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Anglophone Cameroon: From crisis to chaos

October 1, 2021

A separatist crisis that began five years ago in Anglophone Cameroon has spiraled into unmitigated violence. The UN says a humanitarian catastrophe is on the horizon — but the key players aren't willing to compromise.

A separatist stands at a checkpoint on the left and paramilitary government forces patrol on the right
Both the separatists and government forces have been unwilling to back down in Cameroon's Anglophone crisis

Over the past five years, the English-speaking regions of Cameroon have rapidly morphed into a war zone. Lives have been lost, properties have been destroyed, and the humanitarian crisis continues to intensify.

In its latest report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) highlighted the impact on education: "Since the beginning of the crisis in 2016, education has been highly affected. Many schools have closed to avoid frequent attacks against education facilities. Teachers and students have been attacked, kidnapped, threatened, and killed. In 2021, more than 700,000 children are deprived of education in the north-west and south-west regions."

Felix Agbor Nkongho, a human rights lawyer who was a leading member of the now-outlawed Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC), has been disheartened by the ongoing crisis. 

"The current state of affairs in the Anglophone regions is very sad," he told DW. "It is very deplorable. It is frustrating."

Though CACSC led the first wave of peaceful protests against the federal government's marginalization of Cameroon's Anglophone regions in 2016, Agbor Nkongho said violence was never part of the group's agenda.

"Nobody had a crystal ball that could see the future," he said. "By and large we didn't foresee violence."

Young Cameroonian refugees carry children in Agborkim town in Nigeria.
Young Anglophone Cameroonians have sought refuge in Nigeria, after the crisis morphed into armed conflictImage: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

Uncertain but peaceful beginnings

Agbor Nkongho said the initial measures to pressure the government — such as lockdowns and school boycotts — were only meant to last for a short while. He blames Yaounde for escalating the situation.

"[The measures] were just to draw attention to the international community to what we were going through as a people," he said. "We were even planning to call off the school boycott before the consortium was outlawed."

In the lead-up to the country's Unification Day on October 1, the situation in Cameroon's two English-speaking regions remains uncertain. Speaking on behalf of the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGovC), the movement's deputy defense chief, Emmanuel Ndong, briefly explained the history behind their cause.

"British Southern Cameroons — that is being called today Ambazonia— gained its independence from the United Kingdom following the UN's Resolution 1608, which terminated the British mandate to govern Southern Cameroons on the 1st of October, 1961," Ndong told DW. 

Agbor Nkongho said the government's decision to mark Unification Day on this date was the "height of political hypocrisy."

"[President Paul Biya] can take all of us by an ambush by declaring the 1st of October, a national holiday in Cameroon," he said. 

Felix Agbor Nkongho, founder and director of Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa
Felix Agbor Nkongho, the leader of the outlawed CACSC, says the regime has 'done nothing to show good faith'Image: CHRDA

Civilians the victims of an unclear strategy

For Cameroonians directly affected by the conflict, talk of dates and history is meaningless.

"The government and separatists are playing with the lives of the local population they claim to protect," Nfor Nkfu, an Anglophone taxi driver, told DW. "These parties involved in the ongoing crisis are protecting their interests. They are not protecting anyone."

Nelson Tum, a history teacher, said the fighting between the separatists and the government had left him and many others distrustful of both sides.

"To say that I feel protected by both parties is completely out of place, because you do not know who can hurt you at any given moment," he said. 

Paul Nilong, from the Interim Government of Ambazonia, said the federal government sought to make "Ambazonia ungovernable — it's all about destroying everything."

"The most important part is the economic sabotage," said Ndong.

A map of Cameroon showing separatist regions

The separatists, however, have not always agreed on their own strategy, particularly when it comes to repeated lockdowns — something that Ndong acknowledged has damaged their cause. 

"We think it is counterproductive to declare a two-week lockdown of the territory, which is going to impose additional hardship to our people that are already bearing the brunt of this war," he said.

But Nilong said the lockdown was needed to send a message to the government. 

"The two-week lockdown was to tell Yaounde they are not in control," he said.

Lack of government progress due to 'bad faith'

The government has been accused of not doing enough to stem the crisis.

Elvis Ngolle Ngolle, a member of the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) party who previously served as forestry and wildlife minister, told DW that officials have been doing the best they could to end the violence. 

"The government means well and has been doing a lot to try to put an end to the crisis and, in particular, to try to put an end to the armed conflict." Ngolle Ngolle said. 

From his experiences on the ground, the history teacher Tum said the government had tried to restore calm in the Anglophone regions, but called the efforts insufficient.

"The government has done a lot, but I will say it's not enough to end the crisis," Tum said. "During the holding of a major national dialogue, those we consider leaders of the Anglophone [regions] were not brought into the dialogue with the government."

Cameroon's president in foreground with three men, all wearing glasses, behind him
President Paul Biya has said the form of the state is not up for debateImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Alamba

Ngolle Ngolle said the lack of progress on the part of the government had more to do with the "bad faith" of some individuals who seek to "benefit from the conflict."

"Apparently, money flies around on both sides, and they seem to be benefiting from this money," he said.

No end in sight

Separatists have said the government's deployment of increasingly sophisticated weapons means the conflict won't end for them anytime soon. 

"The IEDs have been modified so that they create a heavy impact, and they will continue to until Yaounde gives up the fight," said Ambazonia's Nilong.

Deputy Defense Chief Ndong said the separatists were even looking abroad to draw more international attention to their cause. 

"We seek to destabilize the Gulf of Guinea and make sure the exploitation of resources in this area is stopped until the international community comes to the recognition that [they are the only] people that can guarantee peace and stability," Ndong said. "It is no longer Cameroon and Nigeria but Biafra and Ambazonia." 

Ngolle Ngolle said a political solution would be preferable to a military option.

"I am not a military man," he said. "I am one of those who believe that the political arm works, has worked and can work. I am one of those who believes dialogue should never stop."

Hopes for the international community to act

Agbor Nkongho believes the ultimate solution will require the international community to impose travel bans and freeze the assets of the parties who are fueling the conflict. But to him, any progress needs to start with honesty.

"Friends of Cameroon in the international community, should be honest with Biya and tell him that he cannot win the war," he said. 

He also warns that separatists should not feel as though they are immune to justice.

"Non-state actors should also be made to understand that if you incite violence or commit crimes, you should be held accountable," he said.

Nigerian-Cameroonian separatist alliance