Kidnappings are proliferating in Cameroon’s violence-torn English-speaking region, where officials, foreigners and locals alike are finding themselves targeted for abduction.
Since anglophone separatists declared independence last October, dozens of people have gone missing — on average, a fresh case is reported by the local media every week.
“At least 50 people have keen kidnapped,” Felix Agbor Ngonkho, of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, told AFP. Many more abductions are probably not even been reported, he added.
“It has become impossible for a Cameroonian car carrying foreigners or bearing the licence plate of a French-speaking region to travel through the English-speaking regions without being attacked by armed men emerging from the forest,” a human rights activist said.
Kidnappings, say commentators, have been adopted as a tool for separatists to enforce discipline in anti-government protests and instil fear among French-speaking officials, almost regardless of rank.
“The separatists have a guerrilla mentality that involves control of the region and the population,” said Hans De Marie Heungoup, Central Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.
“The kidnappings are part of this logic, a tool to enforce allegiance to those who haven’t taken up the separatist cause.”
The presence of a large English-speaking minority — about a fifth of Cameroon’s population of 22 million — dates back to the colonial period.
It was once a German colony that after World War I was divided between Britain and France.
In 1960, the French colony gained independence, becoming Cameroon, and the following year, the British-ruled Southern Cameroons was amalgamated into it, becoming the Northwest and Southwest Regions.
For years, resentment built among anglophones, fostered by perceived marginalisation in education, the judiciary and the economy at the hands of the French majority.
Demands for greater autonomy were rejected by 85-year-old President Paul Biya, in power for more than 35 years, leading to an escalation that last October 1 led to the declaration of the self-described “Republic of Ambazonia”.
– ‘Dirty war’ –
Clashes are now an everyday occurrence, leading to scores of fatalities among separatists and police and military alike.
But in what local people are calling a “dirty war,” civilians are also suffering badly, at the hands of the security forces — accused by the US last week of “targeted killings” and the burning and looting of villages — and of the separatists.
In one instance, a teacher was gunned down at a school in the town of Muyuka, in the Southwest Region, when three armed men riding motorcycles fired gunshots as they sped past.
Two Tunisians working near Kumba in the Southwest were abducted in late March. One of them was later killed.
The following month a group of Western tourists were briefly kidnapped in the same region.
Separatist fighters have torched numerous school buildings and early this month kidnapped a priest who was headmaster of a Catholic boarding school.
The priest was seized the day after St Bede’s College received a televised visit from the regional governor.
It was the first time the church had been pulled into the regional struggle.
The abducted priest was freed the following day and the Catholic church has called on all parties to avoid “a useless and unwarranted civil war”.
– Favoured targets –
But officials and symbols of Yaounde’s centralised power remain the favoured targets for the separatists.
Last month, the head of the appeal court in the Southwest Region was kidnapped then released a few days later.
Two local officials seized in February in the Northwest Region remain missing.
“There are kidnappings for ransom, with the separatists seeking 20,000, 30,000 francs ($35-$54) from the families. And there are others, those they keep,” said a local human rights activists who didn’t want to be named.
Nine employees of a construction company have been missing since December. Only the burned-out shells of the vehicles they were travelling in have been found.
“We live with the anxiety. If they have been killed, then let us know so we can mourn. If they are being held captive somewhere, then we want their captors to tell us what it will take to get them released,” said Oumarou, a brother of one of the missing men.