Inside Cameroon's civil war
Inside Cameroon's civil war
In Cameroon, there is the beginning of a civil war between the French and English speaking parts of the country. Lorraine Mallinder writes.
Lucy speaks very clearly of her last day in her village of Mbonge. She is 64 years old and she was cooking plantains to sell by the roadside when soldiers came. They came to find separatist rebels known as Amba Boys. The name comes from the separatists’ self-declared independent state of Ambazonia. She remembers the sound of machine guns and the screams of villagers. Many ran to the bush, and the soldiers shot them in the back as they ran.
Mbonge is in Cameroon’s anglophone southwest. The soldiers were with the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), trained by Israel and the US. The francophone government used them to stop anglophone protests in the northwest and southwest. Douala is a port city just over the border from anglophone Cameroon. Many people in Douala ran away from the conflict and they tell similar stories. Security forces shot people for no reason, burned homes and sometimes villages to stop the danger from the separatists.
Some call it the ‘anglophone problem’, others call it ‘the war’. The International Crisis Group (ICG) says at least 1,600 people are dead. Half a million people, caught between government forces and the Amba Boys, left their homes. Many are in the bush and are terrified of returning to their villages but they cannot find help in the towns, often because they don’t have ID cards. NGOs try hard to get food and medical help to people who need it and they are worried that people think they are supporting the government or the Amba boys.
Colonel Didier Badjeck is the chief of army communications. He says the government’s actions are an OK defence. He says the military is looking for the Amba Boys in their rural camps and so not killing civilians. He says groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has talked about military abuses, are supporting the separatists.
One NGO disagrees. The soldiers of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), he says, have a ‘licence to kill’.
At first the Ambas seem very weak compared with the strong BIR and its high-tech Israeli rifles. But cat-and-mouse guerrilla war is something new for the BIR. ICG say that the Ambas are doing well. There are about seven separatist groups and a number of other smaller groups and they know the forests very well. And more important, the separatists have the support of the people. The separatists have killed and tortured but people are much more angry with the military. President Paul Biya seems to agree with bilingualism and decentralization, but no none believes what he says. His supporters call him Lion Man and he has been in power for 36 years. He is very sure he will stay in power with his strong bureaucracy, groups of supporters, and legal witch-hunts against political opponents. And so he is happy to relax in Geneva every year. But at the same time the conflict continues far away so the world cannot see.
‘The way things are going now, the situation will never end,’ says one NGO.
The Cameroon national police in Buea, the capital of the majority anglophone southwest, during a political meeting of President Paul Biya’s party. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty
The devil comes in
In Buea, capital of the southwest, we meet human rights lawyer Agbor Nkongho. In 2016, Nkongho led lawyers and teachers in protests against the government trying to force the use of French in anglophone courts and classrooms. The government replied with shooting from the air and on the ground and they put protesters in prison and called them ‘terrorists’. Today, about 800 to 1,000 people are in prison. The civil rights protest soon became a conflict. After the government’s actions, the feelings of the separatists after so many years became stronger.
The conflict is a result of the mistakes made when Cameroon was decolonised in the 1960s. Cameroon was a German colony and after the First World War it was divided between the British and the French. French Cameroon had independence in 1960 but the smaller British Cameroon did not. So they had to choose between joining Nigeria or French Cameroon. The north joined Nigeria and the south joined French Cameroon. The new state started with two stars on its flag. But in the early 1970s, two stars became one. The Francophones are about 80 per cent of the population and they had the power. The anglophone regions were rich in oil and other natural resources but they became unimportant.
Nkongho found he was in in the middle. The government put him in prison for eight months and the separatists sent him death threats. Nkongho criticises the Amba Boys. They cut off the fingers of workers who refuse to go on strike, they torture teachers who do not agree with their actions in schools, and they kill anyone they think is working with the state. Rival diaspora leaders in the West are giving money to the two main militias – the Ambazonia Defence Forces and the Ambazonia Self-Defence Council. They do not work together and sometimes they fight in the bush. ‘If they worked together, they could win territory and control it,’ says Nkongho. ‘If they were organized, they would open schools and teach the kids their history.’
There are also kidnappings, for example, of 78 schoolchildren and three teachers from a school in Bamenda, the capital of the northwest. The kidnappings were during an all-night curfew. Many asked how the group went through the checkpoints on their 19-kilometre journey to the town of Bafut, where they later freed the children and the teachers. Separatists and the government blamed each other.
In the anglophone regions, people now speak of ‘real Ambas’ and ‘fake Ambas’. The fake Ambas means, for example, soldiers maybe supported by the state and gangs of robbers. Brenda is a civil rights activist from Mamfe, in the southwest. She says, ‘When you have a house that is always disagreeing, the devil outside sees and comes in.’
In February 2019, the conflict was worse during a 10-day lockdown. In the northwestern town of Kumbo, 176 people – mostly schoolchildren – were kidnapped and freed the next day and some say for money. HRW says that in Kumbo security forces burned houses and shops, and threatened hospital workers. In the southwest, a hospital in the town of Kumba was burned and four people were killed. Nobody knows who did it, but military attacks on hospitals are not unusual. People who are hurt often do not want to stay in hospital because they are afraid of soldiers.
Nkongho thinks that about 30 people died during the 2019 February violence.
Old people in power
Truth suffers first in war, people say. Especially in a country where there is the risk of journalists being taken to a military court for doing their job, more and more on charges of ‘fake news’. Now there are four journalists from anglophone Cameroon in prison, three are in Yaoundé’s terrible Kondengui Prison. One reporter, Thomas Awah Junior, of Afrik 2 Radio, is badly ill.
There was a lot of support around the world for journalist Mimi Mefo when she was arrested in November 2018. President Biya ordered her to be freed. There were warnings that the military would eventually take her. She lived in fear but she continued to work. Now she is in London but she believes they will arrest her again if she returns.
‘Many journalists are now doing self-censorship,’ she says. ‘The government doesn’t want people to read the story of Cameroon.’
The story of Cameroon now is of old people who want to keep power. Anglophones are not alone when they criticise a government that has been in power too long - maybe 26 years too long. Many Cameroonians believe Biya stole victory in the 1992 elections from John Fru Ndi, an anglophone. History repeats itself here again and again. Biya is now 86 and he was re-elected for a seventh time in 2018 and some say there was fraud. The opposition organized protests, which ended in many arrests, including the arrest of opposition leader Maurice Kamto in January. Opponents are often put in prison. Cameroonians like to joke that there is a whole opposition government in prison. People wonder if the anglophone conflict will be the end of the government. It is very expensive and there are problems with exports like bananas, rubber, cocoa, and coffee. And the government has other problems. In the far north, the war on Boko Haram jihadists is in its fifth year. And in the east, troops are fighting armed groups from Central African Republic.
There are problems too internationally. In 2018, Cameroon was stopped from having the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, partly because of security problems. And in 2019, the US reduced military help because of human rights problems. It’s not clear if these were human rights abuses in the anglophone regions or in the far north.
The President is fighting back and he is using the services of Glover Park Group, a communications firm in Washington DC. In the anglophone regions, people worry that Biya is winning with the state stopping ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’, who are often innocent. NGOs cannot talk about abuses because they may lose the possibility of going to the conflict zone.
One international aid worker, who is helping people in the bush, agrees that Biya is perhaps winning the public relations war. ‘But that’s the only war he’s winning,’ he says. ‘The military know that force is not going to win the conflict. You can’t catch so many people in the population.’
‘People are blaming the government,’ says one journalist in Buea. ‘The people are unhappy. The government has failed.’
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(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)