Cameroon's Anglophones Seek Self-Determination

Vehicle wreckage left after clashes between the military and separatists in late 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Vehicle wreckage left after clashes between the military and separatists in late 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

In October 2017, eight civilians from Cameroon’s Anglophone north were shot by government security forces while protesting against perceived injustices at the hands of the Francophone-dominated government. These were just a few of the executed in the year since demonstrations first began. For decades, the government had operated and provided services almost exclusively in French, declining to put meaningful effort into accommodating the needs of the country’s English-speakers. When the Anglophones began to push back against this treatment, the response was brutal. This brutality, including massive arrests, shootings and blockades at the hands of “security forces”, poured fuel onto the burning animosity until an active secessionist movement emerged, demanding the creation of a new state referred to as “Ambazonia”.

Since then, Cameroon has been torn apart by the clash between these unceasingly violent forces. Rebel forces are attempting to make up for what they lack in sophisticated weaponry with sheer volume of destruction. Fighters associated with the Ambazonia movement have burned villages, bombed bridges, kidnapped school children, and forcibly shut down entire villages in a strategy known as “Operation Ghost Town.” Lucas Cho Ayaba, the leader of the Ambazonia Governing Council, commented that the “first aim is to make Ambazonia ungovernable.” According to Ayaba, the government will not relinquish the territory because it contains valuable natural resources including timber and oil. The Ambazonia Defense Forces hope that by reducing the value of their own region, they can reduce the government’s desire to fight for it.

Contrary to their hopes, government security forces have so far only matched the Ambazonia Defense Force’s capacity for carnage. Although the Cameroonian government insists that security forces are trained to use only necessary force, alleged human rights violations at the hands of security forces, comprised of officials ranging from police officers to elite military forces, have continued to accumulate since the beginning of the conflict. Security officers are able to justify beatings, arrest, or extrajudicial execution by merely suspecting that a person might be involved with rebel forces. So far, hundreds of civilians have been detained or killed in this way. Like the ADF, security forces have also engaged in large-scale arson of homes and villages, leaving thousands of residents homeless and destitute. There has been little attempt by the government to investigate these abuses or hold any soldier accountable.

In December of 2017, as the conflict first began to escalate, President of Cameroon Paul Biya announced that all participants in the separatist movement should be “fought relentlessly.” This promise has been carried through to the present day, arguably at the expense of political solutions. In the two years since Cameroon created the largely symbolic National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism nearly two years ago, there has been no observable effort to resolve the conflict peacefully. In early February, ten Anglophone separatists were brought to trial in a court system that still operates exclusively in French, a situation decried by secessionist supporters as evidence that nothing has changed since the initial protests began. In January, The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs noted that “little political progress has been made”, while human vulnerability has only continued to escalate. As a result of the government’s preference for violent force over diplomacy, unrest among secession supporters is being severely aggravated.

While political solutions falter and the conflict rages, the long-term prospects of the Ambazonia region’s viability only diminish. In one protest of government-provided services, a “school boycott” implemented by the separatists,  has indefinitely restricted education opportunities across the county. A combination of low attendance rates and fear for the safety of both students and administrators has caused many schools to shut down completely, thus excluding even those students who would be willing to defy the boycott. Both the missed opportunity for schooling in countless children’s formative years and the lost education infrastructure represent a massive sacrifice in human capital investment, which are expected to permanently stunt the region’s growth long beyond the conflict.

“Operation Ghost Town”, which regularly halts all economic activity in selected cities, has proven a similarly detrimental strategy. The rebels are intentionally lowering the region’s productivity, motivated by the belief that all profits will be funneled straight to the Francophone south. At the same time, they are disrupting the development of local economies by crippling small businesses with low profit margins. This has a disproportionate impact on new entrepreneurs, who may never be able to recover losses and re-enter the market. Such an impact will result in a permanent loss of innovation and diversity in these small economies. Other comparably impactful consequences of the conflict include the destruction of physical infrastructure and dismantling of local political institutions.

These ill-advised tactics can be partly attributed to the incohesive structure of the rebel movement. While the initial protests in 2016 were conducted mainly by working professionals, the much more radical separatist movement was created at this initiative of a younger and more ideological group. As the conflict escalated and the resistance organized, the group’s leaders were arrested, exiled and sent overseas. At present, most of the political leadership of the Ambazonian movement has fled or been sent to the United States and Europe. The remaining ADF fighters on the ground are primarily rural farmers living in areas with poor infrastructure and harshly divisive geography. As a result, the ADF are composed of loosely organized militia groups with little coordination between them. In November of 2018, 78 schoolchildren were abducted, presumably in retaliation for defying the school boycott. However, no ADF-affiliated militia in the area took responsibility for the abduction, and the AGC issued an overseas condemnation of such action. The decision of the rebel fighters to destroy the very nation they are attempting to claim should not be misinterpreted as an official strategy: rather, these are isolated initiatives from various disconnected groups of separatists.

The fragmented nature of this rebel movement contributes to the difficulty of reaching a political solution. In 2018, International Crisis Group issued a series of recommendations for the Cameroonian government intended to help de-escalate the conflict. This list included primarily high-political restructuring, as well as a “dialogue framework” to facilitate negotiation between the Cameroonian government and the AGC. This type of action may be misguided for several reasons. Top-down restructuring of the national government will take time to have any meaningful effect on the far-flung rural areas where the struggle is concentrated, and in the meantime, conflict will continue to escalate. In addition, a dialogue framework would struggle to include all the actors in a movement defined by distant leadership and uncoordinated individual groups

Finally, the Anglophone crisis has evolved beyond calculated political demands and into something much more ideological. As one Cameroonian civilian expressed, “I don’t want Cameroon anymore. I want to fight for a new country.” Interviews with ADF fighters revealed similar sentiments: “We are fighting for freedom. We have no freedom.” Secessionists in Ambazonia are highly heterogeneous in their capacity for violence and radicalism, but there is a unifying theme among them: Ambazonia is a nation and the Republique du Cameroun is, in the words of Lucas Cho Ayaba, an “occupier.” In a conflict so deeply saturated with national identity and preceded by so many decades of entrenched institutional oppression, resolution would likely require a transformation much more dramatic than national primary elections and newly structured political parties.