Struggle For Equality Turns To Violence In Anglophone Cameroon

By TASSC Advocacy Intern, Samuel Cohen

TASSC’s second largest group of survivors comes from Cameroon, a resource-rich country located in Central Africa. TASSC seeks to bring to light the complexities of the current struggle in the Anglophone, or English-speaking region of the country, which began in fall of 2016. Since then, Cameroon’s English-speaking minority has been demonstrating against systematic disenfranchisement by the French speaking government. These protests were met with violent suppression from President Paul Biya, who has led Cameroon for 36 years and centralized power in his hands. Anglophones make up 20 percent of the population and live in western Cameroon, while 80 percent of the population is Francophone.

Since Biya’s military and police cracked down on the non-violent activists, protesters have become more radical and some armed groups have begun calling for an independent Anglophone country. Cameroon is at a crucial point. Biya must reconsider his divisive actions and engage in genuine dialogue with the opposition to end the violence and move toward a resolution of the Anglophone crisis.

The Anglophone Crisis 

The Anglophone crisis has flared up recently because Cameroon’s government, dominated by Francophones, favors French-speaking Cameroonians in jobs even when Anglophones are more qualified. The government also provides better services and invests in more economic development, in the French-speaking regions.  Desire is a TASSC torture survivor from the Anglophone region who was persecuted because his father was involved in the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), which uses peaceful means to advocate for Anglophone independence. Desire and other TASSC survivors from Cameroon say that the government appoints French speakers not proficient in English to jobs as magistrates and teachers in the English-speaking schools and courts. 

Charles, another survivor who was a teacher in Anglophone Cameroon for 22 years, said discrimination in employment is only one way in which English-speakers have been marginalized in the country. He said “60 to 70 percent of Cameroon’s resources, such as oil, cocoa and timber, come from Southern Cameroon. Yet we have the worst roads, hospitals, and schools." He emphasized that the protestors were only asking for their "fair share". 

In fall 2016, lawyers and teachers engaged in peaceful protests calling on the government to address these inequalities. But Biya’s police used tear gas, beatings and torture to crush them.  Biya has rejected opportunities for substantial negotiations. Overtures towards peace have failed because of his inability to recognize the inequalities between French and English speakers.   Many of the lawyers and teachers who organized peaceful protests have been arrested, creating a power vacuum for more radical groups to claim leadership in the struggle. Eric, a Cameroonian TASSC torture survivor who was targeted for wearing a T-shirt in support of Southern Cameroon, commented that “Peaceful dialogue may no longer be possible” when asked about if peace talks occurred again.

Cameroon's refugee crisis worsens by the day. Over 22,000 Anglophones have fled to Nigeria and more than 150,000 are internally displaced. Some people have fled into the jungles of the Anglophone region to avoid government forces. The idea of an independent Anglophone state has only become more mainstream as abuses carried out by Biya’s security forces have increased.

History of the Anglophone Region

The linguistic divide between Francophones and Anglophones formed after the French and British divided the German colony of Kamerun into separate territories after World War One.

For 40 years the two were divided. In 1960 French Cameroon was granted independence.

The British government claimed that British Cameroon could not sustain itself economically as an independent state and asked the UN to organize a plebiscite, so the people could decide if they wanted to join Nigeria or Cameroon. The northern part of British Cameroon chose to join Nigeria. The southern area chose to become part of Cameroon. Cameroon adopted a federal system of government where Anglophones and Francophones could each teach, practice law, and conduct business using with their language. But soon Biya’s predecessor started doing away with the federal system to centralize power in the presidency. In 1972, a unitary system replaced the federal system, placing Anglophone rights in jeopardy.

Torture and Human Rights Abuses

Biya has succeeded in maintaining power indefinitely by amending the constitution in 2008 to remove term limits. In October 2018, Biya will run for his seventh term. He also changed the constitution so that he could not be prosecuted for corruption or human rights violations once he leaves office.

 Torture and human rights abuses are being carried out both by government forces and separatists. The worst perpetrator by far is the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), Biya's anti-terror unit. The BIR was formed to fight the terrorist group Boko Haram, which is active in Northern Cameroon. It has attacked armed groups and unarmed civilians in the Anglophone region. The BIR has burned down homes, killed people indiscriminately and tortured civilians through beatings, electrocution, and scalding people with boiling water. There have been reports that the BIR has unofficial detention sights where accused are tortured before the BIR turns them over to a government facility. 

Radicals have also been accused of human rights abuses. To enforce a boycott of schools and shopping, they have burned down or damaged 58 schools, intimidated teachers and parents, and extorted resources from civilians. They have also kidnapped school officials and killed some non-compliant civilians.

U.S. Policy on Cameroon and the Anglophone Crisis

Republican Congressman Chris Smith from New Jersey, who chairs the Africa Subcommittee in the US House of Representatives, held a hearing to educate congress about the abuses by the Cameroonian government and create more awareness. At the hearing, there were calls to re-evaluate aid to Cameroon, placed blame on Biya, and questioned Cameroon's electoral legitimacy. Congress has acted to hold Cameroon accountable. A resolution has been written condemning the Cameroonian governments suppression.

The BIR, guilty of the most horrendous types of torture, were trained by the U.S. government to fight Boko Haram.  The BIR's abuses in Anglophone Cameroon are not a surprise to some. It is also accused of extrajudicial killings and torture against civilians, including women and children whom the BIR believes is sympathetic towards Boko Haram. Former U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon Michael Hoza told Amnesty that some units within the BIR have already been banned from U.S. military assistance because they have committed human rights abuses such as killing civilians and torture.

The US should evaluate why the BIR has gone from being an anti-terrorist force to killing civilians. It needs to do more to curb the actions of the Cameroonian military, especially the BIR, in Northern Cameroon.

A Need for Peace

There is a sense of frustration among the Anglophone community. If there is to be any chance at peace, both sides must stop targeting civilians and the government must end the BIR's operations in the area. Torture and extrajudicial killings of civilians must end. Biya should offer meaningful dialogue towards the moderates, and radicals must be willing to work with their moderate counterparts. Inequalities must be addressed and if Cameroon is to remain whole, resources must be divided fairly. International pressure towards mediation led by the UN or U.S. may be the only way to pressure Biya to come to the table. The government should also allow outside observers and other aid organization to begin relief operations in the Anglophone region and the enforced boycott of schools should be lifted to allow children to obtain an education. The longer the crisis continues, the more irreparable damages will occur, and the bleaker Cameroon's future will become.

Samuel Cohen is an Advocacy Intern at TASSC in the Summer 2018. He is currently a student at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he is majoring in international relations with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa.

For more information, see:

Human Rights Watch

Amnesty International

Global Observatory (International Peace Institute, New York and Vienna)