YAOUNDE — Civilians in the African nation of Cameroon continue to be killed in the crosshairs of ongoing violent clashes between French-speaking government soldiers and English-speaking separatist forces seeking to form their own country.
The violence has been unceasing for the past three years in the midst of grievances that boil down to the alleged underrepresentation and squelching of those who speak English and follow British common law.
As France and Britain were allies against Germany in World War I and were granted rule of the colonies by the League of Nations, Cameroon has been a mix of both French and English-speaking inhabitants. Areas were known as French Cameroon and British Cameroon.
However, following the formation of a united Republic in the 1960’s that merged both into one nation, Anglophones — those who spoke English — began sensing that although the country was considered bilingual, they were in the minority. Out of the 10 regions, eight are French and base their legal system on French law, while the other two, in western Cameroon, follow British common law.
The government also speaks French, the country’s currency is in French, and most television and radio programs are in French.
Because of this, Anglophones have felt marginalized, and the last straw seemed to be in 2016 when a business transaction law was circulated in French but not also translated into English. Lawyers in the English-speaking regions had enough of the installment of local judges who didn’t speak English well and weren’t familiar with common law.
Teachers were likewise upset about Francophones increasingly being hired in Anglophone schools.
According to reports, lawyers and teachers alike took to the streets to protest the encroachment, which resulted in both arrests and violence. During one protest, government forces used live bullets and tear gas to try to break up the gathering.
Anglophones have since called for the formation of their own country, called Ambazonia, but the Cameroonian government does not wish for the nation to be divided and has sought to put down any rebellion.
Over the past three years, as clashes between English separatists and the French security forces have raged, thousands of residents have fled for their lives into other regions or to the neighboring nation of Nigeria. Reports of innocent civilians being killed have regularly been in the headlines, and both sides have been blamed for the violence.
“People are dying everywhere,” Pamela Njoke told the New York Times. “In short, it’s horrible.”
“Armed separatists in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions have stabbed to death and shot military personnel, burned down schools and attacked teachers, while security forces have tortured people, fired on crowds and destroyed villages, in a spiral of violence that keeps getting more deadly,” wrote Amnesty International in June.
It explained that video footage obtained by the organization showed military forces burning down the village of Kwakwa, while residents in other areas have allegedly been detained and tortured in an effort to get them to confess that they supported the separatists.
However, those who do not cooperate with the efforts of the Ambazonia Liberation Forces, or who are even suspected of supporting the government, are reportedly also vulnerable to violence and unmerited attack by the separatists. A number of schools have been set on fire or principals abducted, and some students or teachers have even been shot.
“The assailant … told me that I was still coming to school in defiance of calls for a schools boycott. … He then asked me to raise my hands, but before I could do so, he shot me,” one teacher told Amnesty International.
A report published by AFP earlier this month says that five civilians were shot and killed by security forces in an English-speaking village, with one beheaded.
“Three of the bodies were later discovered mutilated, including two found with their hands tied and their genitals cut off,” the outlet states.
One woman was also killed at a local hospital and another wounded while government soldiers searched for separatists.
“[S]ecurity forces allegedly shot and killed over a dozen civilians, including at least seven people whom witnesses said had intellectual, psychosocial or physical disabilities who did not flee because they were unable or refused to. At least four older women died, burned alive, after security forces set their homes on fire,” Human Rights Watch similarly wrote in its 2019 report.
In September, The Guardian published an article stating that “[a] self-declared member of the Ambazonia Liberation Forces appeared in a … video alongside images of a soldier’s decapitated head …”
President Paul Biya urged separatists last year to cease the fighting or they will be “neutralized.”
“If my appeal to warmongers to lay down their weapons remains unheeded, the Defense and Security Forces will be instructed to neutralize them,” he said, according to Journal Du Cameroun. “I am well aware of the distress these rebels are causing the populations of these regions. This situation cannot be allowed to continue.”
However, some have stated that the government’s equally violent response has not helped to bring peace.
“People in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions are in the grip of a deadly cycle of violence. Security forces have indiscriminately killed, arrested and tortured people during military operations which have also displaced thousands of civilians. Their heavy-handed response will do nothing to calm the violence. In fact, it is likely to further alienate Anglophone communities and fuel further unrest,” Samira Daoud, Amnesty International Deputy Director for West and Central Africa, said in statement.
More than 500 civilians have been killed as a result of the three-year clash, as well as over 200 government soldiers, and an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 residents displaced. The European Union has spoken out against the violence and has called for dialogue between the two sides.
“Regrettably, unlawful killings and atrocities continue to be reported regularly in the regions, allegedly involving both the security and defense forces and separatist groups,” one representative recently lamented before the EU parliament.