Cameroon violence worsens in power struggle over language 0

Violence in Cameroon between English-speaking militants and the security forces of the francophone-led country is threatening to spiral out of control ahead of October elections.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in the past year by bloody clashes between Cameroonian soldiers and armed separatists calling for independence for roughly 5m citizens in the country’s English-speaking regions.

The violence across the country’s linguistic divide — which has its roots in colonialism — has turned into the greatest challenge faced by President Paul Biya, who hails from Cameroon’s francophone majority and has been in power for 36 years.

Hans De Marie Heungoup, central Africa senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, said: “We are not yet in a civil war, but all the ingredients for a potential civil war are already assembled.”

He cited the targeting of civilians, the administration’s efforts to encourage pro-government militias and the emergence of criminal gangs.

The election due on October 7, when 85-year old Mr Biya is seeking his seventh term in office, comes days after the anniversary of a government crackdown that left dozens of protesters dead last October, when secessionists symbolically proclaimed the independence of Ambazonia, as the envisioned anglophone state is called.

The crisis began in 2016 as the Biya administration accelerated policies that have marginalised English speakers and cracked down violently on peaceful protests against demands that French be spoken in schools and courts in anglophone regions.

Agbor Nkongho, a leader of the protest marches who was jailed for eight months, said: “After we were arrested, the movement went into the hands of radicals who were clamouring for a separate state. The situation has changed drastically . . . and tensions will only get worse as we approach October 7.”

Mr Ngongho said more English speakers had been persuaded to support what had been a minority secessionist movement because of extrajudicial killings, the arbitrary arrest and torture of journalists and civilians, and the blocking of internet access in anglophone regions last year.

The ICG estimates that soldiers have burnt at least 100 anglophone villages to the ground — part of a crackdown that has forced more than 21,000 people to flee into neighbouring Nigeria.

In the past year, the anglophone armed groups, directed from abroad by exiled Cameroonians in Europe and the US, have grown more brazen and violent, said Mr De Marie Heungoup. They are made up of between 1,000 and 3,000 men, most armed with rudimentary weapons such as machetes and hunting rifles, according to ICG.

Amnesty International said this week that around 400 civilians have been killed this year in the crisis, while at least 160 soldiers have died since 2016. The human rights group also said it had authenticated two videos showing someone who identified himself as a separatist holding the decapitated head of a Cameroonian officer.

“The situation is going to deteriorate further because [anglophone separatists] are going to use all means possible to prevent elections from taking place” in their region, says Elie Smith, a Cameroonian journalist. “And in retaliation the military will use brutal force.”

Jean de Dieu Momo, a Biya supporter and head of Les Patriotes Démocrates pour le Développement du Cameroun political party, said that anglophone grievances about marginalisation are legitimate, but added that so were those of pygmy tribesmen in the bush who were not taking up arms.

Mr de Dieu Momo said he supported anglophone efforts at reform within the Cameroonian state. But the men who took up arms for a separate state “are not political fighters fighting for the change of the state to federalism — they are terrorists”, he said. “They are taking money from the population, they are raping the women [and forcing] people to put the flag of Ambazonia on their door.”

In 1961 French Cameroun and the former British Southern Cameroons were unified, uneasily, in a federation that gave the anglophone regions autonomy. In 1972, Cameroon was “united”, effectively giving the francophone majority complete control. Since then, Anglophones have complained of being marginalised and oppressed.

Julius Nyugap, a member of Ambazonia’s self-proclaimed government, says the international organisations accusing separatists of human rights violations have bought “the narrative of the government”, which wants to paint them as terrorists. “Why would we kill the very people we are fighting for?” he says.

Mr Biya rules by decree, and has instituted anti-democratic policies abolishing term limits while allowing a façade of multi-party democracy that, critics charge, provides him cover with the international community, which has largely been silent about the anglophone crisis.

Cameroon is “an ‘electoral dictatorship’. . . so you will get the impression of a country where there are democratic freedoms”, says Kaw Wallah, an opposition politician who has called for an end to Mr Biya’s rule. But “any time the Biya regime feels threatened in any way . . . you can be arrested either as a journalist, as an opposition member, or as a civil society activist.”

Source: Financial Times