I spent part of last month in Cameroon travelling to various communities and listening to ordinary voices about the ongoing Anglophone crisis. I witnessed the devastating impact of the conflict on people and their community. In city after city, businesses have shut down, night life is almost absent and kids gallivanted the streets instead of going to school.
In some places, things had deteriorated to a point that residents sleep on the floor in their homes for fear of stray bullets. Homelessness, previously a rarity, is now a fixture on the urban landscape. And there is an increasing number of “internally displaced persons” – those who abandoned their homes and communities for safer places. Given the absence of reliable figures, it’s impossible to tell the number of people displaced or killed.
Armoured vehicles escorted public transportation vehicles between the different cities in the region. Significant parts of the Southwest Region, a vital Anglophone territory, looked deserted.
The situation is the result of a peaceful protest started two years ago by teachers and lawyers that turned into a brutal conflict between government forces and those fighting for secession over the marginalisation of Anglophone regions.
After two years of brutal conflict, the crisis needs urgent attention. One useful option would be to reschedule the presidential elections recently announced for October 7. Even if that doesn’t happen, the Anglophone region needs help now.
There will be debates about restoring federalism, and constitutional amendments but immediate relief cannot wait until those issues are all resolved. The killing, displacement, destruction of property and businesses, and capital flight need to stop immediately.
Annexed by Germany in 1884, Cameroon remained a German colony until 1916 when Germany was pushed out of the colony. Three years later it was split into two unequal halves and handed to Britain and France after Germany lost the war.
In that division, Britain received one-fifth of the former German Kamerun, which was a narrow strip of territory stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Chad. Britain sought to use the Cameroonian territory as a buffer to protect its larger Nigerian colony.
The administration of British Southern Cameroons became a “colony” of Eastern Nigeria. The people were exploited, brutalised, and turned into second class citizens. The Igbos, then labelled as “Black imperialists,” were the de facto colonialists of British Southern Cameroons. Their behaviour turned English speaking Cameroonians against any illusion of joining Nigeria when the 1961 plebiscite was organised.
On the other side, Ahmadou Ahidjo, Cameroon’s first president, launched a pro-reunification campaign in towns in the British Southern Cameroons region. He promised Anglophones equality and respect, insisting that Anglophone Cameroon’s political, economic, and social institutions would thrive in a new federal system. In the plebiscite, the people of British Southern Cameroons voted in support of reunification with East Cameroon. The decision was approved by the UN General Assembly.
Soon after reunification, Ahidjo began to renege on promises he’d made and systematically ignored agreements that had been reached. He finally dealt a crushing blow to the federal system in 1972 when, in a hurriedly organised referendum, he replaced it with a united republic.
Over the past nearly 50 years voices of protest have kept reminding the government to keep to its promises to Anglophone Cameroon. Each time the response from the men in Yaoundé was either intimidation, bribery, jail, or sometimes death.
Unaware of changing times, a similar approach was taken to the current crisis when teachers and lawyers went on strike two years ago. They were demanding changes to government policy which increasingly undermined the use of English and Anglophone values in schools and the judicial system.
A different time
Government responses included arrest, jail, beatings, and intimidation. Disconnection of the internet in the Anglophone region changed little as images of police brutality and killings shown on social media became an embarrassment for the Paul Biya regime, and garnered sympathy for the push for a return to the pre-1972 federal system.
The Biya team failed to read the signs of the times. What changed the dynamics of the current protest was social media and the resilience of the young people.
Simultaneously, another faction intensified demand for Anglophone Cameroon’s complete secession. Leaders of that group formed the Ambazonia Republic, created the Ambazonia Defence Force, and used it to hit back at government forces. A year into the crisis, Biya, reacting to the killing of six military officers in the Anglophone region, declared war on those he termed “separatists,” vowing that they would be “eliminated” . The Ambazonia Defence Force responded that war was made on them by Biya, and raised the stakes promising to fight to the end.
Both sides were now on a collision course, and increasingly the population felt trapped between the two. Massive casualties have been reported on both sides. Poverty, crime, and despair have reached a new level in the country, and there is no end in sight.
Major powers such as the US, China, France and the UK have done little. Cameroonians need to stop looking to these major powers for solutions to the problems. They must realise that only they can solve their problems.
The way forward
The president needs to go on nationwide television to assure the people that he heard the grievances, call for an immediate ceasefire, and implement immediate relief and recovery programmes. He must also commit to releasing those arrested for exercising their political and freedom of speech rights.
The problems are daunting, and the president and his team must mobilise the country to be involved in finding solutions. There should be a public debate on the restoration of a federal system in the country. Leadership alone cannot solve the problems. Each one should be asked to do their part.
As I was repeatedly told, “Enough is enough.”