1st October 2022 marked five years since separatists in the North-western and South-western regions of Cameroon declared the Independent Republic of Ambazonia. As the conflict over the territory’s status intensifies, this day is not one of celebration.
In late 2016, protests led by lawyers and teachers in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon were heavily suppressed by government forces, igniting an ever-intensifying conflict between separatists and the national government. Since 2016, the pro-independence militia has increased in what has been called the “anglophone crisis.” The government’s response to these militia has reportedly been “brutal”, initially suspending internet access, and later imposing curfews and deploying the military.
More recently, attempts have been made to negotiate, for example, a Major National Dialogue was organised in 2019, and new decentralisation policies gave Northwest and Southwest regions “special status.” The government has also created a national commission for bilingualism and multiculturalism. However, some commentators deem these actions insufficient and superficial. According to a Cameroonian researcher based in Yaounde, it is the first reaction of the government which counts the most. “I think the government has failed to use the right approach… they minimised the crisis when it started,” she said.
Separatist groups have also taken a combative stance. Several groups boycotted the Major National Dialogue and separatist media reported the self-declared President of Ambazonia promised to “bleed the enemy” in the ongoing conflict.
For residents of anglophone regions, the crisis has been devastating. An estimated 4000 to 6000 have died during the five years of conflict and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Civilians, particularly public service personnel and traditional leaders, are often targeted by both sides. The biggest impact has been on education, a key issue in the 2016 protests that sparked the crisis. Separatists demand that schools remain closed until the political demands of the movement are met, and teachers and students have been attacked in order to enforce this.
As evident from the English vs. French linguistic divide which has come to define this conflict, the cleavage in Cameroon harks back to the colonial era. After World War One, German Kamerun territory was divided between the French and British Empires. When British Cameroon gained independence later than its French counterpart, the population of British Cameroon voted to form a federal nation with French Cameroon. However, this Federal government was dissolved soon after the union, and many claim that the smaller, English-speaking region has been marginalised ever since.
While the political disputes surrounding the Anglophone crisis are complex and difficult to resolve, many believe that violence, particularly against civilians, has caused grievances to increase and the conflict to deepen and intensify. While some efforts at negotiation are being made, the Cameroonian government and separatist militia continue to maintain a highly combative approach. It is not enough to adopt negotiation as an add-on to military combat. If the suffering of the people in the Ambazonia region is to end, the leaders on both sides must commit to choosing dialogue instead of, not in addition to, violence.
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