Cameroon: Time for UN action over the Anglophone crisis

The murder of schoolchildren during an attack in the city of Kumba has brought widespread condemnation and put a renewed spotlight on the fighting in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The warring parties have failed to resolve their differences and atrocities have been committed by both sides in the course of the conflict. There are calls for the UN to be involved. They are overdue and the situation needs to be addressed at the level of the Secretary General.

On the 24th of October there was what has been described as a new low in Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis when seven children were killed and many more injured by gunmen in an attack on a school in the city of Kumba. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which has been condemned by the government, separatist leaders and human rights organisations. It has put a renewed spotlight on a conflict between the government and armed groups riven by human rights violations that include massacres, the destruction of villages, sexual violence and torture. A dispute over law and teaching that escalated in 2016 led to the declaration of independence by Ambazonia Governing Council in 2017 and fighting between the government and separatists. This underwent a major escalation in 2019 and has led to an estimated death toll of over 3000 and the displacement of over 600,000 people. A unique characteristic of the conflict has been the deliberate closure of schools by the separatists, removing 800,000 children from education.

At the heart of the dispute was language: The Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon are English speaking whereas the majority of the country speaks French. This is due to the colonial history of the region that saw the Southern Cameroons and Cameroon joined together in a botched withdrawal by the British and French. It left Cameroon with different law and education systems in the English and French speaking areas. The government was accused of filling key posts with people trained in the French traditions, thus marginalising the English speaking minority. The Anglophone minority are proud of their traditions and had described the government’s approach as ‘forced assimilation’. For its part, the government is committed to centralised governance and allows governance at the local level provided that it doesn’t conflict with national law. The 2016 dispute began over the appointment of French-speaking Judges, which were seen as threatening the common law system in the Northwest and Southwest regions. This dovetailed with a general feeling of marginalisation amongst Anglophones as the campaign by lawyers and teachers was linked to that for greater civil and political rights. The government responded harshly and arrested hundreds of protestors and would later arrest the leaders of the separatist movement. A notable characteristic of the Anglophone crisis is that its main incompatibility is constitutional, meaning that amongst the potential solutions was the reform of how the regions were governed. The deterioration into armed conflict was a situation that was utterly out of proportion to the dispute that fuelled it and separatist demands moved from autonomy to independence.  

International action has been limited given the scale of the crisis. The EU and the US have condemned the violence but have taken little other direct action (advocating within the EU and US not withstanding). The US has been pushing for sanctions while France supports the government. The most influential regional power is Nigeria, who absorbed the Northern Cameroons during decolonisation but is partnered with Cameroon in their battle against Boko Harem. The African Union has discussed the crisis in a closed meeting at a summit but has otherwise steered clear. For its part, the UN seems to be waiting for the AU to act, which has yet to happen in any substantive form. We should note that Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya, is able to count on support in the region and that the AU is fundamentally resistant to changes arising from territorial and governance disputes.  

The Cameroonian government in Yaoundé has generally sought to avoid outside involvement in the crisis with the exception of Swiss mediators from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and has sought to deal with the crisis internally and on its own terms. An attempt by the Swiss in 2019 failed to stop the fighting due to mistrust from within the separatist movement but they have been mandated by the government to try again. An experienced diplomat and mediator, Günther Bächler, has been working with the parties and the church in Cameroon during 2020. A national dialogue in 2019 also had little impact on ending the fighting but in 2020 there has been secret talks between government representatives and separatists from the diaspora in Ghana and then jailed separatist  leaders in the neutral territory of the Episcopal Centre of Mvolyé. Despite the willingness of the sides to talk major fighting has continued and there have been many instances of atrocities similar to the one that took place in Kumba. For the government the war is a classic insurgency and for the separatists it is a guerrilla war. For everyone else it is brutal and frequently atrocious.

Whilst the warring parties are willing to talk there is little of note coming out of it and they are deadlocked over the conditions for a cessation of military activities. The momentum for a peaceful solution is driven by civil society, including the Catholic Church and women’s groups in the Anglophone regions, and on the 27th October some 35 groups issued an open letter calling for a ceasefire and UN peace talks. This coincides with a call from separatist leaders for the UN to mediate. The Cameroonian opposition has been critical of both the government and the separatists, noting that separatist violence allowed Biya to deal with international pressure to find a solution. They also say that the Biya regime is corrupt and needs to go. Maurice Kamto, an  opposition leader, languishes in prison following a disputed election that some say he actually won. A major difficulty in the talks is the divisions within both the government and the separatists.

Inside the government there is the expected jockeying for influence, particularly given that the question of Bika’s succession is wide open but this has found its way into the peace process, with the Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Ngute, and Secretary General of the Presidency, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, at odds.There is more widespread division in terms of attitudes to dealing with the separatist insurgency and the government has shown itself unable to agree on what has actually been discussed or agreed in talks with the secessionists. As far as coming up with a joined up approach to the crisis goes, it’s a shambles. Given that there is the added possibility of a forthcoming succession crisis with factions and interests split along ethnic lines and a war with Boko Haram that is responsible for over 2,500 deaths between 2014 and 2017, the government does in fact have a lot on its plate (see the previous blogs on this). This is not, however, a valid reason not to deal with a disaster in the Anglophone regions that the Biya government contributed to by its own mishandling of the situation, or its failure to prevent war crimes by its own forces.

For their part, the separatists lack central control and there are differing opinions on issues such as the utility of violence, political solutions (independence/autonomy /confederation) and the use of school strikes. There are a myriad of political organisations, some linked to armed groups and disagreement on finding solutions to the conflict other than armed struggle. Hardliners insist on fighting on and there are small semi-criminal actors reliant on a war economy. This makes it difficult to refer to the separatists as a movement, even as a decentralised one. While there are two major Ambazonian interim governments (referred to as IG Sisiku and IG Sako, after their leaders) they act as umbrella groups for other factions and there are also unaffiliated militias on the ground alongside what are described as ‘Fake Amba’ allegedly in the pay of the government. The recent peace talks have mostly been with the IG Sisiku, whose leader is imprisoned in Cameroon. These talks have been condemned by the IG Sako, whose leader is based in the US. Much of the debate takes place in the diaspora. In turn, the IG Sisiku was critical of the 2019 Swiss mediation attempt which the IG Sako took part in. This prevented a unified separatist presence for talks with the government and effectively derailed the attempt altogether. The government has generally favoured talking to separatist leaders from IG Sisiku whom are incarcerated in Cameroon’s jails, meaning the exclusion of the  IG Sako leaders in the diaspora. Despite the divisions, one separatist leader, Ayaba Cho Lucas, has claimed that the factions are working together. One notable concession by the separatists has been to drop the call for the army to withdraw from the Anglophone regions and to return to their barracks instead, allowing the police and gendarmerie to take over.

The government stance is to push forward with decentralisation agreed at a 2019 Grand National Dialogue alongside a firm military response. The parliament approved a bill granting special status but secessionists have rejected this as having emerged out of a dialogue dominated by the ruling CPDM party, which some of the opposition had walked out of. Whilst the government is pushing reform the population of the Anglophone region didn’t turn out to vote in the February elections. The separatists have indicated preferences that talks should take place outside of Cameroon, involve all separatists and not just those handpicked by the government, and should involve a trusted international actor. The government is divided on the matter, with some members advocating entrusting negotiations to a third party outside of Cameroon. The IG Sisiku has called for the demilitarisation of the Anglophone regions, prisoner releases and an amnesty for leaders in the diaspora. Separatists and the government are deadlocked over the deployment of the military with the former saying there will be no ceasefire unless the army returns to barracks. It isn’t clear exactly how much operational control the IGs have over their affiliated groups.

There has been significant pressure for the UN to become involved in the resolution of the conflict. One separatist IG has called for it, the opposition believes that the UN should be involved and the signatories of #EndAnglophoneCrisis are a who’s who of civil society groups and international campaign groups. These include the women’s groups working in the Anglophone regions. While it is the case that the government and the separatists have engaged in talks there has yet to be a substantive outcome and there is substantial evidence that the forces of both sides have committed war crimes. Their interests have been supplanted by the call of civil society and peace activists for an immediate general ceasefire and referral of the dispute to the UN in the form of the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, the UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. An additional argument is that the dispute be taken before the UN Security Council and be addressed directly by the appointment of a Special Envoy by the UN Secretary General (which could be a dual appointment with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue). This would push forward the move to a negotiated settlement through raising international censure of the situation, enabling the formation of a resolution regarding funding streams for the combatants and providing the independent mediator that both parties say they desire with the support of the Secretary General. The Anglophone crisis remains one that is constitutional in nature and is resolvable through political means.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

In 2019 there were two blogs regarding the Anglophone crisis that provide more background to the conflict and can be accessed at: https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/1848 and https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/1851.  

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