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Why Political Power Distribution Escalated Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon?

Today, Cameroon is one of the most linguistically and ethnically heterogeneous countries in Africa. The colonial languages of French and English came to serve as lingua Franca, and the country’s ethnic units aligned according to a French-English cleavage.

The English speakers compose 17 percent of the population and inhabit two of the country’s 10 administrative divisions, the Northwest and Southwest Regions. Cameroon refers to its major administrative units, akin to provinces, as “Regions.” Germany originally colonized Cameroon, but it lost this territory to the French and the British after the end of World War I. In 1916, Cameroon was divided between France, which assumed control over most of the territory, and Great Britain, which took the western region. The French colony of Cameroon gained independence in the 1960s and formed the Republic of Cameroon.

On 1 January 1960, the French colony of Cameroun gained independence and became Cameroon. While Nigeria gained independence from the UK on 1 October 1960. The UK also controlled the former German colony of Cameroon. At independence, its citizens were given a choice of joining either Nigeria or Cameroon. Southern Cameroonians opted to unite with Cameroon, while Northern Cameroon joined Nigeria. This represents some 20% of Cameroon’s population, but only 10% of its land area.

Imbalance disparities

In 1972, another, equally controversial referendum was held, leading to Cameroon changing from a federal to a unitary state. That led to the suppression of regional institutions in the Anglophone area and the multi-party system. People from the former Southern Cameroon felt betrayed, following which support for groups opposed to the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement spiked.

The struggle as well was not only between the Francophone and Anglophone but also between the Anglophone and their elite who enjoyed juice positions in the government and were not ready to resign from their positions. They were enablers: the government used them to crush their own people. They always would preach anti-struggle campaign and would bring other Francophone authorities to fight against their people. Each time they visited the Anglophone zone, there was always a battle between them and their people. The elite wanted to maintain the status quo, while the general population wanted a change.

Over the years, appeals have been made to the United Nations for help. It is also a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation. For years, it had been a stronghold of the centre-left, federalist Social Democratic Front. Since 2015, however, independence groups have been growing in strength. The repression of independence supporters mirrors growing persecution of opposition parties in general, perhaps linked to growing doubts about what is to come once 86-year-old Paul Biya is no longer in power.

Cameroon’s anglophone minority has often complained that the regime discriminates by denying English speakers government jobs and access to official documents published in their language. Moreover, English-speaking regions contain valuable petroleum and natural gas resources whose benefits are not made available to local populations. The situation in the country is also complicated by the presence of Boko Haram near the border with its Nigerian heartland.

According to Cameroon Concord News 2019, “being Anglophone or francophone in Cameroon is not just the ability to speak, read and use English or French as a working language. It is about belonging to the Anglophone or Francophone ways including things like outlook, culture and how local governments are run. Anglophones have long complained that their language and culture are marginalized”. They thought it necessary to protect their judicial, educational and local government systems. They wanted an end to annexation and assimilation and more respect from government for their language and political philosophies. They preferred a total separation by creating their own independent state if the government failed to listen to them.

The Cameroon Government has taken a number of both peaceful and violent actions to respond to protestors. Peaceful means involve holding regional and national dialogues and forming committees aimed to deal with the grievances. On the other hand, the Government has engaged in a propaganda campaign to challenge the narrative of the separatists by calling them terrorists. Most prominent government officials have publicly said there is no “Anglophone problem”, whilst the government continues to use military solutions to defeat the Anglophone separatists rather than finding a political solution.

The Cameroon President, Paul Biya, created an ad-hoc inter-ministerial committee, comprised of four Francophone ministers, under the supervision of the PM’s Cabinet director. The mandate is designed to engage with the Anglophone separatist groups officially. The National Commission of Bilingualism and Multicultural was also created comprising of Francophones who were part of the old guard and the ruling party. It had powers only to write reports and advocate bilingualism and multiculturalism.

Surprisingly in March 2017, the president decreed the formation of new benches for Common Law at the National Supreme Court and new departments at the National School of Administration and Magistracy (ENAM), an increase in the number of English language teachers at ENAM, the recruitment of Anglophone magistrates, the creation of Common Law Departments at Francophone universities and provisional authorization for Anglophone lawyers to act as notaries in the Northwest and Southwest regions.

The liberation war

The Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) are an anglophone separatist militant organization in Cameroon. It is one of the most active players in that country’s civil conflict, known as the Anglophone Crisis. English-speaking provinces where years of fighting between the government and separatists have cost some 3,000 lives. Cameroon’s English-speakers say they have been marginalised for decades by the government in Yaounde and the French-speaking majority.

What began as a protest movement in 2016 calling for federalism, degenerated into fighting and a demand for full independence after the government clamped down on protest leaders. They argued that their vibrant economic and political institutions had been completely erased, and their education and judicial systems had been undermined and degraded.

In October 2017, the English-speaking group declared autonomy over the two English-speaking regions – a move rejected by Cameroon’s President Paul Biya. Although Cameroon is bound by the international law and its own constitution to respect human rights and freedoms, many human rights have been violated in Southern Cameroon.

The separatist crisis in Cameroon has resulted in a catastrophic humanitarian situation in the country. According to reliefweb, “Almost 680,000 Cameroonian are now internally displaced due to this crisis mainly in the North West and South West regions, but also in the West and Littoral. An additional 58,000 persons have sought refuge in neighbouring Nigeria.”

As of May 2019, at least 3 million people are in need of food security, and 1.5 million people need emergency health assistance. Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SBVG), committed by both the government and separatists, is still rampant in Anglophone Cameroon.

The government also prevented civil society organizations and political parties from holding press conferences. Police and gendarmes forcibly disrupted meetings and demonstrations of citizens, trade unions, and political activists, arrested participants in unapproved protests, and blocked political leaders from attending protests.

In response to the government’s brutal efforts to put down the rebellion, a constellation of groups emerged to advocate for anglophone separatism, some peacefully and others by force. One of the most prominent of these organizations was the Southern Cameroonians Ambazonia Consortium United Front (SCACUF). The group originally called for civil disobedience, diplomacy, and limited self-defense. Moreover, the SCACUF opposed launching an insurgency against the Cameroonian government. However, its successor organization, the self-proclaimed Interim Government of Ambazonia, later reversed this position.

At the same time, another separatist organization emerged in 2017 to advocate the use of armed conflict as a means to gain independence. This group, led by Lucas Cho Ayaba, was known as the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC). Ayaba had advocated for independence of Cameroon’s anglophone population since he was a student at the University of Buea in the 1990s. While SCACUF continued to resist calls to take up arms, the AGC readied itself to begin an insurgency against the Yaoundé government.

In pursuit of its goals, the ADF utilizes guerilla tactics to prevent the Cameroonian government from projecting power in the Northwest and Southwest regions. The group lacks extensive resources, leading it to turn to traditional magic and beliefs known as Odeshi and the finances of the Cameroonian diaspora for support in its fight against Yaoundé. Initially, the ADF limited its attacks to government officials and military personnel, but in 2018 it began targeting civilians as well. Thought to be the most active of about a half-dozen anglophone separatist militant organizations, the ADF largely operates independently from its peers.

Funding has proven to be a significant hurdle for the group, which is mainly made up of English speakers from lower socioeconomic classes. In its initial statement on the deployment of the ADF, the AGC called on the anglophone Cameroonian diaspora to provide financial support. It has pursued online crowdfunding and claims that the diaspora has played a key role in securing resources for its militants.

Especially in its early days, the ADF has also utilized kidnapping for ransom as a means to fundraise. This tactic led to a public breach with the Interim Government of Ambazonia. In April 2018, one of the ministers of the Interim Government issued a public letter condemning Ayaba for the kidnapping of the Cameroonian government official Animbom Aaron Ankiambom, who has not been seen since his disappearance at the hands of ADF militants.

The separatists are structured around two main political bodies-the Interim Government of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia (IG) and the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC). Linked to these political parties are more than 20 armed groups. The most active armed groups are the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces and the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF).
The ADF is the military arm of the AGC. In addition, there are numerous local cells with hundreds of fighters, not only from Cameroon but also Nigeria. Other groups include the Ambazonia Restoration Army in Belo/Boyo, the Nso Liberation Army in Bui, the Tigers of Manyu in Manyu Division, and the Red Dragons of Lebialem Defence Force in the locality of Lebialiem.

The secessionist forces number anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 armed fighters. They can be divided into two rival so-called Ambazonia interim governments (referred to as “IGs”). One is led by Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe. The second is headed by Samuel Ikome Sako, a US-based former pastor. “IG Sisiku” is seen locally as the stronger of the two wings.

The split in the movement followed the arrest of Sisiku in Nigeria, along with nine other senior officials the so-called “Nera 10” (named after the hotel in which they were staying) and their extradition to Cameroon in January 2018. Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, is an ICT engineer who used to work at the American University of Nigeria, Yola, Adamawa State in Nigeria. Since the arrest of the then President Julius Ayuk Tabe, in January 2018 in Nigeria, the group has declined.

Samuel Ikome Sako was unilaterally dismissed by Julius Ayuk Tabe in May 2019, a decision he refused to recognize. This triggered the Ambazonian leadership crisis and has increasingly led to clashes among the rival groups in Cameroon. The North-West and South-West regions have been subject to a resurgence of attacks against persons, their properties and public infrastructure, including health centres and schools, along with continuing incidents against humanitarian workers and medical personnel.

There is disenchantment under the new leader Dr. Ikome Sako because followers think he is incompetent and has misappropriated funds.
The friction between the two camps largely plays out in the diaspora where nearly all the secessionist leaders are based but has increasingly led to clashes among their men in Cameroon.

Each IG is an umbrella group for a range of other factions. As Cameroon’s war continues, a key question is how much control the diaspora-based leadership has over individual commanders and fighters on the ground. The division has complicated humanitarian efforts, with aid workers not knowing which group they must seek permission from to access communities in need.

It seems people everywhere are questioning the ability of traditional political actors to represent their interests and are increasingly seeking a more direct and unmediated relations to the decisions that affect their lives.

Differences have also emerged within AGovC and IG Sisiku. Tapang Ivo Tanku, spokesperson of the AGovC’s armed wing, the ADF, said last year that anybody not paying a so-called “liberation war tax” would be kidnapped and held for ransom. AGovC’s political wing and IG Sisiku distanced themselves from that statement, which some described as basic extortion.

The struggle as well was not only between the Francophone and Anglophone but also between the Anglophone and their elite who enjoyed juice positions in the government and were not ready to resign from their positions. They were enablers: the government used them to crush their own people. They always would preach anti-struggle campaign and would bring other Francophone authorities to fight against their people. Each time they visited the Anglophone zone, there was always a battle between them and their people. The elite wanted to maintain the status quo, while the general population wanted a change.

On Aug. 20, 2019, ten leaders of the most influential Anglophone separatist movement in Cameroon were convicted. Julius Ayuk Tabe, and nine others were each handed a life sentence. The accused were also ordered to pay for damages amounting to over $422 million.

A little sign of abating

In 2019, Switzerland mediated talks between the government and exiled separatist leaders but those talks did not produce any significant results. The Swiss mediation was refused by Cameroon President Paul Biya.

It held a “national dialogue” on the conflict in October 2019, but most separatist groups refused to participate, many pointing out their leaders remained in prison.

The Swiss diplomats were asked by some top Cameroonian officials not to interfere into their internal affairs. Some media outlets were overtly critical of Swiss mediation. Some separatist leaders also took to their Facebook pages to condemn the Swiss government for going through the wrong persons to dialogue.

On July 3, 2020, the government officials in Cameroon held talks with leaders of the Ambazonia separatist movement, including Sisiku Ayuk Tabe who is currently serving a life sentence. Tabe took on Twitter to announce that he and his “Cabinet” met with authorities of the Yaounde regime so as to “initiate a ceasefire following the UN’s call”. “Be reassured that we remain committed to the restoration of the independence of homeland,” Sisiku added.

The talks were the first of its kind since an armed separatist conflict broke out in the English-speaking regions of North-West and South-West. However, security analysts contend that conflict in Cameroon will aggravate due to the demands of the separatists that are incompatible with the government’s position. Moreover, the competing claims of leadership among the separatists will also hamper efforts towards an inclusive peace process.

In early March 2020, the UN called for a ceasefire in the two regions, in part to help combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Violence continue to take place despite peace talks between the government and jailed leaders of the Ambazonia Interim Government (IG), on June 16 2020. Other separatist groups, such as the ‘Ambazonia Governing Council’ and a splinter faction of the IG did not participate. Security forces and armed separatists have both attacked hospitals and medical staff on multiple occasions.

However, the crisis is unlikely to be resolved until all the major forces get around the negotiating table and hammer out a deal that responds to the rebels concerns about the English-speaking regions’ marginalisation and governance.

Hour of truth

Reforms should be preceded by an inclusive dialogue at the highest level to develop long-term solutions. Following this bloody repression, the worsening crisis now calls for the intervention of a credible mediator, such as the UN Regional Office for Central Africa (UNOCA) or the African Union.

In addition to political uncertainty, it must now also deal with two pockets of conflict, numerous points of social tension, and a worrying economic outlook. Until, now, the population’s impressive resilience has made relative stability possible. But a worsening Anglophone problem could plunge the country into a much deeper crisis. In this well-endowed country with considerable human potential, it is urgent for Cameroonians (Anglophones and Francophones alike) to reach a new national and social consensus. To reach this consensus, the country needs to take the route of effective decentralisation or federalism.

International partners, who have until now been passive or complacent vis-à-vis the regime, should strongly condemn such state violence and terrible killings. They should also request an independent investigation and sanctions against the perpetrators, as well as the launch of an inclusive dialogue on decentralisation and federalism. Finally, they should clearly point out that renewed, widespread violence perpetrated by the security forces will lead to a reassessment of military cooperation with Cameroon.

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