Security Exchange News

A Country Divided

05 April 2018

Earlier this week a group of European tourists were briefly detained in the South-West region of Cameroon. The government released a statement that claimed the group of 18 had been kidnapped by Anglophone separatists and were freed by the army’s elite Rapid Intervention Battalion. However, that version of events has been disputed by the main separatist group in the region, the Ambazonian Defence Force (ADF), as well as tour operator African Adventures. “ADF does not take hostages. ADF arrests enablers and collaborators and does not arrest foreign nationals,” said an official from the ADF affiliate, the Ambazonian Governing Council. African Adventures said the group were briefly detained by armed individuals who were checking the tourists’ documentation.

Despite the confusion regarding this incident, there has been a notable increase in kidnappings in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon in recent months. Several Cameroonian officials have been abducted, including an administrative official who was kidnapped near Batibo in the North-West region in February. The ADF claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred shortly after they had kidnapped another official, Namata Diteng, who was the deputy head of the Batibo district. Last month a pair of Tunisian engineers were seized in Cameroon’s other English-speaking region, the South-West, along with two Cameroonian nationals. Three of the group were rescued but one of the Tunisian hostages was killed; the government said the kidnappers were responsible for his death. This incident was also attributed to the ADF.

These kidnappings have taken place at a time of increasing unrest in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions. The root of the divide lies in the country’s colonial history. In 1919 the UK and France divided Cameroon between themselves after capturing it from Germany during the First World War. The two states ruled the divided country under League of Nations and later UN mandates until independence in 1960 when the Republic of Cameroon was formed by the French. The following year the region controlled by the British was given the option to join Nigeria or the newly formed Cameroon; they chose the latter. For the first decade the country was a federal republic but in 1972 it became a centralised state following a national referendum. Since then power has resided solely with the president and the majority Francophone regions, creating a sense of political marginalisation and economic neglect in the English-speaking North-West and South-West which has grown over the subsequent decades. An All Anglophone Conference (AAC) was held in 1993 which called for independence unless federalism was restored. The AAC was eventually replaced by the Southern Cameroons People’s Conference (SCPC) and then by the Southern Cameroons People’s Organisation (SCAPO).

In October 2016 a group of English-speaking lawyers went on strike in protest at the Francophone dominance of the country’s legal system. Teachers joined the strike in November before widespread protests erupted in Bamenda the following month. The government responded with force and several people died in clashes with the police, while hundreds of activists were detained. Anglophone groups were banned, including the newly formed Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC). Its leader Agbor Balla was arrested and charged with fostering hostility against the government and terrorism. President Paul Biya and his government were widely condemned for their response, with human rights groups accusing the security forces of committing human rights abuses against detainees. Eventually the pressure forced the government to drop the charges against Balla and other Anglophone leaders; however, this did little to subdue the unrest. Violence escalated again in October 2017 when the security forces killed dozens of people during protests and access to the internet was shut down. Several of the protest groups shifted their demands of federalism and began calling for the creation of an independent state – Ambazonia.

The situation remains tense. Separatist groups including the ADF have taken up arms against the state and there have been dozens of attacks against the security forces. Last month the special forces were deployed to the two Anglophone regions in response to the escalating violence. In one attack a soldier was decapitated in the town of Batibo, where several of the kidnappings took place. Presidential elections are due to take place later this year and Biya, who has been in power since 1982, is expected to run for another term. Elections almost always increase the risk of civil unrest and separatists have already warned that they will not allow voting in the English-speaking regions. Biya is also facing the ongoing insecurity in the Far-North, with the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram continuing to carry out cross-border attacks. Cameroon needs a leader who will unite the country; 2018 might not be the year that they get one.