When school teachers took to the streets of Bamenda, a city in northwestern Cameroon, with thousands of others in November 2016, at least two people were killed by security forces that responded violently.
That event has become the rallying point for a crisis that has snowballed into an agitation for secession by the only two English-speaking regions in the country.
The North West and South West provinces, Cameroon’s only English-speaking regions, had long protested against perceived marginalisation by the political class accused of deliberately under-developing the regions.
The regions had merged with French-speaking Cameroon in 1961 through a referendum, decades after Cameroon, a German colony before World War I (1914-1918), was split into two and separately put under the control of France and Britain.
Even though federalism was established in the country in 1961, it was scrapped in 1972 by then-president, Ahmadou Ahidjo. Now, the North West and South West regions only make up two of Cameroon’s 10 semi-autonomous administrative regions.
With the two regions being in the minority, it has long accused the central government of implementing policies deemed to be discriminatory to English-speakers, particularly in the education and judicial systems.
The teachers’ protest had happened just a month after the regions’ lawyers staged a similar protest to demand reforms that’ll address what was described as the overbearing use of French in the bilingual country.
While teachers complained that the education system in the English-speaking regions is too French-oriented to the detriment of English-speaking students, lawyers revolted against the increasing presence of Francophone magistrates and a French civil law system.
This scrutiny extended into other sectors of the country especially in politics where the important positions are believed to also be taken by more French speakers.
With the events that have transpired since 2016, separatist groups have now taken over the agitation to demand an independent new state called “Ambazonia”.
The government has massively cracked down on the regions over the past two years, leading to violent clashes between anti-government separatists and the country’s security forces.
When several negotiations between the government and leaders of the regions failed, they were arrested and thrown behind bars, further making the situation worse.
In their bid to force the government’s hands, Anglophone leaders instituted “Operation Ghost Town”, mandating citizens in the affected regions to stay at home with all institutions closed.
This resulted in one of the high points of the crisis when, in January 2017, the nation’s long-serving president, Paul Biya, shut down internet services in the Anglophone regions. The internet blackout was not lifted until April 2017, after 92 days which didn’t help to ease tensions in the troubled regions. The internet blackout was widely condemned for damaging the local economy and suppressing free speech.
Despite the government’s violent crackdown and meeting room diplomacy, the agitations refused to die down and further came to a head when security forces killed at least 40 people during the brutal suppression of protests across major towns and villages in the Northwest and Southwest in September 2017.
Separatists were soon getting bolder and started carrying out attacks just months later in November, killing at least six security officers. With bomb explosions also going off in Bamenda, Biya was compelled to declare war against the separatists in December 2017.
“I think that things are becoming clearer to everyone now that Cameroon is victim to repeated terrorist attacks from a secessionist group.
“In the face of such repeated aggression, I’ll like to assure Cameroonians that measures have been taken to eliminate these criminals and bring back peace throughout the national territory,”he declared.
Some of Biya’s attempts to end the crisis includes the creation of a Common Law department at the Supreme Court and the School of Administration and Magistracy.
In January 2017, he also created a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism as part of a response to address grievances of the regions.
His attempts have been deemed to be too insignificant or coming too late by the leaders agitating for the affected regions.
Fighters are now persistently locked in bloody battles with security forces in a conflict that’s believed to have claimed at least 400 lives.
This has resulted in a massive exodus of civilians with thousands of them fleeing from the violence in the troubled regions, as recently reported by the New York Times.
While many leave the regions to seek refuge in Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital, tens of thousands are also holed up in refugee camps in neighbouring Nigeria.
In May, 2018, as a direct consequence of the crisis in the Anglophone regions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants, and Internally Displaced Persons (NCFRMI) announced the registration of 21,291 Cameroonian refugees in 40 different locations across four states of Nigeria including Cross River, Benue, Akwa Ibom and Taraba. This massive influx happened in just seven months with the number projected to rise even higher to around 40,000.
With the nation’s presidential election scheduled to hold on October 7, 2018, the mass exodus of people from the Anglophone regions is set to pose a problem for Biya as he seeks a seventh term in office after already governing for 35 years.
Separatists have already placed a ban on voting in the troubled regions and electoral officers and government officials are among the hordes of people that have already taken flight.
It remains to be seen how this will eventually factor into the election, but the crisis has already cost the Central African nation too many lives and put so many more on hold.
Culled from the Pulse.ng