BY PHEDRA NEEL, RESEARCH ASSOCIATE PILPG-NL
The situation in Southern Cameroons is as dire as it is unknown. The Cameroonian government is fighting groups in the region that it labels “armed separatist groups”. These groups want to establish an independent state called Ambazonia. The resulting violence is causing casualties on both sides. Civilians see their human rights violated on a large scale. This blog series aims to raise awareness about this situation by regularly discussing specific aspects of the situation or by bringing updates of recent events.
Southern Cameroons and its continuing battle for independence
Today, the inhabitants of Cameroon are facing multiple challenges. In the north, they are still combating Boko Haram and trying to cope with more than 100.000 Nigerian refugees fleeing the organization. In the east, Cameroon is struggling with the spillover effects from the conflict in the Central African Republic. In the west, the government is fighting what it calls “armed separatist groups”. Two years ago, some of these groups took up arms in their pursuit of an independent Southern Cameroons called ‘Ambazonia’. This claim for independence dates back to the colonial days.
Following the Treaty of Versailles, the German colony ‘Kamerun’ was divided into a French Trusteeship, now known as the Republic of Cameroon, and a British trusteeship, the Southern Cameroons. After the French trusteeship gained independence in 1960, the British trusteeship was presented with a choice: to join Cameroon or to join Nigeria, another former British trusteeship. Southern Cameroons was thus never given the chance to become truly independent. Southern Cameroons eventually choose to join Cameroon, and Cameroon promised to grant the Southern Cameroonians equal rights in a federal state.
However, Cameroon has not upheld its promises, and undermined the position of the people of Southern Cameroons on multiple occasions. For example, it has forced the people of Southern Cameroons to use the French language in official settings instead of their predominantly native English language. In 2016, the people of Southern Cameroons once again started to protest for more rights, including the right to use English in schools and in courtrooms. The federal government forcefully repressed these protests. As a result, some people of the Southern Cameroons felt that independence would be the only solution. Ever since, violence has become part of everyday life in the region, and is taking a toll on the civilian population.
Every day, newspapers report about alleged murders, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, disappearances, dismembered bodies, and shootings. A report produced by humanitarian organizations, including UNICEF and the Human Rights Committee, has shown that the ‘Anglophone crisis’ has left 1.3 million people in need of assistance and 435,500 people internally displaced. About 3,700 unaccompanied minors are in urgent need for psychological care. More than 40 percent of hospitals and health centers no longer provide vaccines, and more than 15 percent of births occur without the presence of trained healthcare professionals. Those who manage to flee the country are not out of harm’s way either. For example, they live in dire conditions in host communities. Furthermore, 47 Southern Cameroonian leaders are on trial on counts of terrorism. These individuals have been detained since January 2018, after being illegally extradited from Nigeria to Cameroon. While the situation receives more attention from the international community, the prosecutions continue. Their trial has been postponed on numerous occasions, currently until February 20, 2019.
At first, international organizations and states seemed unwilling to interfere or comment on the situation, apart from general calls for peace and sustainable solutions. However, since the elections in October 2018, which were won by Paul Biya – Cameroon’s president since 1982 – some states have started speaking up. For example, the United Kingdom asked for “a peaceful and structured process leading to constitutional reforms” in response to the 2018 election results. This is uncommon, as asking for constitutional reforms is more intrusive than asking for a dialogue. The other former colonizer, Germany, has gone even further than the United Kingdom. Even before the election results were made official, German members of parliament asked the German federal government for action. More specifically, they wanted the Government to offer its services as a mediator in order to start political dialogue; suspend development aid to Cameroon; work together with the EU to encourage dialogue; and bring an end to military cooperation with the Cameroonian government.
The Unites States of America have reconsidered their assistance to Cameroon. They are still providing assistance in the fight against Boko Haram but are increasingly afraid that their contribution is used in Southern Cameroons.
Whereas France did not issue a similar statement after the elections, it has spoken on several other occasions. For example, France did speak up whenover 70 students and staff members from a secondary school were kidnapped in November 2018, when a journalist was arrested for accusing the government of being responsible for the death of an American missionary in Southern Cameroons, and when the government arrested opposition leader Maurice Kamto.
However, more concrete action will be needed to pressure the federal government to stop the large scale human rights violations. The United Nations should take action that goes beyond mere condemnations of the violence. For example, the United Nations Human Rights Council could appoint a special rapporteur for the entire territory of Cameroon. Such an appointment could help document the violence, and facilitate negotiations towards a peaceful solution.
At the same time, the international community as a whole could work together to put an end to the violence that is negatively affecting the everyday life of so many individuals. Each of these members has an interest in the stability in the region, andthe power to pressure the Cameroonian government to bring lasting peace.