Southern Cameroons, independence and repression: a violent, increasingly serious crisis

At least hundreds have been killed since October in a conflict rooted in the 1960s · Pro-independence leaders have been jailed as some voices demand negotiation process, federal solution

Author: David Forniès/Nationalia
The crisis in Southern Cameroons, which has resulted in a violent confrontation between armed pro-independence groups and the Cameroonian forces over the last 9 months, is not giving any sign of moving towards a solution —rather the contrary is true. Since the date of the symbolic declaration of Southern Cameroonian independence of 1 October, at least hundreds have been killed in a conflict that has been dragging on since the 1960s and has a lot to see with the centralization of power at the hands of the Cameroonian state.

The current cycle of violence

Southern Cameroons —officially, the North-west and South-west regions of Cameroon— is the part of Cameroon under British control before independence, unlike the rest of the country, which was a French colony. The elites of both territories, at the time of independence (1960-1961), agreed to the formation of a federal republic, in which the former British Cameroon’s semi-autonomy and Anglophone legacy had to be respected.

Reality, however, was that the federal model was replaced by a unitary system in 1972, the distinctive features of Southern Cameroons —English language, common law, its own identity— being marginalized to the present day. (Nationalia released a related report half a year ago.)

Sporadic protests in Southern Cameroons against this state of play were becoming increasingly permanent as of the second half of 2016. On 1 October 2017, thousands of South Cameroonians attended a demonstration in which the independence of their country was proclaimed, mainly in symbolic terms.

Even so, the Cameroonian forces repressed the South Cameroonian movement —part of which would settle for a return to the original federal agreement. Throughout October, a number of pro-independence leaders exiled themselves to neighbouring Nigeria. There, they established the provisional government of Ambazonia —the name under which they hoped independent Southern Cameroons would be known. 47 of the leaders, including president Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, were arrested and extradited to Cameroon, where they are held in custody while their trial is still pending. Theman who replaced Ayuk Tabe as president in exile, Samuel Sako Ikome, called South Cameroonians to “self-defense”.

At the same time, the emergence of several pro-independence armed groups —largely fragmented, many of them out of control of the government in exile— and the deployment of the Cameroonian army in Southern Cameroons led to a violent escalation that has not stopped. Besides hundreds of people killed, the crisis has caused the displacement of tens of thousands. According to the Crisis Group watch, at least 60 people were killed in May only, and the danger of further population displacement is rising.

Even more serious data are those contained in an Amnesty International report released on 11 June. The rights group documents how the Cameroonian army is repressing protests “with arbitrary arrests, torture, unlawful killings and destruction of property.” Amnesty unveiled evidence that Cameroonian security forces had completely devastated the Kwakwa village, where two police officers had been previously killed —presumably by pro-independence militants.

The report blames secessionist armed groups too, not only of killing tens of Cameroonian soldiers, but also of having attacked the civilian population and having burned to the ground schools not enforcing a boycott that had been called on by pro-independence forces.

Cameroon’s response to the crisis “will do nothing to calm the violence —in fact it is likely to further alienate Anglophone communities and fuel further unrest,” said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International Deputy Director for West and Central Africa.

Mediation and negotiation demands

Crisis Group warned a few weeks ago that the crisis would worsen if no mediation was launched. The think tank identified the Catholic Church as one of the few actors that could fulfil this role. The United Kingdom has also offered to do the job, but the Cameroonian government could perceive it as a non-neutral actor.

Cameroonian president Paul Biya —who is considering to run again for office in this year’s presidential election albeit having been in power since 1975— continues to refer to the conflict as a matter of “terrorism”, and refuses to focus on its deepest and long-standing realities. Biya has just launched a vague process of “decentralization” —now for years in place— that has yielded scarce fruits.

A federal kind of solution, according to past and present statements of the Cameroonian government, is as unacceptable as secession. Higher Education minister Jacques Fame Ndongo, recently speaking to Radio France International, has reiterated that the nature of the state “is not negotiable”, although he has admitted that a dialogue process can not be excluded.

Crisis group analyst Hans de Marie Heungoup says that “dialogue and negotiation” is “the only viable solution” for both the independence movement —which “knows that it will not be able to expel the [Cameroonian] state from the English-speaking regions”— and the Cameroonian government — to whom “the armed option can only lead to failure or to a Pyrrhic victory after a prolonged and costly struggle, both in human lives and in material resources.”

One of the proponents of the federal solution is Victor Mukete. The oldest serving member of the Cameroonian senate and a traditional chief of Southern Cameroons, Mukete also played a role in the unification of the two Cameroons in 1961. He claims that the marginalization of the Anglophones is “extreme” and says Cameroon should be tuned into a federation of ten states —one per current region. Mukete holds that he is “sure” that, in the end, Biya “will accept” that solution. He does not explain, however, how he will manage to convince the president.

Meanwhile, a proposal in this line has been sent to Biya by the Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, established by the president in January 2017 with the declared objective of giving French and English “equal value”. After having collected multiple opinions in Southern Cameroons among leaders and social actors, the Commission has announced that a return to the federal system is a proposal worthwhile to be taken into account when it comes to resolving the conflict. A different matter, off course, is whether the pro-independence movement would perceive such a negotiation as an acceptable outcome, bearing in mind the repression unleashed by the Cameroonian authorities against it.