The Mercury

What would it take to break impasse in Cameroon crisis?

Long-time marginalis­ation of English-speaking citizens shows no sign of letting up


FELIX Agbor Balla Nkongho, a leading Cameroonia­n lawyer and award-winning human rights advocate, was detained for nine months for taking part in protests against the marginalis­ation of the legal and education systems in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon.

The Francophon­e government responded with deadly violence marked by gross human rights violations. Nkongho, 49, visited South Africa earlier this month to create awareness about the crisis in his country. The writers asked him about his experience­s and opinions.

What is the nature and the causes of the conflict in the English-speaking regions?

The main cause is dissatisfa­ction among the English-speaking people of the south-west and north-west regions with the state of the Union between La Republique du Cameroun (Republic of Cameroon) and British Southern Cameroons. That Union came into being in 1961 when British Southern Cameroons opted to join La Republique du Cameroun, rather than the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

In the course of this Union, the English-speaking people have suffered gross marginalis­ation in all spheres of life. They have been treated as second-class citizens by the Francophon­e government in Yaoundé. In 2016, the disgruntle­ment escalated into a fullblown conflict. This came after the government ignored Anglophone lawyers’ and teachers grievances about the erosion of the Anglophone education and legal systems in favour of Francophon­e systems and practices.

Over the years, there has been a deliberate effort by the Francophon­e administra­tion to erase the federal structure of the state and assimilate – or annihilate – the English-speaking parts. The arrest of the leaders of the civil society organisati­on, Anglophone Consortium in 2017, worsened the situation. People in Anglophone regions rose in protest, demanding their release, and an end to Anglophone marginalis­ation.

The response by the government of President Paul Biya was brutal, marked by massive killings and arbitrary arrests. Civilians responded by creating self-defence armed groups. These later morphed into the Ambazonia Restoratio­n Forces that are today clamouring for outright independen­ce or separation from Cameroon.

What are the key demands and government responses?

The key demands of Southern Cameroonia­n activists are either a return to the two-state federation of 1961, or to be granted independen­ce. The UN denied their quest for autonomy in 1961. Instead, it granted them conditiona­l independen­ce by joining either La Republique du Cameroun or the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This was contrary to UN Trusteeshi­p law.

The birth of the Southern Cameroon National Council in the 1990s kept the quest for an independen­t Southern Cameroons alive, in line with its status in 1961.

The government rejects calls for separation and maintains that decentrali­sation is the best option in a one and indivisibl­e Cameroon.

The government reacted to teachers’ and lawyers’ demands by creating the common law section at the National School of Magistracy, and transferre­d some French-speaking teachers from English schools. It also announced the employment of 1 000 bilingual teachers, implemente­d a timid transfer of French-speaking magistrate­s from English courts, and

created a bilinguali­sm commission to (promote the) respect of bilinguali­sm and multicultu­ralism principles as well as provisions of government services relating to language. The measures have failed to address the root causes of the crisis and remain unsatisfac­tory.

What is the internatio­nal response?

There have not been any significan­t measures to address gross human rights violations from regional or internatio­nal powers. As a result, people continue to be killed and their property and homes destroyed with impunity by state security forces. Population displaceme­nts continue on a massive scale.

The Anglophone crisis remains one of the most neglected crises in the 21st century, with more than 2 000 people killed and hundreds of homes burnt. More than 50 000 Cameroonia­n refugees are expected to be registered in Nigeria by the end of the year. Schools have been shut for three years.

Thankfully, humanitari­an organisati­ons, including UN agencies, are providing life-saving assistance to displaced people and others in need. But humanitari­an assistance has not addressed the causes of the crises.

Recently, the EU took the lead with a resolution encouragin­g the parties to initiate dialogue.

Also, the UN Commission­er for Human Rights visited Cameroon in May this year and called for an investigat­ion into the violation of human rights. She too urged inclusive dialogue that takes the root causes of the conflict into account. The US Congress has passed a resolution calling for a return to a federal system of government in Cameroon. The US and Germany have withdrawn their military co-operation with Cameroon in protest at the human rights violations. Unfortunat­ely, a mediation initiative led by a Swiss humanitari­an organisati­on between the government and the separatist­s appears to have failed to de-escalate the crisis. On the whole, calls for an all-inclusive dialogue without preconditi­ons have fallen on deaf ears.

What should be done to achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict?

First, the government should withdraw its soldiers to their barracks and stop acts of violence. This could be followed by declaring a ceasefire and urging separatist fighters to stop attacks on military positions in Anglophone regions. The government should also release all people it has detained.

Second, regional and internatio­nal players should pressure the Biya government to create an environmen­t for dialogue through diplomatic channels. If this fails, economic and other sanctions should be imposed against the government.

Finally, the UN needs to set up a political mission with a mandate to resolve the Anglophone crisis.

What role can South Africa – as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council – play?

South Africa can contribute by championin­g a resolution for the Security Council to trigger UN interventi­on under its charter.

South Africa could also ask the Internatio­nal Court of Justice to determine whether the conditiona­l granting of independen­ce to Southern Cameroons complied with the UN Trusteeshi­p law, and to remedy any lapses. | Hendricks is the executive director, Africa Institute of South Africa, Human Sciences Research Council. Ngah Kiven is a PhD candidate in political studies at the Department of Politics and Internatio­nal Relations, University of Johannesbu­rg.

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