The peaceful protests that started in 2016 in Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions, over institutional marginalisation and underinvestment, mutated into violence and have now turned bloodier with no end in sight.
This year has been the bloodiest of the conflict. On 24 October, unknown attackers wielding guns and machetes stormed the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba, in the troubled Southwest Region, and slaughtered seven schoolchildren under the age of 14. The brazen attack left several other students injured, with blood splattered all over the school’s campus. Cameroon’s government has blamed Anglophone separatists for the attack even though no group has claimed credit for it.
The killing attracted widespread international condemnation, with Pope Francis saying, “I feel great bewilderment at such a cruel and senseless act, which tore the young innocents from life while they were attending lessons in school.”
Cameroon President Paul Biya addressed the attack only two days later, condemning the act while announcing that he has “instructed that appropriate measures be taken diligently to ensure that the perpetrators of these despicable acts are apprehended by our defence and security forces and brought to justice”.
Felix Agbor Nkongho, a human rights lawyer and president of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), was quoted as saying, “This incident is another episode to add to the countless horrific and gross violations of human rights and international law in our war-affected region.” The CHRDA has been documenting the atrocities committed by government forces as well as separatist fighters who are seeking to create a breakaway state from Cameroon called Ambazonia.
According to the CHRDA, more than 4 000 people have been killed and close to half a million displaced since Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis started in 2016. Most of the clashes and killings they documented happened this year.
The spark of the separatist war was lit in November 2016 when English-speaking Cameroonians protested against French-majority rule in their regions. The Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, an organisation that consisted of lawyer and teacher trade unions, went on strike in protest against French-speaking judges being appointed in the Anglophone region. The government has mainly responded with violence.
A bloody year
On 14 February, while the rest of the world was celebrating Valentine’s Day, a mass killing took place in Ngarbuh, a village in Northwest Region. Soldiers were searching for separatist fighters and in the course of the operation killed at least 21 people, including 13 children and a pregnant woman. The government did not immediately admit that its soldiers had carried out the attack.
It dismissed the claims from eyewitnesses and Human Rights Watch as “terrorist propaganda”. The state only admitted that its soldiers carried out the massacre in April 2020, when it published a finding saying it had identified three soldiers and they would be punished.
Despite this, the country’s military killed four unarmed young men in Buea, the regional capital of Southwest, on 28 May. Their crime was smoking cannabis in an “uncompleted building”. Buea, once the governmental seat of the defunct West Cameroon (English Cameroon in the Federal Republic of Cameroon, 1961-1972), has been under heavy military surveillance since the crisis broke out in 2016.
In that same month, a 44-year-old farmer in the small Southwest village of Manyemen was caught in the crossfire. Anglophone rebels pulled him and other passengers out of their car and beat them up for wearing face masks, saying they were spreading Covid-19 in the rebels’ area of command. While they were on the ground, begging the fighters to let them continue their journey to the farm, government defence forces arrived and started shooting from a distance. The rebels ran into the bush while the farmer, who struggled to find a shield, was shot in the legs and waist.
Then the bloodiest month of 2020 came. In August, seven unarmed civilians were killed in a military raid; a teacher was murdered for not respecting separatist-imposed ghost towns, where no one is allowed to work; an aid worker was slain for publicly denouncing separatist activities; and 35-year-old Comfort Tumassang, a mother of four, was beheaded and her body left on the street in Muyuka, Southwest. Tumassang’s beheading was captured on video.
“It flies in the face of humanity for us to accept these abuses as the new normal. There must be accountability,” Nkongho told Human Rights Watch.
Why so much violence?
Dibussi Tande, a Cameroonian political scientist and leading source of news and analysis about the country who is now based in the United States, said disbanding the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium in 2017 gave power to Anglophone extremists.
“If the government had not followed that path, where they basically sidelined the moderates and left the field open for hardliners to step in, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he said.
“What is happening in Cameroon is not different from any classic rebellion that we’ve seen around the world, whether it’s in Central America, Asia or Africa,” added Tande, who recently co-edited Bearing Witness: Poems From a Land in Turmoil, a volume of poetry that captures the sufferings of Anglophone Cameroonians in the war.
“In 2017, for example, those forces, those initial Ambazonia forces, were people who were within a structure. What has happened [now] is that you have local groups that have sprung up. They don’t deal with anybody but about their local environment. And there are so many groups that have spread all over, that there is no command and control structure. So people are reacting to local events.”
Separatist leader Sisiku Ayuk Tabe was arrested in 2018 in Nigeria before being returned to Cameroon, where he has been in custody since then. “There’s a lack of control. I can assure you that more than half of the people called Ambazonians are really criminal gangs doing their stuff. If you ask them who is Ayuk Tabe, they would probably look at you, like, Ayuk who? These are gangs fighting for territory, fighting for control,” Tande said.
Cameroonians creating awareness online
Before the Kumba school massacre, Cameroonians had started using the hashtag #EndAnglophoneCrisis on Twitter to inform the world of the separatist war that is affecting three million of the country’s 27 million people.
African tech entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong, who comes from the Anglophone part of Cameroon, has been lending her voice to the call to end the crisis.
“I have done a number of threads in the past on the historical reasons for the conflict, but people are more receptive now. Many are hurting and they sincerely want to understand and do what they can to help end the conflict,” she said.
French football star Kylian Mbappé, whose father is Cameroonian, also tweeted about the crisis. The aim of the hashtag is to inform the international community of the gravity of the conflict, hoping that it will move beyond simply condemning the violence. But Tande, who has written many essays on Cameroon’s political life, said institutions outside the country can’t do much.
“In international relations, countries don’t have friends, they have interests. What, concretely, can the United States do other than what it’s doing now, condemning, putting diplomatic pressure, cutting off symbolic military aid and stuff like that? This is not Nigeria. Even in Nigeria, they haven’t done much. This is not Israel. This is not some major country. Cameroon happens to be that kind of middle-of-the-road country where it is there, but it is not really noticeable. There is very little significance of the Anglophone crisis on world geopolitics,” Tande explained.