Cameroon: Crisis grinds on due to anglophone divisions, Yaoundé’s unwillingness to negotiate

By Nancy-Wangue Moussissa

Posted on Tuesday, 2 August 2022 23:02, updated on Wednesday, 3 August 2022 09:14
Anti-government demonstrators block a road in Bamenda, Cameroon, 8 December 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

The conflict in the anglophone regions of South-West and North-West Cameroon has been going on without an end in sight since late 2016. Anglophone groups are divided and some at the grassroots argue that secessionist Ambazonian elite have highjacked the initial struggle against marginalisation.

After five years of repeated exactions by both sides, official counts put at least 4,000 dead since late 2016, 712,000 internally displaced people and close to four million people in need of humanitarian aid.

The problems and their historical roots

Cameroon was colonised by France, Germany and Great Britain, with each leaving a lasting impact in the areas under their control. The current conflict started with protests about anglophone marginalisation, including the state of the education and legal systems. The government’s repression sparked further unrest.

Division is just a reflection of our society.

The fighting now involves several armed groups and political organisations. The Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front declared independence fo the so-called Republic of Ambazonia in October 2017. Rival groups are competing for control of territory, attacking the authorities and civilians, and using kidnapping and other means to raise their profiles and get money.

Kah Walla, a human rights advocate, points out the problem of governance. “The way we came together is the origin of the problem. At independence, the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon suggested that we have reunification first and independence second. The English-speaking part and French should have come together, discussed, and decided on these questions of language, judicial and educational system, in order to create a Cameroonian culture that was no longer property of the coloniser”.

She continues: “Nobody sat down to state what it means [to be a part of Cameroon]. How do we build a country based on two systems? Up until 2017, the entrance exam into the École Nationale d’Administration et de Magistrature (ENAM) was only in French. Very few anglophones were trained. They were eliminated,” says Walla.

Agbor Balla Nkongho, lawyer and key actor of the anglophone social insurrection, tells The Africa Report: “Division is just a reflection of our society. I remember when our parents clamoured for the general certificate of education. They were sprayed with tear gas and water cannons. We, as students in the University of Yaoundé, fought for the union over the creation of an Anglo-Saxon University of Buea.”

On 17 January 2017, Balla Nkongho was arrested after the government outlawed several anglophone opposition groups, including the Southern Cameroons National Council and the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium. The lawyer was charged with “fostering hostility against the government”, “secession”, “civil war”, “propagation of false information”, “collective resistance” and “incitement to take up arms”.

Inziles vs exiles

The government cut off the internet in the region in 2017, opening the door for separatists to spread propaganda through other means. They set up satellite TV stations. Walla recalls that “[Ambazonians] told so many lies, claiming that the UN was with them, that British passports would be given to anglophones, that boats were coming to assist in Ambas Bay… This is the only information the people had access to.”

All these peripheral measures have not even brought the beginning of a solution to the conflict.

The early arrest of anglophone civil society leaders provoked changes. Walla says: “It was felt that to raise another leader from the ground in Cameroon was too dangerous. So, the leadership should be taken by people from the diaspora.”

Balla Nkongho, who was freed in August 2017, identifies a “leadership problem” within the anglophone community. “Our arrest created a vacuum. I believe that they [separatists] took advantage of the breakdown of law and order. They have never been involved in the anglophone liberation struggle in their entire life. And all of a sudden, they were propelled to positions of authority. They are selfish, and a lot of them are opportunists.”

End game

The government has met very few of the demands expressed in North-West and South-West Cameroon. In reaction to anglophone mobilisation, President Paul Biya’s government announced the recruitment of 1,000 bilingual teachers, created a national commission for bilingualism and multiculturalism, introduced common law at the supreme court and ENAM, and the creation of demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration centres.

“All these peripheral measures have not even brought the beginning of a solution to the conflict,” says Hippolyte Djounguep, a research fellow at Trends Research & Advisory in the United Arab Emirates.

In September 2019, the government launched a national dialogue under strong foreign pressure, namely from France. It did not change much on the ground. “The established commissions were close to power, to the dominant ideology. It is not the actors who suffer who have been associated with the formulation of solutions,” Mireille Manga Edimo, a researcher at Université de Yaoundé II, tells The Africa Report.

The search for solutions

Human rights activist Walla reckons that federalism is a viable solution to the crisis. “We have been living under the 10-state model for a long time. People identify with that. A South-Westerner is closer in ethnicity with a Sawa than the person in the North-West who is a Grassfielder and much closer to a Bamileke. We had history before colonisation. The challenge, which is before our country, is to build a state that respects all our identities, pre- and post-colonial. We can’t go back in time. It is our history now.”

For his part, Balla Nkongho makes another suggestion. “When a francophone is the president, the next in command should be an anglophone and vice versa. If your presidential candidate is francophone, the running mate should be anglophone and vice versa. Cameroon must go beyond the anglophone crisis and start looking at solving its political crises.”

Moreover, Balla Nkongho suggests an intra-anglophone dialogue, “so that we put our house in order before any form of dialogue takes place”.

Wish lists

Yaoundé II researcher Manga Edimo insists that any future dialogues should deal with things of common interest for the development of South-West and North-West. “One step forward would be for the President to address the Ambazonians directly and invite them to a dialogue. The state must be humble and say ‘I need you to move the nation forward. Without you, we cannot.’ This will be done when the state has decided that it can humble itself. When the experts succeed in convincing the President that [anglophones’] demands are legitimate. That is the only act that will lead to peace,” she says.

Balla Nkongho says that “separatists have to tone down their rhetoric and accept the fact that we can build unity in diversity […] with some guarantees of regional autonomy and a rotational presidency.”

If Yaoundé “continues and refuses to accept that the world has changed and that other people must be brought to the negotiating table, we will remain in this generalised hushed war,” concludes Manga Edimo.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options