Tensions are running high in English-speaking areas of Cameroon, where ongoing violence has caused dozens of deaths and displaced at least 15,000 people.
The fact that crisis has spilled over into neighboring Nigeria has also sparked a diplomatic standoff between the two countries, which have leveled accusations against each other.
The Northwest and Southwest Provinces, Cameroon’s only anglophone regions, have been rocked by months of violence, strikes, mass-arrests and clashes with security forces.
Groups have taken to the streets demanding a return to a federal state system, the breakaway of the two provinces and the restoration of Southern Cameroons, also known as the Republic of Ambazonia, which was the southern part of the British Mandate territory of Cameroons during colonization.
Violence has further increased after some groups declared the independence of Ambazonia last October, a symbolic gesture in retaliation against the arrest of some pro-independence leaders.
Rights group Amnesty International said in October that more than 500 people had been detained in overcrowded prisons, with witnesses claiming wounded protesters fled hospitals to avoid capture. The organization also claimed at least 20 people were “unlawfully shot dead by security forces” during demonstrations on October 1. The government has denied allegations of excessive force.
In December, in a rare address on the ongoing crisis, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya vowed to end attacks by separatists after four soldiers and two policemen had been killed.
Attacks have continued, however. Officials blamed suspected separatists for the death of at least one police officer in Dian, Southwest, on Sunday (January 14), saying more policemen had likely been killed and investigations were ongoing.
Why are people calling for independence?
French and English are the official languages of Cameroon. Lawyers, teachers and students in the English-speaking areas have been striking since October 2016 against perceived marginalization, the use of French in courts and schools in the provinces, and the lack of English versions of some legal acts and codes.
Strikes and demonstrations were initially peaceful. However, the prolonged demonstrations have resulted in mass-arrests, clashes with security forces and a crackdown on protesters.
The government stirred criticism after it implemented an internet ban, later lifted, in its English speaking zones, forcing people to travel to French-speaking regions where they can use the internet. The blockade was detrimental to local businesses.
The move prompted the U.N. and rights groups to call on the government to restore internet service.
The government has denied allegations of excessive force. It also rejected calls for a referendum on federalism.
Last year, Biya ordered the release of dozens of activists and instructed a military court to drop charges against those arrested during protests.
How is the crisis affecting Nigeria?
Ongoing violence has prompted people to flee to Nigeria. Most of the refugees are children, women and the elderly, United Nations officials said earlier in January.
“Certainly there are more, how many more we are not able to state,”Antonio Jose Canhandula, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) representative in Nigeria, was quoted by Reuters as saying. “They are still coming, and they are coming daily. It is a crisis.”
A crackdown on separatists has also led some leaders of pro-independence movements to seek shelter in Nigeria, where the Department for State Service (DSS) has been accused of arresting some leaders, including Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, for engaging in a clandestine meeting “against Cameroonian authorities.” The DSS denied the allegations.
Nigeria and Cameroon officials have met to discuss the ongoing crisis. Both countries engaged in a long diplomatic dispute after Cameroonian troops allegedly crossed into Nigeria to pursue rebels without seeking Nigerian authorization. Cameroon denied the allegations and accused Nigeria of harboring pro-independence leaders.
“The situation has become more complex as the Cameroonian government has declared the Ambazonia movement a terrorist organisation,” security analyst David Otto told Newsweek.
“With refugees fleeing to Nigeria to escape military reprisals, and with cross border guerrilla style attacks, the Cameroon forces are crossing the line in pursuit [of the separatists].”
Otto believes that Cameroonian authorities should engage in talks with separatist leaders to tackle the root causes that are fuelling the crisis.
“The issue of whom to dialogue with has been resolved now that interim leaders have been [allegedly] arrested in Nigeria. The arrests could be what would bring some middle ground closure to the deteriorating crisis,” he said.
“The African Union should have a front seat role with other international bodies like the U.N. and perhaps the Commonwealth to supervise talks and ensure that solutions are sustainable and represent the true issues that gave oxygen to the crisis in the first place.”
David Otto Institutional Representative of SECINDEF (Security Intelligence and Defense) Israel-USA International Consulting Counterterrorism in the United Kingdom and collaborating analyst of OCATRY (Observatory against the Terrorist Threat and the Jihadist Radicalization) David Otto is the Director of TGS Intelligence Consultants Ltd and the Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Programme – Step In Step Out (SISO) – based in the United Kingdom. He is also Senior Counter Terrorism Advisor for Global Risk International.