone secessionist have become entrenched in their positions.
The secessionists, which are mainly led by people now based in the United States and Europe, have rejected calls for “dialogue” and insisted on only entering into direct negotiations for independence. The government insists that the secessionists are terrorists and has denied that its military has committed atrocities such as targeted killings and burning down villages. Furthermore, the two sides have become embroiled in infighting that has made even the potential of conflict resolution immensely difficult.
The secessionists have divided into two groups. One is led by Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, who is imprisoned in Yaoundé and was convicted this week on terrorism charges and sentenced to life in prison, and the other US-based Samuel Ikome Sako. The same can be said of the government with some Cabinet members more in-line with the hardline stance taken by President Paul Biya and others supporting the conciliatory tone expressed by Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute.
Amid all of this, the people residing in the two Anglophone regions continue to suffer at an unimaginable rate at the hands of both sides. Targeted and random killings of combatants and civilians alike at the hands of the government is commonplace. Instances of such have seen stray bullets taking the lives of women and children.
Further, the government has killed young men fearing that they may be secessionists. Similarly, the secessionist forces, who are called the Amba Boys, have prevented children from attending school in both Anglophone areas for nearly three years.
They also regularly kidnap civilians, including employees of humanitarian organisations. Further, they have been accused of barbaric actions such as decapitations, rape and drinking people’s blood.
In the past six months the international community has begun to pay more attention to the crisis that continues to deteriorate in what used to be one of Central Africa’s most stable countries. The US has cut some military assistance to the country and, during its presidency of the United Nations Security Council this past May, also co-organised a Security Council arria-formula (briefing) meeting on the country.
Canada and the European Union have expressed frustration and outrage at the situation. Even the government of Switzerland used its good offices to arrange dialogue sessions through a Geneva-based nongovernmental organisation that has yet to produce any tangible outcomes.
If anything, it has been a step back. It continues to deteriorate because of a variable that is relatively straightforward but near impossible to address, which is that the two sides are not willing to compromise on their hardline stances and have no motive to do so.
The leadership of the Anglophone secessionists is not directly suffering from the continuous war to the extent they would be if they lived in the midst of it. The government realises that it is much more sophisticated militarily than the secessionists and live in the relative stability of the capital Yaoundé. Further, the two sides are hinged upon several notions that must be dismissed if the conflict is to be resolved.
The secessionists have been firm in their position for months that they will only settle for independence, what they often refer to as restoration. This is because a key notion of their argument is based on an element of historical revisionism.
Specifically, they argue that the UN resolution that organised the post-colonial plebiscite in Cameroon in 1961 gave what was then British Southern Cameroons independence. Hence they strongly believe that history and international law are on their side in their bid for an independent state called Ambazonia.
The infighting between and within the independence movement has led to chaos and, at times, incompetence. Yet, all factions agree on one thing: they will only settle for independence and the conflict will continue until it is obtained.
The government has not been any better than the secessionists in its actions. It continuously denies the severity of the crisis regarding displacement figures and the number of fatalities. Additionally, it refuses to accept that the current crisis has its more recent origins in the beatings, intimidation, arrests and killing of Anglophone teachers and lawyers in the latter half of 2016. The independence movement became violent only after the military killed pro-secession demonstrators in 2017. Even after the breakout of violent conflict in 2018, the government denies proven human rights atrocities, and says the crisis is solely the result of “Ambazonian terrorism”. In doing so, it ignores the root causes of the crisis, for which the government bears responsibility.
It appears that the situation in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon will continue to deteriorate at the expense of civilians. Despite substantial international efforts, the conflict has yet to be resolved, largely because of the stubborn and zero-sum mentality that has been taken by the two sides.
Unless the secessionists and the government are able to change how they approach the conflict, any chance of it being resolved soon is wishful thinking.
R Maxwell Bone, vice-president for political affairs, democracy and governance at the International Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development, carried out fieldwork in Anglophone Cameroon.