"Dear Madam Chancellor," Hoffmann's letter from June 4, 2019, reads, "the conflict between the Anglophone and Francophone regions of the country continues to claim lives and has led to a massive abuse of human rights."
The member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, wrote the letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel shortly after his return from Cameroon. Hoffmann, a member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), heads the parliamentary group for Central Africa. He had previously urged the German government to play a role in finding a resolution to the conflict.
Hoffmann told DW that he had the impression that the Cameroonian leadership and parliamentarians were coming to the realization that suppressing the Anglophone regions would not be successful. "The parliamentarians told us that a visit by Chancellor Merkel to Cameroon could ignite a dialogue process which could lead to a solution," Hoffmann said. He made this request in his letter to the chancellor, urging Merkel to talk to the various stakeholders in the conflict.
While Hoffmann sees his role as one of bringing the crisis in Cameroon into the public eye, he knows that this is no easy task. "The problem was that this is a so-called inner conflict within the country, so other countries say they have to solve their problem within their country," Hoffmann said.
Additionally, he said, as long as the region is stable, the international community is less likely to interfere. "Europeans always think that stability is a factor and as long as there is stability, nobody turns against the regime," he said. "Paul Biya was for a long time a guarantee for stability in Cameroon and Cameroon is still a stable country. But it's on the brink of a humanitarian crisis."
Now, however, Hoffmann sees an opportunity in the German government's declared willingness to deal with its colonial past. "This could be a good contribution if the German chancellor wanted to go there — not just for a dialogue, but also to honor the people of Cameroon in general," Hoffmann said.
The conflict, which flared up in 2016, started as a number of protests by teachers and lawyers over the superiority of French in the bilingual country. It has since developed into a full-blown crisis with clashes between government security forces and separatist groups who have been calling for an independent state in the southwest and northwest Anglophone regions. More than 200 villages have been burned and thousands killed. Over 500,000 people have had to flee their homes, 780,000 children are no longer in school, and 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian aid.
Cameroon's political crisis tops list of forgotten crises
Both the United Nations and the African Union have failed to take decisive action on the crisis. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet visited the country in May this year, offering the UN's advice and assistance to the government to resolve the crisis. "It will take significant actions on the part of the government, and substantial and sustained support from the international community — including us in the UN," she said. In April 2019, the European Parliament called on the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis. Shortly after Bachelet's visit, the Security Council for the first time addressed Cameroon in an informal meeting.
A new report by the aid organization Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) identifies the situation in Cameroon as the world's top neglected displacement crisis. "The international community is asleep at the wheel," said Jan Egeland, the secretary general of NRC. "Brutal killings, burned-down villages and massive displacement have been met with deafening silence," he said.
In the NRC's ranking, Cameroon is followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Burundi, Ukraine and Venezuela. The list does not necessarily include the world's worst crises, such as the conflicts in Yemen, Syria or South Sudan, but instead looks at crises that have received little political attention, both at the national level and internationally. It also looks at crises that are underreported in mainstream media and ones in which efforts to meet humanitarian needs are underfunded.
Local rights group publishes findings
A report published in early June by a Cameroonian rights group, the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), highlights the main problems of the crisis. "What started as peaceful protest by lawyers and teachers degenerated into a regional conflict that has brought suffering and fear to millions and resulted in thousands of deaths," the report reads.
The findings suggest that rights abuses range from killings to rape, torture and unlawful imprisonment. The report stated that the Cameroonian government in part shouldered the responsibility for this, but it also said the conflict was a complex one with perpetrators involved from various sides.
"Separatist militias [who are calling for a so-called free Ambazoni'] are battling government forces, while two organizations have been directing separatists from outside Cameroon to fight not only against Cameroonian security forces, but also against pro-government 'self-defense' groups," the report states. Government forces, militias and criminal gangs are all involved in "terrorizing" unarmed citizens.
The rights group also noted the role that media outlets and social media have played in the crisis. "On the one hand, social media has been used to expose the severity of the killings and abuse, using video materials to record events, often in real time," it says. "On the other hand, hate speech and incitement to violence and discrimination are propagated by government officials and radicalized separatist groups."
While the crisis seems to have received more attention in recent weeks, the situation has by no means calmed down. According to Human Rights Watch, over the past weekend at least 350 supporters of Cameroon's opposition group the Cameroon Renaissance Movement were arrested during protests calling for the release of opposition leader Maurice Kamto from prison. Kamto, who challenged longtime leader Biya during the presidential elections in 2018, was arrested at the start of the year during protests.