Cameroon’s conflict of tongues
Dozens die in protests over anglophone region Thousands flee country amid calls for secession
Felix Agbor Nkongho looked over his shoulder at a secluded Yaoundé cafe. As a leader of Cameroon’s growing anglophone rights movement, he had reason to be on his guard. A month previously he had been in prison in the capital, waiting to be tried under the country’s new anti-terrorism laws.
If convicted Agbor Nkongho, a prominent lawyer and activist, could have faced the death penalty for his part in organising peaceful protests. The arrest of activists was part of the Cameroonian government’s attempt to quash discontent emanating from its English-speaking regions.
What began as a simple request for English to be used in courtrooms and schools in the country’s two anglophone regions has escalated into a crisis in which dozens of people have died, hundreds have been imprisoned and thousands have escaped across the border to Nigeria. If the situation is not defused, the entire country could be destabilised ahead of elections later this year, according to the International Crisis Group.
A number of anglophone activists are calling for secession and the creation of a new country, which they want to call Ambazonia.
“The anglophone crisis is the biggest timebomb in Cameroon,” said Agbor Nkongho, who was released by presidential decree seven months after his arrest. “If it’s not addressed, it could break the country.”
A year ago, after French-speaking staff were appointed to anglophone courts, lawyers in Bamenda, the capital of one of the anglophone regions, took to the streets in protest. They were joined by teachers, who said francophones with little English were being hired by schools.
The protests started peacefully but turned violent when they were met with force, according to Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, the director of Redhac, a coalition of human rights defenders across central Africa. “As usual our government, which has no idea how to resolve conflict, turned to repression,” she said.
After months of bellicose rhetoric, Cameroon’s long-time president, Paul Biya, appeared to hold out an olive branch in his new year’s address, saying dialogue was the best way of resolving the crisis and promising to decentralise power. But he added: “All those who have taken up arms, who perpetrate or encourage violence, should be fought relentlessly and held accountable for their crimes,” before congratulating the security forces for their “bravery, determination, restraint and professionalism.”
He made no mention of the 40 people killed and 100 injured following the peaceful protests of 1 October, when activists from the Southern Cameroonian United Front symbolically declared the two anglophone regions the independent republic of Ambazonia. The government closed off the anglophone regions before deploying the army’s Rapid Intervention Brigade, a unit normally found fighting Boko Haram militants in the northern Lake Chad region, another national crisis.
The October crackdown in towns and villages along Cameroon’s border with Nigeria caused at least 7,000 people and possibly as many as 20,000 to flee into Nigeria’s Cross Rivers state, where the UN refugee agency is braced for the arrival of 40,000 more.
“Our fear, however, is that 40,000 people might actually be a conservative figure in a situation where the conflict might continue,” the agency’s Babar Baloch said recently.
Activists estimate that 1,000 people have been detained and up to 100 killed, figures that are far higher than the official toll. According to Amnesty International, some protesters were shot in the back of the head and the legs while running away. A leading member of the secessionist movement was arrested in Nigeria last Friday along with his aides, according to sources. Julius Ayuk Tabe, the Nigeria-based chairman of the Governing Council of Ambazonia separatist movement, was taken into custody alongside six others at a hotel in the capital Abuja, a Nigerian official said. Separatists later issued
a statement saying that Tabe and the others were seized by Cameroonian gunmen in an “illegal abduction”.
Another high-profile figure to be detained, the writer, poet and professor Patrice Nganang, was released late last month and repatriated to the US after three weeks behind bars. Police had arrested him at Douala airport after he published an article criticising the government’s handling of the crisis. Accused of posting a death threat against Biya, Nganang was told he would not be granted another visa.
Cameroonian authorities said 10 security officials were killed in
November, and announced that four more were killed last week by separatists “using perfidy”.
UN secretary general António Guterres has called for a halt to violence and for dialogue, but the opposition accuses 83-year-old Biya, in power since 1982, of not being interested.
In some ways, however, international pressure seems to have had an effect. Last month Ahmed Abba, a journalist who had been jailed for 10 years for terrorism, had part of his sentence quashed, just as the Commonwealth’s secretary general, Patricia Scotland, met
opposition politicians to discuss “moving forward”.
Cameroon has a long history of subjugation. When the colonial scramble for Africa began, Germany managed to grab what it named Kamerun, but after the first world war the territory was confiscated and France and Britain carved it up between them, with the French taking the larger part.
At independence in 1961, the UN held a referendum giving anglophone Cameroonians the choice of joining Nigeria or francophone Cameroon. With no option to become an independent state, they chose their francophone neighbours and together became a federal republic. But the anglophones found it was not a marriage of equals. Talk of an independent Ambazonia has been around since the 1980s but has gained traction in the past few months.
When Agbor Nkongho was released, he found that while he had been in jail the “murderous repression” had led to some anglophone activists becoming more radical.
Demands for decentralisation of power have been quickly followed by demands for a return to a federal republic, and calls to split from Cameroon. Agbor Nkongho does not think this is a good idea. “We can still live as one; unity in diversity,” he said.
Crisis point … soldiers as well as civilians have been killed as anglophone protests have turned violent
Tensions rising … Cameroonian anglophone protesters on the move