New Delhi Times | Cameroon has been engulfed in a separatist crisis since 2017. The North-West and South-West regions of the country complain that they have been deliberately marginalised by the government in Yaounde. The separatist crisis began in 2016 when English-speaking teachers and lawyers organized protests against what they called the marginalization of English in the majority French-speaking nation. The strike was organized by the Anglophone civil society organizations who believed that a complete overhaul of the administrative departments in the country and an inclusive Federal Constitution can end the long-standing discrimination faced by the Anglophones in the country.
The Cameroon government dealt the strike with an iron hand. The military responded with a crackdown. The government’s response to the protesters involved coercive tactics, including the arrests of prominent Anglophone leaders, who were detained under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Law. Rebel groups seeking an end to what they consider domination of the Anglophone south by the Francophone north started taking up weapons against the government’s security forces. On October 1, 2017, separatists declared an independent state called the ‘Republic of Ambazonia’.
The separatists are structured around two main political bodies-the Interim Government of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia (IG) and the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC). Linked to these political parties are more than 20 armed groups. The most active armed groups are the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces and the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF).
The ADF is the military arm of the AGC. In addition, there are numerous local cells with hundreds of fighters, not only from Cameroon but also Nigeria. Other groups include the Ambazonia Restoration Army in Belo/Boyo, the Nso Liberation Army in Bui, the Tigers of Manyu in Manyu Division, and the Red Dragons of Lebialem Defence Force in the locality of Lebialiem.
According to the International Crisis Group, the armed separatist groups have between 2,000 and 4,000 fighters. The main separatist leaders are Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, who is currently facing a life sentence on terrorism and secession charges, and Samuel Ikome Sako, who claims to be the interim President of the unrecognized Federal Republic of Ambazonia. He was named the interim President after Sisuku Ayuk Tabe, the first President, was arrested in Nigeria and extradited to Cameroon in January 2018. Samuel Ikome Sako was unilaterally dismissed by Julius Ayuk Tabe in May 2019, a decision he refused to recognize. This triggered the Ambazonian leadership crisis and has increasingly led to clashes among the rival groups in Cameroon. The North-West and South-West regions have been subject to a resurgence of attacks against persons, their properties and public infrastructure, including health centres and schools, along with continuing incidents against humanitarian workers and medical personnel.
The separatist crisis in Cameroon has resulted in a catastrophic humanitarian situation in the country. According to reliefweb, “Almost 680,000 Cameroonian are now internally displaced due to this crisis mainly in the North West and South West regions, but also in the West and Littoral. An additional 58,000 persons have sought refuge in neighbouring Nigeria. The displaced communities have acute needs for protection, food, shelter, non-food items (NFI), water and sanitation as well as access to health and education. Persons who could not flee the violence, most notably older persons and persons with disabilities are at heightened risk of attacks and sexual violence”. The presence of both state security forces and non-state armed groups challenges the humanitarian space throughout these regions by imposing roadblocks, demanding exchanges for relief, and confiscating aid. Continued violence, poor roads, and lockdowns restrict the movement of people in the Anglophone regions.
On May 6, 2019, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that there was still a window of opportunity to end the crisis. “I believe there is a clear-if possibly short-window of opportunity to arrest the crises that have led to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, as well as the killings and brutal human rights violations and abuses that have affected the northern and western areas of the country,” she said in a statement.
In 2019, Switzerland mediated talks between the government and exiled separatist leaders but those talks did not produce any significant results. The Swiss mediation was refused by Cameroon President Paul Biya.
The Swiss diplomats were asked by some top Cameroonian officials not to interfere into their internal affairs. Some media outlets were overtly critical of Swiss mediation. Some separatist leaders also took to their Facebook pages to condemn the Swiss government for going through the wrong persons to dialogue.
On July 3, 2020, the government officials in Cameroon held talks with leaders of the Ambazonia separatist movement, including Sisiku Ayuk Tabe who is currently serving a life sentence. Tabe took on Twitter to announce that he and his “Cabinet” met with authorities of the Yaounde regime so as to “initiate a ceasefire following the UN’s call”. “Be reassured that we remain committed to the restoration of the independence of homeland,” Sisiku added. The Cameroon government is yet to react to the announcement.
The talks were the first of its kind since an armed separatist conflict broke out in the English-speaking regions of North-West and South-West. However, security analysts contend that conflict in Cameroon will aggravate due to the demands of the separatists that are incompatible with the government’s position. Moreover, the competing claims of leadership among the separatists will also hamper efforts towards an inclusive peace process.