In power since 1982, Cameroon President Paul Biya has ruled autocratically for more than four decades. While Cameroon is officially bilingual, one manifestation of such authoritarian governance is the persistent marginalization of the minority English-speaking population in the Northwest and Southwest regions, the former British Southern Cameroons. Since 2016, in the face of state violence, peaceful protests by Anglophone groups have morphed into armed conflict in which separatist groups are fighting for an independent Republic of Ambazonia. In its sixth year, this hidden and neglected war has killed thousands and forcibly displaced more than one million people. Biya’s autocratic regime remains intent on a military solution to a political problem, uninterested in peace negotiations, and with little or no external pressure.
The colonial and post-colonial roots of this contemporary conflict are well-known to English-speaking Cameroonians. Originally a German colony (1884-1916) called Kamerun, after World War I, it was divided between France (80 percent) and Britain (20 percent), under League of Nations and then United Nations mandates. Britain subdivided its territory into Northern and Southern Cameroons and governed them as part of Nigeria. A botched reunification process occurred at independence in 1960 and 1961. French Cameroun and Nigeria gained their independence in January and October 1960 respectively. In February 1961, an UN-organized plebiscite was held to decide the future of Northern and Southern Cameroons, with the choice of joining either independent French Cameroun or Nigeria, but not independence as a separate state. Northern Cameroons voted to join Nigeria, while Southern Cameroons voted to join Cameroon. The terms of reunification between Southern Cameroons and French Cameroun were then agreed upon at the Foumban constitutional conference in July 1961, resulting in the Federal Republic of Cameroon, consisting of two federated states: West Cameroon (former Southern Cameroons) and East Cameroon (former French Cameroun).
The Federal Constitution came into effect in October 1961, with the federal system perceived to uphold the bi-cultural and bi-lingual nature of Cameroon within which the state of West Cameroon retained some autonomy, inclusive of separate governance structures and distinctive legal and educational institutions. However, federalism was short-lived, despite article 47 of the Constitution stating it to be “indissoluble.” In May 1972, President Ahmadou Ahidjo held a controversial national referendum that led to the abolition of the federal constitution and the creation of a unitary state called the United Republic of Cameroon. The 1972 referendum removed West Cameroon’s autonomous governance structures, most notably the West Cameroon House of Assembly.
In 1984 President Biya re-named the country, in French, as La Republique du Cameroun, returning to the name before reunification with Southern Cameroons. Writing in 1985, the barrister Fon Gorji Dinka described the 1972 referendum as a “constitutional coup” and the 1984 decree as an “act of secession” of La Republique du Cameroun from the 1961 union with Southern Cameroons. Current Anglophone separatist groups call themselves “restorationists,” fighting for the “restoration” of the state of Southern Cameroons or Ambazonia, and perceive this as an anti-colonial struggle given that British colonization was replaced by colonization by La Republique du Cameroun in 1961.
Although the current violence in Southern Cameroons is unprecedented, today’s conflict is a consequence of longstanding Anglophone grievances coupled with a strategy of “denial and repression” by the Francophone-dominated state towards Cameroon’s so-called Anglophone problem. Being Anglophone in Cameroon goes beyond language to encompass a cultural identity that has a history linked to Britain and a set of distinctive institutions. For decades, many Anglophones have felt that the Francophone-dominated state’s policy of assimilation has attempted to erode that identity, and feel treated as second-class citizens within Cameroon, with marginalization experienced in the socio-cultural, political, economic, and linguistic fields.
Anglophone opposition has risen at different times. In the early 1990s, political liberalization enabled Anglophone-specific trade unions, interest groups as well as political groups to emerge, advocating for Southern Cameroonian interests, notably the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC). Of particular note were the All-Anglophone Conferences (AACI and AACII) held in 1993 and 1994 and attended by more than 5,000 delegates from Anglophone organizations and associations. AACI’s Buea Declaration I called for a return to two-state federalism, but total disregard of such demands by Biya’s regime led to secession being placed on the agenda in the declaration from AACII. The aim was stated as “the restoration of the autonomy of the former Southern Cameroons which has been annexed by La République du Cameroun.” SCNC in particular advocated for secession, but notably by non-violent means through the “force of argument rather than the argument of force.”
These long-standing grievances re-emerged in late 2016 with peaceful protests by lawyers and teachers against the francophonization of the legal and educational systems in the English-speaking regions. Lawyers were unhappy about the appointment of French-speaking magistrates educated in civil law and unfamiliar with common law, as practiced in the Anglophone regions, while teachers were concerned about the influx of French-speaking teachers. Separately, they undertook strike action and demonstrated in October and November 2016 respectively. These peaceful protests were violently dispersed by the security forces using tear gas and bullets, with some fatalities and many arrests. Following this violence, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) was established, advocating a return to pre-1972 two-state federalism. CACSC initiated “Operation Ghost Towns Resistance,” with closures of schools and businesses in the Northwest and Southwest regions on selected days as a tactic of non-violent resistance. The government’s response in January 2017 was to ban the Consortium, along with SCNC, and arrest their leaders on treason and terrorism charges, as well as a three-month internet blackout. Writing in April 2017, sociologist Piet Konings and anthropologist Francis Nyamnjoh likened the Francophone-dominated state’s approach to Anglophone grievances to that “of a workman whose only tool is a hammer and to whom every problem is a nail.” One consequence was that separatist voices became stronger.
State repression of, first, legitimate expression of grievances and, second, peaceful advocacy of federalism, led to increasing calls for secession of Southern Cameroons. Following the banning orders, existing separatist organizations, largely active in the diaspora, came together to form the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front (SCACUF), with Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, previously involved in CACSC, appointed as chairperson. While advocating secession, his strategy remained non-violent, echoing SCNC’s position in the 1990s. Divisions shortly became apparent, however, with Ayaba Cho Lucas, leader of the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC), one of SCACUF’s constituent organizations, advocating armed struggle.
While SCACUF’s leadership remained largely outside of Cameroon, notably in Nigeria, civil disobedience continued in the Northwest and Southwest during 2017 with widespread support for the weekly “Ghost Town” days. The state’s response was military occupation, with arbitrary arrests and detention of young men on the pretext of supporting secessionism. In response, the AGC announced the deployment of their armed wing, the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF), with the first attack on September 9, 2017 in which three soldiers were killed. On October 1, 2017, the anniversary of Southern Cameroons’ independence from Britain, the independent Republic of Ambazonia was declared by SCACUF, alongside mass demonstrations in which 17 people were killed by state security forces. The SCACUF transformed itself into the Interim Government of Ambazonia (IG) on October 31, with Ayuk Tabe as President. The state intensified its militarization of the Anglophone regions, and on November 30, 2017 President Biya declared war on the secessionists, described as “terrorists.” Armed conflict continues to date.
War causes misery. Over five years later, the impact on the four million population has been severe. While figures are approximate and underestimated, at least 6,000 people have been killed and hundreds of villages razed, with 1.1 million people displaced by 2020, including 70,000 registered refugees in Nigeria, and 2.2 million in need of humanitarian assistance. School closures have caused education disruption to hundreds of thousands of children for years. Gross human rights violations committed by both warring parties have been widely documented, including by the Cameroon-based Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa. The military is accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, unlawful imprisonment, torture, as well as the burning and destruction of homes, schools, and health centers. Armed separatist groups are accused of kidnappings and extortion of civilians, killings of alleged informants (so-called “blacklegs”), and beatings of teachers and students for non-compliance with the school boycott. Evidence indicates that the security forces are responsible for a greater proportion of the various atrocities, with the World Bank stating that government forces have caused 10 times as many civilian deaths as separatist armed groups. Rape and other forms of sexual violence have increased dramatically, described as “pervasive” and “rampant” in a UN report, and perpetuated with impunity by the military and non-state armed groups. As in other conflicts, rape has been used as a weapon of war, terrorizing local communities into submission and grossly violating women and girls.
The Cameroon government’s approach to the war was described recently as one of “hammer and lies,” in other words, military force alongside a disinformation campaign. The government continues to fight a counter-insurgency war, while simultaneously denying that a conflict exists, preferring to refer to a “security crisis” in the English-speaking regions, one which is largely resolved with a Presidential Plan of Reconstruction and Development in place from 2020. The lie to this is evident by Biya’s deployment of a new military commander and special elite forces to the two regions in September 2022. Essentially Biya seeks a military victory by crushing the separatists. But how strong is the Ambazonian movement and what threat does it entail to the Cameroonian state?
Like similar movements, the Ambazonian movement has political and military wings. Leaders of the political wing are mainly based in the diaspora or imprisoned in Cameroon, with significant divisions between them. The military forces, known locally as the “Amba Boys,” comprise up to 30 armed groups across the two regions. Initially, the main political split was between the Interim Government (IG) led by Ayuk Tabe and the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC) led by Cho Lucas. However, in January 2018 Ayuk Tabe and nine other IG leaders were arrested in Nigeria and extradited to Cameroon. They were detained without trial, then all sentenced to life imprisonment by a military tribunal in August 2019. With Ayuk Tabe detained, US-based Samuel Ikome Sako was elected as interim IG president. However, infighting ensued with a split in early 2019 between “IG Sisiku” and “IG Sako.” Despite its initial rivalry with the Interim Government, the AGC supported the IG Sisiku faction and formalized cooperation ties in August 2019. In 2021, the AGC also formed an alliance with Biafran separatists in Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra. Cho Lucas has also encouraged Francophone Cameroonian groups to take up arms against Biya’s regime.
Militarily, while the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) remains the largest group, there is a proliferation of smaller armed groups, for instance, the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF), Ambazonia Restoration Forces, Red Dragons, Tigers of Ambazonia, and Vipers, comprising around 4,000 fighters in total. Allegiance with the political factions varies, with Red Dragons and SOCADEF believed to be aligned with IG Sako, for instance, while other armed groups operate quite independently. Initially, equipment was rudimentary, including hunting rifles and machetes. But the armed groups’ combat strength has increased through the acquisition of more sophisticated weaponry, including improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket launchers, with a greater intensity of operations. Precise figures are unknown, but both sides have lost considerable numbers of combatants.
The fragmentation of political leadership has led to disagreements and multiple policy directions. In response to the Swiss peace initiative, IG Sako formed the Ambazonia Coalition Team (ACT) in September 2019 to present a joint platform for negotiation. However, IG Sisiku refused to participate. Opposing policies over “lockdowns” (or “Ghost Towns”) and the so-called “liberation war tax” on civilians also indicate a lack of unity. The multiplicity of voices over policy directions is symptomatic of the disconnect between the diasporic leadership and their militias in Cameroon, with the absence of political authority on the ground.
While the war is unremitting and the government was forced to deploy special elite forces in September 2022 to bolster its counterinsurgency efforts, fragmentation and division amongst Ambazonian groups have weakened the movement.
As recently stated, the international response to the Cameroon Anglophone conflict has been “feeble.” with little or no pressure from Western governments and no political intervention from the AU or UN. Why is this? The Cameroon government’s “lies and disinformation” strategy has been relatively successful in hiding the reality of the war, and Western governments have prioritized economic and geo-strategic interests that require friendly relations with Biya’s regime. For the UK, for example, this included an off-shore natural gas deal in June 2018, and a UK-Cameroon Economic Partnership Agreement in April 2021. For France, its longstanding Françafrique policy prohibited criticism of the Cameroon government, evident in July 2022 when President Emmanuel Macron’s visit made no public reference to the Anglophone conflict. Stronger statements have come from the US Congress. House of Representatives’ Resolution 358 (July 2019) and Senate Resolution 684 (January 2021) which called for both warring parties to end all violence and pursue broad-based dialogue to resolve the conflict. However, neither congressional resolution has led to any significant action by the US government.
The African Union’s lack of response contrasts with the AU-led peace process in the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, for instance. Cameroon’s membership of the AU’s Peace and Security Council has ensured its internal conflict has not been discussed. Similarly, successful lobbying by Cameroon’s diplomats has kept the conflict off the agenda of the UN Security Council.
More than forty years of autocratic and centralized rule under Paul Biya means that the Francophone-dominated state is intent on maintaining its control over Southern Cameroons, with little or no concession to Anglophone grievances, and currently unwavering from pursuing a military solution to a political problem, whatever the cost to the English-speaking population. The lack of international pressure has contributed to enabling the regime’s hard-line stance. However, the outlook of the Anglophone population would seem to have changed irrevocably. The unprecedented military occupation, repression, and violence from the Francophone-dominated state have given rise to a shift in consciousness. Although the desire for peace is profound, the political status quo is no longer tolerable. Any peace settlement will necessitate that the Anglophone population determines its future, for instance by means of an internationally-supervised referendum on constitutional arrangements, with options including federalism and independence.
If the decolonization process of the Southern Cameroons in 1960 and 1961 was botched and contravened the original UN Trusteeship Agreement, then decision-making on Southern Cameroons constitutional future has to be fully democratic some 60-plus years later.