By: Lydia Nyachieo
On Friday, February 14th, an attack took place in Ngarbuh, a village in the Northwest province of Cameroon. 15 children—nine of whom were under the age of five—as well as two pregnant women were among the 23 lives lost. Several victims were burned alive. Not only did many villagers lose many dear friends and family, but several homes—and thus whole livelihoods—were destroyed as well.
At first, no official entity took responsibility for the attack. Cameroonian army spokesman Colonel Cyrille Atonfack Guemo dismissed the event as “quite simply an unfortunate accident, the collateral result of security operations in the region.” But an increasing number of survivors and human rights agencies have blamed the incident on the Cameroon security agencies.
As horrific as this massacre is, it isn’t an isolated incident. It’s one among several in the violent civil war that’s been unraveling in Cameroon in the past three years. While the entire situation is a lot to unwrap, the heart of the conflict is what’s called the Anglophone Crisis.
Eighty percent of Cameroon’s population of 24 million is francophone (French speaking), while the twenty percent minority, who are concentrated in the Northwestern and Southwestern provinces, are anglophone (English speaking). Both English and French are official languages in the country. A series of demonstrations in 2016 saw anglophone teachers and lawyers protest the imposition of the French language and of French-speaking judges and administrators in anglophone courts and schools.
After a violent government crackdown of those protests from President Paul Biya, more Cameroonians in the anglophone regions began protesting their marginalization from the francophone government. A secessionist group emerged in the midst of the protesters, demanding independence to form a new state, termed ‘Ambazonia’. In the past 3 years, as both the government and separatist group have become more and more forceful, thousands of innocent civilians have been caught in the midst of this increasingly horrific violence.
Origins of the Conflict
The Anglophone Crisis has deep colonial roots. After World War I, Germany lost control of African colony Kamerun, which was then shared by France and Great Britain under the League of Nations (the former UN). France had four-fifths of the territory and Britain had the western-most one-fifth. After World War II, the UN (Article 76, paragraphs 82-168) called on British and French to guide their respective Cameroon territories to self-governance. The francophone Cameroun gained independence in January 1960. However, Britain convinced the United Nations that British Cameroon couldn’t become economically independent and thus ruled out the possibility of the territory becoming independent. Thus, the anglophone Cameroon was given the choice to either join the Federation of Nigeria, a former British colony, or the Republic of Cameroon. Northern British Cameroon voted to join anglophone Nigeria to the west, while Southern British Cameroon voted to join francophone Cameroon to the east in October 1961.
Even though the country was originally a federation, with two partially self-governing states, a series of constitutional amendments by the francophone leadership started the slow erosion of the recognition of two distinct, equal partners. For example, the federation was changed to a singular republic, and the second star was removed from the flag.
According to a detailed 2016 memorandum that a conference of the Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda (BAPEC) sent to the president regarding the Anglophone Crisis, the crisis at its core includes:
“The failure of successive governments of Cameroon, since 1961, to respect and implement the articles of the Constitution that uphold and safeguard what British Southern Cameroons brought along to the Union in 1961. […] The deliberate and systematic erosion of the West Cameroon cultural identity which the 1961 Constitution sought to preserve and protect by providing for a bi-cultural federation.
It might seem as if a country should not be so divided on the basis of language; however, language is a large part of one’s cultural identity. As said in the BAPEC memorandum, “‘Anglophonism’ goes beyond the mere ability to speak or understand the English language. It speaks to a core of values, beliefs, customs, and ways of relating to the other inherited from the British who ruled this region from 1916 to 1961.” Additionally, the francophone government of Cameroon has used language to systematically exclude and disadvantage the anglophone minority. According to the BAPEC memorandum, this includes excluding anglophone citizens from top civil service positions; appointing francophone principals, divisional officers, and other administrative heads in anglophone regions; publishing state documents and public notices in French without an English translation; having some anglophone school entrance exams only in French; and generally treating anglophones as second-class citizens. Given this “gradual erosion of anglophone identity” and marginalization in education, government, and public life, it’s not surprising why the anglophone minority is calling for more equality and autonomy.
Impact on the Anglophone Provinces
In the past three years, what originally started as a government crackdown on a minority group wanting societal equality has escalated into a humanitarian crisis in which an emerged armed separatist group and the government are not only fighting each other but are also indiscriminately targeting civilians. There have been a multitude of reports of the military burning down whole villages, beating up civilians, opening fire on anyone about whom they have the slightest, arbitrary suspicion of working with the separatists. The massacre on Feb 14th seemed to be a classic case of that. On the other hand, there are also reports of separatists abducting, torturing, and killing humanitarian workers, government workers, and any civilian whom they suspect of ‘siding’ or otherwise engaging with the government. For example, in a municipal and parliamentary election in early February, separatists tried to enforce a boycott on the “sham” elections in the anglophone regions by abducting 40 candidates and preventing citizens from voting. So far, an estimated 3000 civilians have been killed in the conflict.
The ripple effect of this violence is also significant: around 730,000 Cameroonians have been both internally and externally displaced. The people who flee to neighboring countries face instability living as refugees, while most of the internally displaced are hiding in the bush, with little access to food, water, or healthcare, according to the New Humanitarian.
Education has also been attacked. Deemed a “no school” campaign, the armed separatists have barred students and teachers in anglophone provinces from going to school since 2016, insisting that schools will remain closed until the government grants them the independent state of Ambazonia. Despite several anglophone groups calling for this to end, the separatists have gone to extreme measures to enforce this boycott, including threatening kids on the road whom they suspect are on their way to school, burning down education facilities, and abducting teachers and students who disobey. As a result, more than eighty percent of schools in anglophone Cameroon have been shut down, and as many as 600,000 children haven’t been to school in three years, according to the United Nations. This supposed ‘campaign’ is simply counterproductive and a direct violation of the students’ right to go to school. With a whole generation of Cameroonians being used as pawns in this conflict and being deprived of education, the future of the country is even more uncertain.
In October of 2019, President Paul Biya held a Grand National Dialogue to negotiate and resolve the anglophone crisis; one result was a bill that granted ‘special status’ to the two anglophone regions. But this has been largely ineffective. Not only did the separationists and other opposition leaders boycott the talk – claiming that it wasn’t a genuine effort from the government to resolve the crisis – but many in the anglophone provinces think that the “special status” don’t change anything in practicality. Thus, conflict continues.
This violent stalemate seems to be going nowhere, as both the Cameroonian government and the separatists seem resistant to holding serious negotiations, at the expense of thousands of civilians. With more and more disregard, manipulation, and loss of civilian life, the whole situation is descending to a state where, as Cameroonian lawyer Akere Muna said, “human life no longer has any value”. Reports that uncover what’s going on in the country are simply jarring and cannot pass under the international community’s eye without calls for change.
Above all, both the government and the separatists need to realize that this Anglophone Crisis cannot go on indefinitely, and that the humanitarian dilemma this conflict has already caused will have serious ramifications for years to come, whether anglophone Cameroon ends up seceding or not. The bottom line is that this horrific, reckless, and inhumane violence has to stop. As Cameroonian Father Asua Andrew Forka asserted,
“Violence begets violence. As the government is using violent methods to solve this problem, it’s not going to end today because the anger they are planting in the hearts of babies, children, and families […] this anger can never be quenched, except that we stand up as a people and decide whether we want to live together or separate.”