Southern Cameroons conflict, rooted 100 years ago
Cameroon elects its president on October 7 against the backdrop of bloody violence in its two separatist English-speaking regions, which have vowed to not let voting take place.
Tensions can be traced back to events a century ago when Britain and France occupied Cameroon, taking over Germany’s major colony in West Africa.
World War I split
Cameroon was a German colony until 1916, when British and French troops forced the Germans out.
The two countries divided it into separate spheres of influence that were later formalised by the League of Nations, the forerunner to the UN.
The much larger French colony gained independence in 1960.
A year later, the British colony also gained independence. Some of the English-speaking areas chose to join newly formed Nigeria, others to become part of the federation of Cameroon.
In 1972 the Cameroon’s federal structure was scrapped and it became one state.
Cameroon’s two mainly English-speaking southern provinces are home to around a fifth of its 23 million population.
Named the Northwest Region and Southwest Region, they jut into southeastern Nigeria.
The English-speaking areas are allowed some self-governance and national authorities have made concessions to their language, for example opening bilingual schools.
But many English speakers complain of discrimination at the hands of the francophone majority in education, the justice system and the economy.
Calls for a breakaway English-speaking state mounted in the 1990s, with demands for a referendum on independence accompanied by low-level unrest.
In 2001 banned protest rallies turned violent. Several people were killed when security forces moved in and secessionist leaders were arrested.
The separatist Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) set up a “government” in Britain and leaders moved into exile.
There was a new outbreak of tensions in November 2016.
Lawyers in two regions, which are also strongholds for the political opposition, went on strike to demand the right to use Anglo-Saxon common law.
Teachers followed, protesting at the appointment of francophones in the regions’ education system.
The following month the national flag was torched at protests and a separatist version hoisted.
Demands for greater autonomy were rejected by President Paul Biya, in power for more than 35 years, leading to an escalation.
In 2017 anglophone separatists took up arms, attacking security forces and torching symbols of the administration, such as schools.
They kidnapped police officers, civil servants and businessmen, sometimes foreigners.
Biya branded the secessionists “a band of terrorists” and ordered a crackdown with curfews, raids and other restrictions.
In January 2017 senior secessionist activists were arrested and charged with terrorism and rebellion.
In an apparent effort to calm the situation Biya halted the secessionists’ trials in August.
In October separatists made a symbolic declaration of independence. “We are no longer slaves of Cameroon,” said Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, the self-declared “president” of a new republic called “Ambazonia”.
2018: election threat
The standoff has escalated into daily acts of violence.
It had degenerated into a “civil war”, the main opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF) said in April.
The International Crisis Group said in September that at least 400 civilians and 170 members of the security forces had been killed in a year.
The government says that 109 members of the police and security forces have been killed. The separatists have not issued a reliable toll.
Around 200,000 people have fled their homes.
Amnesty International has condemned a “horrific escalation of violence” and called for an investigation into crimes by both sides.
Hundreds of families have been fleeing the regions in advance of the October 7 vote, fearing an upsurge in violence.