La Situation Camerounaise: Cameroon’s Humanitarian Crisis Amidst the Escalated Anglophone Conflict

Written by: Lydia Nyachieo

On Friday, February 14th, an attack took place in Ngarbuh, a village in the Northwest province of Cameroon. 15 children – 9 of whom were under the age of 5 – 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. It’s the growing socio-political tensions arising from the linguistic divisions between the marginalized English-speaking population and the French-speaking central government.

Origins of the Conflict

While the majority of Cameroon is French-speaking (francophone), the Northwestern and Southwestern provinces are English-speaking (anglophone). A series of demonstrations in 2016 saw teachers and lawyers in the anglophone provinces protest the imposition of French in their courts and schools. This included the government increasingly appointing judges from the francophone regions, which use the French civil law, into anglophone courts, which use the British common law. It also included the appointment of educators who only speak French in schools in the anglophone regions. These government actions, along with others, represent the marginalization that English-speaking Cameroonians said they’ve experienced for years. The francophone government’s decreasing accommodation of English and discrimination of anglophone Cameroonians have eroded political and social equality in this country.

After a violent government crackdown of the 2016 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.

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 France 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. Both French and English were and still are the official languages.

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.

A detailed 2016 memorandum that a conference of the Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda (BAPEC) sent to the president explicitly defined the Anglophone Crisis. At its core, the crisis is the government’s continuous and deliberate disregard for British Cameroon’s cultural identity and political equality that the original 1961 Constitution sought to preserve.

It might seem as if a country shouldn’t 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 “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.” And the francophone government of Cameroon has used language to systematically exclude and disadvantage the anglophone minority, who make up 20 percent of the 24 million population. 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 civil war and humanitarian crisis. The government and separatist group don’t only fight each other, but also indiscriminately target civilians whom they think are sympathetic to the other side. There have been multiple reports (such as from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and The New Humanitarian) 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 drastic: around 730,000 Cameroonians have been both internally and externally displaced. Most of the internally displaced are hiding in the bush, with little access to food, water, or healthcare, according to the New Humanitarian. Those who flee to neighboring countries face instability living as refugees. For example, there are many refugees who struggle to make a living with low-wage jobs as cheap laborers, and there are others who go through jarring measures to avoid exploitation in their host country.

The conflict is also attacking Cameroon’s education system. 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 80 percent of schools in anglophone Cameroon have been shut down, and as many as 600,000 children haven’t been to school in 3 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” doesn’t change anything in practicality. Thus, conflict continues.

Bottom Line

This violent stalemate seems to be going nowhere. 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 of the human rights abuses in this conflict are simply jarring and cannot pass under the international community’s eye without calls for change. Yet despite the high death and displacement toll thus far, other countries have, up until recently, been silent on the issue. The African Union has yet to make a move, and other world powers have merely “expressed concern” at the worsening conflict. While the UN has demanded Cameroon to conduct investigations over the February 14th massacre, there haven’t been many other decisive actions. That said, international intervention wouldn’t be straightforward. Given the strong military, trade, and geopolitical ties between Cameroon and countries such as the US, France, and China, it’s somewhat understandable why these countries are slow to act. According to Rebecca Tinsley, a human rights advocate who contributed to an open letter urging Emmanual Macron to take decisive action in Cameroon, the Global North has relied on Cameroon to help fight against the Boko Harma extremist group in the region. Thus, she says, “[Cameroon] has sort of inoculated itself against criticism.”

Nonetheless, the horrifying crimes against humanity that hundreds of thousands of anglophone Cameroonians face should eclipse some of the economic and political reasons for other nations’ inaction. As Tinsely and other writers said in the open letter to Macron, this conflict is said to be “Rwanda in slow motion”, and we absolutely cannot let the “dehumanizing violence” in Cameroon reach the scale of that of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. 

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 in the country 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.”