When South Africa assumed the chairpersonship of the AU in February 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa committed to prioritising a long-standing objective of silencing the guns on the continent within this year. But while we were celebrating the signing of the Sudan peace agreement in Juba on October 3, Southern Cameroonians were engaged in acts of resistance. The people have been forced to defend themselves from the Biya regime due to being ongoing subjects of the most brutal murders, detentions, sexual violations and physical and psychological torture.
Southern Cameroon, a self-governing territory since 1954, was expecting to be granted full independence during the 1960s wave of decolonisation, like their neighbours Le Republique du Cameroun (LRC), which became independent on January 1, 1960, and Nigeria, which became independent on October 1, 1960. Despite having been accorded a distinct international status by virtue of UN General Assembly Res 1608 (XV) of April 21, 1961, it was forced to choose between amalgamating with one of the two countries.
As an independent sovereign state, LRC passed many laws in its Parliament, and Law No 24/61, promulgated by its President Ahmadou Ahidjo on September 1, 1961, laid the basis for the annexure of Southern Cameroonian territory and the establishment of the Federal Republic of Cameroon on October 1, 1961. Despite the forced integration, there had been a general commitment to convivial relations within the Cameroons since independence; the decades of abuse of English-speaking Cameroonians have however reached intolerable levels. October 1 has accordingly become a symbol of annual remembrance.
Protests by Ambazonians, the preferred name used by many Southern Cameroonians, including school boycotts due to the marginalisation of English practises in schools, escalated in 2016, and have now reached the levels of armed resistance. As of September 2019, it was estimated that over 2 000 people have lost their lives and more than 100 towns and villages in the anglophone regions had been targeted with arson attacks by state forces, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
The UN, the AU, the Economic Commission for West African States are all conscious of the savagery being inflicted upon the people of Southern Cameroon, as clippings of rape, amputation of breast and limbs, killings, scorching of villages and crops and the vilest forms of torture, circulate widely. These include footage of a 2-month-old deceased child who was reportedly shot in the back of the head by Cameroonian military officials; people having been tied up, set alight, and burnt to death; and the burning of genitalia during interrogation. It is known that hundreds of detainees are held incommunicado, many of whom are tortured, in a detention facility in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. A sense of urgency to substantively intervene however, seems to be absent.
South Africa appears to be complicit in the inertia. It has shied away from having the matter addressed at the UN Security Council and is seemingly doing little to ensure that the AU intervenes. Southern Cameroonians, who actively contributed to the fight against apartheid through international solidarity, feel abandoned. They feel that the continent’s former liberation movements have all abdicated their functions as liberation movements and have forgotten their roots.
South Africa, given its strategic position on the continent and internationally, can play an important role in stopping the endless human rights atrocities in Southern Cameroon. The separatists are willing to negotiate, but on territory that they trust. South Africa is that territory. Our government should reach out to the separatist leaders, reach out to the state, and urgently facilitate a process that can end the genocide and restore peace. Silence will be a shameful scar on the conscience of humanity.