Secessionist Crisis in Cameroon Risks Sliding Into a Rebellion

  • Unrest spreads with attacks on military in Anglophone regions
  • Some English-speaking activists call for armed struggle

Cameroon police officials walk with riot shields on a street in the administrative quarter of Buea.

Photographer: STR/AFP via Getty Images

A secessionist push in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions is on the brink of a full-blown revolt, threatening political stability in a country ruled by one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.

Following a crackdown on independence supporters who tried to raise flags on government buildings in the central African nation’s English-speaking regions in October, at least 16 members of the security forces have been killed in attacks the government blames on the activists. This month a mob of 200 men besieged a paramilitary police station, according to the government.

It marks a dangerous turn in the crisis that began about a year ago with peaceful protests against the French language’s dominance in courtrooms and schools. Attacks on the military “presented those activists who were against armed combat before with a fait accompli -- those who want to take up arms now have the upper hand,” said Hans De Marie Heungoup from the International Crisis Group. “There’s a real risk of rebellion that could make the Anglophone regions ungovernable.”

The secession issue in Cameroon echoes a global trend spanning from Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia in Spain, where leaders this year led thwarted drives for independence, to Africa itself. In neighboring Nigeria there are new calls for a southeastern Biafran state, 50 years after a previous attempt led to a civil war that claimed a million lives. Meanwhile, Kenya’s political opposition, smarting from an election loss they blame on rigging, have warned some regions could seek to secede.

Vital Ports

Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, about a fifth of the population, has complained of marginalization for decades and many highly educated Anglophones have moved abroad. The country, whose roads and ports are vital for landlocked neighbors such as oil-producing Chad, was split after World War I into a French-run zone and a smaller, British-controlled area.

Radical factions of the protest movement in the Northwest and Southwest regions now refer to the area as Ambazonia and discuss armed struggle on social media. About 20 percent of the population in the affected regions is estimated to support secession, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The unrest comes as Cameroon’s army struggles to halt a spate of bombings and raids by the Islamist militant organization Boko Haram near the northern border with Nigeria. While Boko Haram forced thousands of Cameroonians to flee their homes last year, the secession campaign poses a much bigger threat to the government, Heungoup said by phone from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

“Even if Boko Haram killed a lot of people, it was clear from the onset that they would never threaten or capture the state,” he said. “But the Anglophone crisis calls the foundations of the Cameroonian state into question.”

Heavy-handed Response

President Paul Biya, who calls the secessionists criminals, is seeking to extend his 35-year rule in elections next year. Biya is the continent’s second-longest serving head of state, after Teodoro Obiang of neighboring Equatorial Guinea. Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, resigned in November.

Some say the radicalization is a result of a heavy-handed government response that’s left dozens of people killed in protests this year and some leaders jailed. While the government initially ignored the crisis, it switched tactics in a bid to suppress the movement. The internet was cut off for several months in the two regions and a nighttime curfew was imposed. Activists responded by organizing general strikes in the biggest towns, leaving schools and businesses closed.

Ambazonia now has a self-proclaimed president, a flag and an official government website. Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland spent five days in Cameroon this month in an attempt to defuse the crisis.

“When this crisis was in its beginning stages, the government thought it could kill a few protesters, arrest others and heavily militarize the North West and South regions for the crisis to be over,” said Shadrack Mbirwang, an activist who claims to be a member of the Ambazonia army. “This time around, we are ready to fight and fight till the restoration of our statehood.”

— With assistance by Divine Ntaryike Jr

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