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Background to the conflict

In 2016, a political crisis was initiated in Cameroon's Anglophone region due to protests around sectoral demands. The crises led to the resurgence of the 'Anglophone question,' highlighting the limitations faced by Cameroon's model of governance, formulated on the centralization of elite groups. After decolonization, Cameroon inherited two legal system after territories dominated by Britain and France unified to form a single state. The crisis began on 11th October 2016 in Bamenda after lawyers from the Northwest and Southwest initiated a strike. The group protested due to the failure on behalf of the Justice System to enact common law and equality in both regions. Therefore, lawyers called for the translation of the Code of Organisation for the Harmonization of Business Law in Africa (OHADA) into English, criticizing the 'francophonisaion' of Common law and, appointment of Francophone judges in Anglophone region.  

Therefore, to reiterate demands for a complete reinstatement of the Common Law system as it existed during the time of the federal system was the main reason behind the mobilization of the crowd. However, in response, gendarmes brutally dispersed the peaceful protestors, leaving several wounded. The crises that emerged five years ago have transformed into unmitigated violence. According to UN human rights reports, a humanitarian catastrophe is on the rise, with key actors unwilling to compromise. Instead, Cameroon's government's constant denial, repression, and intimidation have led to the politicization of the crises. The government has continuously exploited identity question, instilling a lack of trust in the Anglophone populace. Resentment amongst people has reached a new height; the only acceptable solution for them is either the return to federalism or secession.

Evolution of the crises over past 5 years- from power sharing to secessionist movement

The beginning of the crises in 2016 was marked by series of protests by CACSC, an organization comprised of teachers, lawyers, and trade unions from the Anglophone region of Cameroon. According to the lawyers, they submitted a written appeal to the government highlighting their concerns with regards to the use of French in educational institutes and courts, especially in the English-speaking cities of Banana Bueu and Limbe. Due to neglect by the authorities, the group began peaceful strikes, marches, and sit-ins, intending to preserve English culture. 

Methods employed by the groups were ghosting towns, lockdowns, shutting schools and universities, and demonstrations. According to Agbor Nkongho, a human rights lawyer in the Anglophone region, these initial strategies were employed to pressurize Cameroon's government and exert diplomatic pressure on it by revealing its grievances to the international community; this measure was meant to last for a short time. The protesters blame the government for escalating the situation; it responded by deploying security forces and using tear gas on lawyers and teachers. Violent crackdowns by the government ultimately led to the formulation of a mainstream separatist movement in Anglophone region of Cameroon. 

Therefore, September 2017 witnessed a complete transformation in the movement's ultimate objective; subsequently, it prompted a shift in methods employed by them. Currently, Anglophone separatists are fighting for their own territory, i.e., the "Republic of Ambazonia." In September 2017, Ambazonia Defense forces formally took up arms against the government; its first military action was an assault on a military base in Manyu.

  • Worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Cameroon

Ever since the region has been turned into a war zone, Northwest and Southwest of Cameroon have been marked with widespread fear, curfews, patrols, arbitrary arrests, detentions, and killings. Both the central government and rebellion have taken a violent form; each day, the humanitarian crises continue to worsen. The educational sector remains most affected; serval institutions are shut down due to the fear of attack on the facilities. Numerous students and teachers have either been displaced, attacked, or killed. As of 2021, nearly 700,000 students have no access to educational facilities in the northwest and southwest of Cameroon; only 19% of the school are operational in the conflict zone. Moreover, less than 35% of health care facilities are functioning, causing a rapid drop in life-saving immunization services. 

The state of affairs is extremely deplorable, especially in the aftermath of the election of President Paul Biya for his seventh presidential term in 2018. At the beginning of January, more than 15,000 individuals from South Cameroon fled to Nigeria; the figure rose up to 55,000 in only one month. By May 2019, internally displaced individuals were as many as 530,000, and 35,000 fled to the Nigeria. Moreover, since the onset of the crisis, more than 4000 people, inclusive of civilians and security personnel, have been killed. Currently, more than 1.3 million people in the Anglophone region are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

  • Impact of military strategies on civilian population

Cameroonians directly threatened or impacted by the conflict believe that both factions, including the government and separatists, are playing with their lives under the pretext of protecting civilians. For them, both parties only aim to preserve their goals, leaving civilians distrustful of both factions. For example, Paul Nilong stated that the federal government seeks to make Ambazonia ungovernable and that they will ultimately demolish everything. Economic sabotage and impoverishment is a most important part of this. These conditions are taking a heavy toll on the civilian populace; for example, a deadly assault on a village in North-West of Cameroon in April 2019 led to the death of five civilians (one was mentally disabled), and one woman was wounded. 

Cameroon’s army has waged a counter-insurgency that aims to wear down separatists support base. When it comes to strategy, separatists lack a clear-cut vision. For instance, Ndong has acknowledged that implementing lockdowns repeatedly harms their own cause; on the other hand, Along asserted that lockdown was imperative to send a message to the government that they are not in a dominant position. Military tactics employed by Ambazonian forces include guerrilla warfare, which includes ambushes, raids, hit-and-run assaults, etc.

Lack of progression in the conflict- government’s ‘bad faith’ is to be blamed

Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis has emerged as one of the most pressing problems in the country’s politics. The government factions have diverging views over negotiations and dialogue with the separatists. The first camp, inclusive of the PM, advocates a mutually negotiated outcome; on the other hand, the second camps advocates otherwise. There have been widespread allegations that the government has not carried out robust efforts to end the violence. Ngolle Ngoole, a ruling party’s member, stated that authorities are using all tools at their disposal for the cessation of hostilities, armed violence in particular. Opposition parties, including Cameroon’s People Party, have adopted a nuanced posture and have condemned the approach of both the state and the separatist factions. The party leader, Kah Walla, has proposed that conflict can be resolved by transforming Cameroon into a federation. 

A history teacher in the Anglophone region has deemed the government’s efforts insufficient to end the crises. For example, where major national dialogue was held, leaders of the Anglophone region (as proclaimed by the separatists) were not included in the talks with the government. In Cameroon’s case, obstacle to conflict resolution is more associated with ‘bad faith;’ certain groups or individuals harness opportunities and gain advantages from prolonged conflict. Money is the most critical element here, and both parties seem to benefit from it.

Response of international community and the way forward

The crises in the Anglophone region have impacted Cameroon’s bilateral ties with its allies. The African Union (AU) member states have adopted a neutral posture, while the majority of the European nations and the US have condemned the actions of Cameroon. In June 2019, Switzerland declared that both parties to the conflict asked the state to play the role of a mediator in the crises. This is the first case of dialogue between conflicting sides and received global endorsement. However, the talks remained largely inconclusive; the dialogue is known as the ‘Swiss process.’ The major problem was that only one faction within the separatist movement supported the talks, and the Cameroon government also did not depict flexibility.

Thus, in the wake of escalating tensions, it is unlikely that the conflict will end;     increasingly sophisticated weapon deployment has a devastating impact and wreaks havoc. According to Deputy Defense Chief Ndong, international attention to the war is the only way to eradicate conflict and instability in the region. As opposed to a military solution, diplomacy is a more viable option, including dialogue and negotiations. The more resolute the conflicting parties get, the more the crises appear to crystallize into violent clashes. 

To bring enduring peace and stability, it is imperative to necessitate trade-offs and flexibility by both parties. Few relevant actions would include:

  1. Historical causes of the crises must be addressed to identify the gaps;
  2. Both parties must reengage in dialogue by creating an ad hoc commission;
  3. The international community must enact travel bans and freeze assets of the parties fueling the crises;
  4. Accountability must be ensured in case of war crimes and atrocities;
  5. The right of citizens to protest peacefully must be recognized in accordance with the constitution; prisoners must also be released without any conditions. 

Written By: Olivium's Editor


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