Southern Cameroons crisis has marginalized Anglophones seeking independent republic

October secession declaration was answered with repression by Cameroonian government · Emergence of pro-independence insurgency raises fears of conflict escalation

South Cameroonians holding their national flag protest in New York.
South Cameroonians holding their national flag protest in New York. Author: Lambisc @ Wikimedia Commons
 The Southern Cameroons crisis continues to flare up as violent clashes are taking place between Cameroonian forces and secessionist armed groups following the 1 October independence declaration. Thousands have fled to Nigeria —where a pro-independence government has been formed in exile— as Cameroonian president Paul Biya vows to crush the revolt. The conflict, which has now been lasting for half a century, sinks its roots into the government’s refusal to respect the country’s federal founding pact and the consequent subordination of Southern Cameroon’s Anglophone population to French-speaking Cameroon. The division is a colonial heritage, however it remains alive and shapes current collective identities.

What is Southern Cameroons?

Southern Cameroons —or Ambazonia, as pro-independence groups sometimes refer to it— is a territory belonging to Cameroon. It is located in its south-western part, bordering Nigeria and the gulf of Guinea. Off its coast lies Equatorial Guinea’s island of Bioko. Southern Cameroons has more than 3.4 million inhabitants —20% of the total population of Cameroon— and spans over an area of 42,700 square kilometres. Oil and natural gas fields are found under its territorial waters. South Cameroons is currently divided into two administrative regions, namely North-West and South-West. As in the rest of Cameroon, dozens of native African languages are spoken, mainly belonging to the Bantu and Bantoid groups.

What sets Southern Cameroons apart from the rest of Cameroon?

Above all, it is its colonial past, an important identity marker for many African secessionist movements. After the First World War, the German colony of Cameroon was divided between the British (western area) and the French (eastern). The French sector gained independence in 1960 as the Republic of Cameroon. One year later, the British divided their area into two halves: the northern part joined Nigeria while the southern part —current Southern Cameroons— agreed to establish a joint, two-member federal state with the Republic of Cameroon. Southern Cameroons maintained a distinct legacy in the fields of language —English continued to be used in the administration, as opposed to French in the rest of the country—, legislation —common law applied there— and identity —an own feeling of belonging. This legacy remains alive today, and is at the basis of independence demands.

What happened to the federal republic?

All along the 1960s, the federal government —dominated by the Francophone elites— increasingly centralized political power, of which the Anglophone elites were gradually isolated. On paper, the federal Constitution protected a degree of autonomy for Southern Cameroons. In practice, however, Southern Cameroonian self-government was emptied of content from the first days of independence. In 1972, the federal system was abolished to give way to a unitary system. This sparked increasing dissatisfaction among South Cameroonians, who saw English language being pushed aside by more powerful French, their regions being marginalized in state investments, the doors of the public function closed to them, and their political representation being cut more and more.

This perception of marginalization led to the creation of several pro-independence organizations. In the 1990s and 2000s the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) was one of the leading ones. Their activities were repressed by the government, and a number of their leaders and members were jailed. However, the group is still active.

Do all Southern Cameroonians support secession?

Not all of them, however it is true that pro-independence sentiment is widespread. On that basis, the SCNC in 1995 raised to the UN the illegality of the annexation of their country by the Republic of Cameroon, and demanded an internationally sponsored transition towards independence —which was never implemented. Subsequently, other South Cameroonian organizations unilaterally declared independence on several occasions, under the name of “Republic of Ambazonia”. They never succeeded in bringing the new state into life. More recently, independence groups have come together under the umbrella of the South Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front (SCACUF).

Non-pro-independence sectors demand that the Cameroonian government accept a return to the 1961 federal Constitution and respect Southern Cameroon’s English-speaking nature. The SDF —the main opposition party to Cameroonian president Paul Biya— is an example of this. The SDF was founded in 1990 in Southern Cameroons under the leadership of Anglophone John Fru Ndi. SDF’s leading sectors support federalism, while a minority within the party advocates decentralization within the framework of a unitary state.

What is going on right now?

Protests by the Anglophone movement —whether pro-independence, federalist or pro-decentralization— have flared up since the end of 2016, when thousands of Anglophone lawyers and teachers went on strike against Southern Cameroons marginalization. They were denouncing that the Cameroonian government sends jurists there who are conversant with French-inherited civil law only —not with common law, which is the system Cameroonian Anglophones advocate for— and teachers who do not speak English. The government cracked down on the protests and cut off internet as Southern Cameroonians demonstrated in the tens of thousands on the streets of several cities throughout 2017. Protests peaked 1 October with the proclamation of Southern Cameroonian secession, which was repressed by security forces: an indeterminate number of pro-independence demonstrators were killed.

What happened to the newly declared state?

The pro-independence movements do not hold control over the territory. Several secessionist groups under the SCACUF umbrella met at the end of October in Nigeria —where some pro-independence leaders have taken shelter— to announce the formation of the interim government of Ambazonia in exile and to encourage the Southern Cameroonian people to bring new ideas for the country’s provisional Constitution, which provides for the formation of a federation made up by three constituent states. The cabined is headed by Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, against whom Cameroon has issued an international arrest warrant.

Danger of an open violent conflict exists?

Yes it does, if ones take into account the latest report from the International Crisis Group, a think tank closely monitoring the crisis. According to the report, the interim government in exile does not expect to start an armed struggle at this point. But not all of the pro-independence groups are represented in that provisional government. Such is the case for the Ambazonian Government Council (AGC) and its linked militia, the Ambazonian Defense Forces (ADF), which are committed to violent insurgency. Other armed groups exist (SOCADEF, SCDF, local self-defense groups…). All in all, the Crisis Group estimates, those militias have at least 400 armed members. Over the last two months pro-independence militants have been involved in bomb attacks, and they have clashed with Cameroonian forces. The media report several people killed and a strong militarization in Southern Cameroons.

Violence has unleashed a wave of South Cameroonian refugees to Nigeria. The UNHCR has registered 7,204 people since October, with a few thousand more waiting to be registered. The UN body is distributing food and medical aid to them.