Cameroon’s Hidden Crisis

Reuben Moses

For two years in a row, Cameroon, beset by a civil armed conflict in the West and Boko Haram insurgency in the North, has topped the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) list of the “most neglected displacement crises in the world.” The NRC based its determination on three factors: the lack of political will among the fighting parties and international actors to find peaceful solutions to conflict, lack of media attention, and lack of international monetary aid. Indeed, in the shadows of more prominent international events, Cameroon has largely escaped attention. The sporadic news story decrying of one of Cameroon’s more horrific moments occasionally surfaces—for instance, the world took notice when government forces entered Ngarbuh in the Northwest Region and massacred 22 civilians in mid-February. Largely, however, the international response to Cameroon’s repeated human rights abuses and superficial solutions has leaned on statements or calls for action backed by few practical efforts. International actors, particularly those with significant economic or cultural ties to Cameroon, must substantively involve themselves in Cameroon’s most pressing crises and exert their influence to stop the bleeding.

The largest driver of turmoil and displacement within Cameroon is its ongoing conflict between English-speaking separatist forces and the central government, seated in the center of Cameroon’s French-speaking regions. The conflict goes back to 1919, when administration of the German colony of Kamerun was split between Britain and France after Germany’s defeat in WWI. For the next half-century, Britain controlled 1/5 of present-day Cameroon in the West. France administered approximately the other 4/5ths. Given the stark cultural, political, and legal differences that emerged in the two regions, unification in 1961 brought a plethora of potential schisms and conflicts. Anglophone Cameroonians soon felt their legal and educational heritage was being overridden and their access to politics curtailed by the Francophone-dominated government. In 2016, Anglophone citizens took to the streets in widespread protests, fighting for the removal of Francophone magistrates from Anglophone Cameroon’s common law courts and the withdrawal of the French language from schools. The government reacted with widespread suppression and violence, in a response characterized by “armored vehicles, tear gas, arrests, batons, and killings.” Not surprisingly, the government’s response only lent vigor to a militarized separatist movement which now fights for the formation of a new nation, Ambazonia, out of the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest Regions of Cameroon.

Separatist forces, though not unified under a common command, have managed to wage a protracted armed conflict with the central government since 2017. From an international human rights and humanitarian law standpoint, the conflict has been nothing but disastrous. Burned villages, military lockdowns, extrajudicial killings, and the massacre of civilians are but a few of the abuses blackening the conflict. Credible accounts link government forces to the larger-scale traumas inflicted on the Northwest and Southwest regions, while separatist forces have also joined in repeated violence against civilians. Anglophone Cameroon has become a war-zone where storms of violence can quickly overtake civilian life. The death toll of the conflict is 3,000 and counting, while 60,000 or more have fled to neighboring Nigeria for refuge. The conflict has driven approximately 700,000 from their homes.

Despite these climbing statistics, and as noted by the NRC, the crisis in Cameroon has garnered relatively little international or regional attention. Dr. Simon Adams, Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, bemoans the fact that the United Nations Security Council has not formally addressed the conflict. Many have critiqued the African Union (AU) for taking a laissez-faire approach to the conflict in Cameroon and for conspicuously leaving the conflict off the agenda of its own peace and security council. While media attention spiked in February 2020 when government forces and a group of ethnic Fulani militants entered a village in the Ngbaruh region and massacred 22 civilians, many of them children, a daily review of international news proves any mention of Cameroon to be an anomaly. In 2019, Cameroon’s Humanitarian Response Plan was the “least funded in Africa.”

That international attention and involvement has trailed behind the magnitude of the conflict’s negative impact constitutes a troubling trend, since it is appearing more and more that concerted international efforts may present the only stable way forward for Cameroon. This is for two reasons: first, internal attempts at mediation and dialogue face constraints due to the lack of inclusivity among the parties to the conflict; and second, mediation requires addressing the human rights abuses that undergird many Anglophones’ complaints with the central government, and that process requires a neutral hand that is willing to expose violations without obfuscation or truth-bending due to political bias.

In October 2019, President Biya organized a National Dialogue aimed at resolving the Anglophone crisis. However, the terms of the discussion and the structure of the forum marginalized Anglophone parties and left little room for real discussion. Separatists withdrew from the talks completely, leaving only representatives of the national government and more moderate Anglophone factions. The National Dialogue resulted in a series of proposals that nominally tilt the balance of power away from Yaounde and into the hands of local leaders in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, but many doubt any changes emerging from the proposals will do much to address the irksome governance structures that impose largely Francophone rule on Anglophone regions. Without separatists at the table, it appears that negotiations did nothing to impact the course of fighting. In fact, some cited instances of increased violence after the Dialogue.

Encouraging reports of recent peace talks between government officials and separatist leaders have cast a glimmer of light over the gloom of the three-year long conflict. Yet the talks, later disavowed by the government and some separatists, involved only one major faction within the separatist movement. To make lasting headway, Cameroon needs neutral mediators who can not only facilitate negotiations between the government and separatist leaders, but among separatist groups themselves.

International involvement is not only critical to achieving broad inclusivity in Cameroon’s peace talks, but is also a requisite for processing the manifold human rights abuses defining the Anglophone conflict through the lens of neutrality and authenticity. Getting all parties to the table is not enough. In order to keep them there, there will need to be an honest and impartial investigation of what has happened in Cameroon—from the crackdown on Anglophone protests in 2016 to the commonplace accounts of media suppression, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and extrajudicial killings echoing afterwards.

On June 5th, the Cameroon military announced the death of journalist Samuel Wazizi, who had been taken into custody on August 2, 2019 after being accused of “collaborating with separatists” and “spreading separatist information.” Reporters Without Borders gives the following alternative account: Wazizi was “speaking critically on the air about the authorities and their handling of the crisis.” Wazizi had been held in incommunicado detention, and his death accompanies evidence of torture. Government denials abound, but for a nation that carries a long record of unjust military tribunals and torture, the allegations align with history. That accounts differ confirms the need for impartial investigations that pry away political narratives and provide the basis for meaningful future negotiations.

Growing international interest and pressure could push Cameroon to not only inclusive, third-party mediated negotiations, but neutral investigations of the human rights violations associated with the Anglophone conflict. These two objectives constitute the crucial pillars undergirding a resolution to Cameroon’s largest crisis.