Sama Jude knew it was time to flee his home town in western Cameroon when he heard the sound of gunfire ringing above the roof of the University of Buea where he’s taught for four years. As clashes between the nation’s army and separatist rebels intensified, the 41-year-old lecturer packed his bags and fled to the commercial capital, Douala, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the east.
In its first public report to detail the damage from the conflict, the government last month appealed to donors to fund a special humanitarian emergency plan to help 75,000 displaced people and 22,000 others who’ve fled the country. Separatists have killed 84 members of the security forces in at least 123 attacks since the crisis began in 2016, according to the report, a figure the Defense Ministry later put at about 120.
“This is heading straight toward civil war if nothing is done,” said Hans De Marie Heungoup, a Nairobi-based analyst at the International Crisis Group. “The military has killed civilians indiscriminately and burnt dozens of villages. Militias are also increasingly targeting civilians, particularly collaborators of the government. It’s getting more tense as the elections approach.” More than 220 civilians have been killed in the last 10 months, he said.
Campaigning is set to begin soon, even as it’s unlikely the vote can be held in areas of the Anglophone regions where regular gunfights between separatists and government troops take place. Across the main urban settlements, including Kumba, Muyuka and Limbe in Southwest, public transport is at a standstill and businesses are closed, with militias blocking major roads and setting fire to cocoa and rubber plantations.
With roads and ports that are vital for landlocked neighbors including oil-producing Chad and Central African Republic, Cameroon has the biggest economy in the central African monetary zone. Its population of 23 million depends mostly on agriculture.
The latest unrest began in late 2016 with peaceful protests by teachers and lawyers against the dominance of the French language in schools and courts. It’s escalated into a conflict in which armed splinter groups are killing soldiers and police officers, kidnapping government officials and harassing village chiefs they accuse of collaborating with the authorities.
The armed groups, estimated to comprise at least 1,000 active members, are largely funded by Cameroon’s diaspora, according to the ICG.
The political leadership of the Anglophone movement has been imprisoned since January. Advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch have said the government’s heavy-handed response contributed to an escalation of the conflict. Last week, the New York-based organization released satellite imagery showing security forces had torched dozens of villages, and accused them of committing torture and summary executions.
In the latest incident, armed men dressed in camouflage are seen riddling two women and two small children with bullets on a dusty roadside after accusing them of supporting the Nigeria-based Islamist group Boko Haram. The video, which was widely circulated on social media, prompted the U.S. to call for an investigation into the killings. Amnesty International says it was carried out by the military.
The government has consistently denied allegations that the security forces commit abuses, saying the separatists conduct hate campaigns on the internet and falsely accuse troops of “imaginary atrocities.”
Social media platforms play a particularly toxic role in the crisis, the government said last month. Gruesome videos and photos of alleged human-rights abuses by both sides have appeared regularly on Facebook and Twitter, as have mobile-phone videos of military operations in the two regions.
“It’s now at a crisis level that we haven’t seen before with pictures of burnt-down villages and bodies hanging from trees circulating on social media,” said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that monitors elections in Africa.
While very few people supported secession when the protests began, public opinion in the Northwest and Southwest regions has shifted toward separation, according to Heungoup.
“It’s impossible to resolve this crisis without involving the leadership of the Anglophone separatists, but there’s no dialogue with them,” Heungoup said. “The government comes across as arrogant and having no sense of accountability, and it’s done no fundamental concessions. That’s the problem with Biya — if two years ago he had done half of the little he’s done so far, the crisis wouldn’t have reached this level.”