Cameroon’s con­flict of tongues

Dozens die in protests over an­glo­phone re­gion Thousands flee coun­try amid calls for se­ces­sion

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - Ruth Ma­clean

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.

Getty

Cri­sis point … sol­diers as well as civil­ians have been killed as an­glo­phone protests have turned vi­o­lent

Ten­sions ris­ing … Cameroo­nian an­glo­phone pro­test­ers on the move

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