Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis over the last three years has caused mass devastation. What began in 2016 as peaceful protests by Anglophone lawyers and teachers against the central government’s placement of French-speaking judges and teachers in English-speaking courts and schools, including a systematic erosion of Anglophone Common Law procedures, deteriorated into a violent conflict and humanitarian disaster after the government used disproportionate force. President Paul Biya’s military is now battling armed separatists, including opportunistic bandits, while civilians are helplessly caught in the crossfire. There is overwhelming evidence of war crimes perpetrated by all sides.
Cameroon has had an “Anglophone Problem” since at least 1972, when constitutional changes eroded its federalist system, and probably since the British Southern Cameroons joined French Cameroun in 1961, due to marginalisation of the English-speakers by the largely French-speaking central government (the country’s population is 20% Anglophone, 80% Francophone).
From 1919 to 1960, there were two Cameroons. The larger territory was administered by France, using the French legal and education systems and language. In regions in the south, west and north, the British were in charge. At their schools, students spoke English and studied for O and A Levels, and in their courts, English Common Law was dispensed by English-speaking judges.
In 1961, a referendum asked the inhabitants of British Cameroon if they wanted to join next-door Nigeria or French-speaking Cameroon. A third choice – independence – was not on offer.
English-speaking Cameroonians in the north voted to join Nigeria, and in the south and west to join French Cameroon, which meant they were an immediate minority in the new Federal Republic of Cameroon. The constitution guaranteeing a federation of equal Francophone-Anglophone rights was soon dismantled in 1972 by the Francophone-majority government which consolidated its power. Until recently, only one of 36 cabinet members was Anglophone.
The conflict today
Armed separatists demand that the two Anglophone-dominated regions of Cameroon, called North West and South West (NWR and SWR), become a new country called “Ambazonia.” They are using increasingly violent methods and higher levels of weaponry, including an IED (improvised explosive device), at the International Women’s Day parade in Bamenda on March 8, 2020.
Moderate Anglophone civil-society leaders continue to call peacefully for increased Anglophone autonomy to solve the crisis, such as going back to a version of Cameroon’s original federalist system (officially in place from 1961-72), perhaps using a Quebec-Canada form of constitutional settlement.
President Biya, in power since 1982, evidently believes that military force will defeat the separatists. The Cameroon military has repeatedly burned homes, killed and harmed civilians, and committed atrocities while rampaging through villages. The government of Cameroon has arbitrarily detained thousands of Anglophone Cameroonians, including journalists.
War crimes & atrocities
There is impartial and overwhelming evidence that the Francophone-dominated government of Cameroon is committing war crimes against its Anglophone civilians in NWR and SWR. There is also overwhelming evidence that armed separatist groups, although they began in self-defence, are now doing the same.
War crimes include: indiscriminate shooting, burning, mutilating, torturing, kidnapping for ransom, and raping unarmed civilians. Hospitals, schools, humanitarian aid, humanitarian workers, and an airplane have all been targeted.
The UN estimates that 679,000 Anglophones have fled into the bush where they live in dire conditions, that at least 3,000 people have been killed, that 60,000 people are now refugees in Nigeria, and that 1,000,000 people are in danger of famine. All of these things have destabilized the entire country, while scattering asylum-seekers throughout the world.
The Cameroon military has frequently burned villages, including homes with people inside them, as a tactic of terror or collective punishment. The Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) recorded 206 villages either partially or fully burned from the start of the conflict to April 2019. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and BBC News Africa have also reported widespread burnings and property damage by military forces. There are credible reports of soldiers shooting civilians from helicopters, spraying tear gas at people emerging from Sunday mass, and committing atrocities as they rampage through villages.
Boycotts enforced by separatist militias have closed schools, markets, and businesses, with an estimated 850,000 children missing out on education for more than three years. Lockdowns have prevented civilians from leaving their homes for days at a time. Separatists have taken students and teachers as hostages, chopped off limbs of banana plantation workers, and in September 2019 publicly beheaded and mutilated a prison wardress who was visiting her home village.
A June 2019 report by the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and CHRDA found evidence of crimes against humanity in Anglophone Cameroon. University of Toronto’s Cameroon Database of Atrocities has verified through open-source methods an incident of soldiers burning down a school in Eka in January 2019 and an incident of suspected non-state separatist fighters beating women who were carrying babies on their backs in July 2019, for instance.
Reports by Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, and other impartial bodies list atrocities and war crimes perpetrated by both sides, including killing of humanitarian workers, burning of humanitarian aid, attacks on hospitals and medical personnel, attacks on churches and religious personnel, attacks on schools and school staff, kidnappings for ransom, kidnappings as punishment, burning of homes, indiscriminate shooting, extrajudicial killings, whippings, beheadings, mutilations, arbitrary detentions, etc. Women, children, and other marginalized populations such as the disabled are hardest hit.
On February 14, 2020, the Cameroon military allegedly massacred over 20 civilians, including 14 children, in the remote village of Ngarbuh. The United Nations Secretary-General and some countries condemned this atrocity. Reports of atrocities perpetrated by both military forces and non-state armed separatist groups continue to surface daily from Cameroon.
Under international pressure, the Cameroonian government held a Major National Dialogue over several days in October 2019. However, the “Special Status” for the Anglophone regions that resulted has been dismissed by Anglophones, and has not been implemented by the government. The municipal and legislative elections that were held in February 2020 suffered from violent insecurity, and few in the Anglophone regions voted. This was repeated in March 2020 when some elections were held again due to court order. The detention of Anglophone opposition figures and journalists, and the reported torture of activists, also feed bad faith and a lack of trust. The killings and atrocities have worsened, not improved, since the dialogue and elections.
In June 2019, the Swiss Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue announced that it would host talks between the Cameroon government and armed separatist leaders to facilitate an end to the crisis, a proposal supported by most Anglophone groups. Although 10 separatist leaders have agreed to attend the talks, and visited Switzerland for preparatory meetings, the Cameroon government has so far refused to participate.
The Cameroon government has largely avoided international scrutiny due to its usefulness to the international community: Cameroon is fighting Nigeria’s Islamist Boko Haram rebels in its Far North. In addition, the country hosts 350,000 refugees fleeing the violence in the Central African Republic and Nigeria. Further, the Cameroon government hires lobbying firms in the United States to temper bad press.
The UN Secretary General has called for a ceasefire due to COVID-19, and previously had called for inclusive talks to end the crisis. The African Union, the Commonwealth, La Francophonie, and the EU have uttered mild reprimands. The UK government stands by the 1961 referendum often cited in Anglophone grievances. Cameroon is supported by France which has units of its Foreign Legion stationed around the region. Whereas the British left Africa at independence, the French never did. They remain closely involved in the economic and military life of their former colonies. Meanwhile, the USA has cut military aid and removed Cameroon from trade benefits in response to human rights violations, increasingly speaking out.