The Niger Delta conflict in Nigeria and the Anglophone problem in Cameroon have grown to be two comparable conflicts happening in neighbouring territories. For more than six decades, these two conflicts have evolved.
Both Nigeria and Cameroon share their longest international border with each other, starting from the Atlantic coast in the South through the desert in the North. While Nigeria was colonized by Britain, Cameroon first came under the colonial domination of Germany before being colonized by France and then Britain following WWI. While the former administered about 80 percent of Cameroon’s territory, the latter merged the remaining 20 percent with Nigeria to become part of the Eastern region. The part of Cameroon’s territory administered by the British was further divided into two: British Northern Cameroons and British Southern Cameroons. Then, in 1961, British Northern Cameroons voted in a UN-organized referendum to join independent Nigeria, while British Southern Cameroons (Anglophone Cameroon) voted to join independent La Republique du Cameroon (formerly French Cameroun). Since then, the latter has been complaining of gross marginalization from the French-dominated government and the annihilation of their cherished Anglo-Saxon culture. This has led to what is popularly known today as the ‘Anglophone problem.’
In Nigeria, it was a similar situation. The country gained independence in 1960 without answering the minority question, especially after oil was discovered in Oloibiri (present-day Bayelsa State). Today, Bayelsa State and the other eight oil-producing states of the South-South geopolitical region form what is known as the Niger Delta region—the financial lifeline of Nigeria. However, the area has remained underdeveloped for more than 50 years, with significant environmental pollution. This has led to an armed conflict, which has become known as the Niger Delta conflict. Both the Niger Delta conflict and the Anglophone problem are minority conflicts, fuelled by aspects of resource control and management in the two countries.
Since 1960, successive groups have been complaining of marginalization, which has culminated in mass protest and civil disobedience. For instance, the 1990s were high points for civil disobedience and mass protest with the formation of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) led by Ken Saro Wiwa in the Niger Delta. Saro Wiwa and his group engaged in civil and peaceful protests, forcing Shell off of Ogoni land and leading MOSOP to be admitted into the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation (UNPO). Other movements came up like the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and the famous Kaiama Declaration in 1998. Meanwhile, in 1994 and 1995, Anglophones in Cameroon met in two landmark conferences called the All Anglophone Conference I and II. This led to the formation of the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), a group committed to restoring independence in the former British Trust territory of Southern Cameroons.
In most cases, these nonviolent-protest movements were met with brute force from government security operatives. For example, Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were executed in 1995 after a trial in a military court. The Kaiama declaration was followed by a sweeping military operation destroying entire villages in the Niger Delta. The case of Anglophones in Cameroon was no different. Since 1995, many have been killed, some jailed, and others were forced into exile. From the early 2000s, the Niger Delta conflict took another turn, with militant groups following the example of nonviolent movements.
More recently, in 2009, an Amnesty was pronounced that did not solve the root causes of the conflict, but focused on buying over militants to abandon the creeks. This has prompted the resumption of militancy with groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA). unveiling a new wave of violence. In Anglophone Cameroon, classes have been grounded for a good part of the last academic year with no prospects of school resumption this academic year. Lawyers have also abandoned the courts since October 2016. In both cases, the governments have shunned most opportunities to engage in genuine dialogue with the aggrieved communities.
Since the Anglophone problem took a different trend in October 2016, the government has employed brute force on the activists and population as well. Meanwhile, the government has imposed cosmetic measures which do not answer the genuine concerns of the people which are a return to a two State Federation for the moderates and complete restoration of independence for the hardliners. This last position was adopted after the government turned down appeals for genuine dialogue. Anglophone schools, especially those in French speaking areas, are still staffed by Francophone teachers and the judiciary are still dominated by Francophones. The military and most administrative officers in Anglophone Cameroon are led by Francophones who understand neither the culture nor the language of the people.
With a conflict that has evolved over the years, the position of the people has become hardened and even moderates have now become hardliners following the protraction of the conflict. For close to 6 decades both conflicts have dragged on, and from simple demands they have now been engraved in the hearts of the people like a religion. Majority of the population of the two countries today were born around 1960 or after 1960 and throughout their lives, they have had daily experiences of marginalisation and violence. Both the Nigerian and Cameroonian governments have instituted policies strictly based on violence where even unarmed persons protesting against the abuse of their rights are either killed, maimed, raped or jailed without trial. This has instead won more sympathisers for the Niger Delta militants in Nigeria and the Southern Cameroons movements in Cameroon. At inception, the people of these two areas had demands but as time passed these demands became engraved in the hearts of the people and metamorphosed into beliefs and ideologies.
With the frustration of being unable to express themselves since they are mostly confronted with brute force, anger has grown in the hearts of the people and in the case of Niger Delta militants have declared an open war against the government. The ‘success’ of Islamic Extremist groups is based on the fact that they have been able to transform grievances of the Muslim world in general into an ideology that even young boys and girls around the world willingly give up their lives for the cause. And since it has become an ideology, no military in the world can put it out.
In the case of Cameroon, no militant group has been born, but like the Federal government of Nigeria which missed the opportunity of managing and transforming the conflict after the re-inauguration of civilian rule in 1999, the government of Cameroon may also be making another monumental error by using force at this time when the Anglophone movement is at its peak. In 1999, rather than the newly installed government of President Obasanjo to engage the communities in frank dialogue, the military instead became very ferocious in its approach and entire communities like Gbaramatu Kingdoms were levelled down.
As the government of Cameroon seeks to impose its own solution on the people coupled with brute force, it may be the last opportunity for the peaceful settlement of the Anglophone problem. With the heavy investment in the strike action by activists, in the event of the government “successfully” imposing its own solution, it may push already radical elements into the bush just like it happened in Nigeria after the 1999 incidence. Activists in Anglophone Cameroon see the present situation like the ultimate pressure on the government to listen to their demands which may lead to more consequences if not well managed.
In 1999, after the rebirth of democracy in Nigeria, there was much hope that the government will adopt sustainable solutions to the years of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta and the issue of underdevelopment and oil wealth sharing. However, 1999 became one of the bloodiest years in the conflict with the military firing live rounds on unarmed people. This came just after the famous Kaiama Declaration which was sponsored by the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) that mobilised thousands of Ijaw youths. Thereafter, the President of IYC, Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo Asari embraced the creeks and created the Niger Delta People Volunteer Force (NDPVF) which was more of an armed wing of the IYC. Many other armed groups followed like the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV) of Ateke Tom, and later on MEND in late 2005, with names behind it like Henry Okah, Government Ekpemupolo alias Tompolo, Victor-Ben Ebikabowei. From a purely nonviolent movement, Niger Delta officially embraced violence which has killed thousands of persons and almost crippled the entire Nigerian oil industry.
As Anglophone activists at home and abroad and the international community mount pressure on the government for frank dialogue, it may be the last chance for Cameroon to achieve peace. The conflict has gone too deep, and the government has allowed the current uprising to continue for too long. This may eventually lead to an outbreak of violence as people become impatient.