Anglophone Cameroon’s hidden bloody conflict

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Bamenda, Anglophone’s largest  city. PHOTO/ARISON TAMFU

A genocide looms in the two Anglophone regions of Cameroon that the government has sealed off from the outside world by cutting off internet access for over three months now. Investigative reporter, Arison Tamfu, who visted the areas unveils what he saw and heard in the regions that are becoming increasing dangerous for journalists.

By ARISON TAMFU

newsdesk@reporter.co.ke

“He was my boy, peaceful and hardworking. Why him?” Ngwa Immaculate Amba wonders and bends down before the grave of her son, Ngwa Clement. It was a luminous morning in April 2017 in Mankon, a rural locality on the outskirts of Bamenda, Cameroon’s largest Anglophone city.

Her voice trembles. She pauses. Tears roll down her swollen cheeks.

Immaculate remembers the day her son died. It’s a day that still haunts her.

One day in December 2016, a young man rushed to her house and showed her a video on social media of a man shot by police being rushed to the hospital. Immaculate immediately recognised the young man; it was her son, Clement. Minutes later, she received a call announcing the death of her son.

“To this day, I don’t still believe it was my son I saw in the phone” she says inaudibly.

Clement was shot by the Cameroonian police while he was protesting with thousand others against Anglophone marginalisation in Cameroon.

“I have never felt the pains I felt that day” says Immaculate.

Perhaps more painful was the case of Sombella Divine, a 19-year-old bulky-looking student with an easy smile. On the very day Clement was shot dead, Divine was helping his parents at home in Bamenda.

Protesters were fleeing from police brutality to their neighbourhood at Atuakon. Ignorant of the bloody conflict outside, Divine stepped out of the house to clean fruits. It was at that moment, according to witnesses that an unidentified policeman aimed and shot him. Divine died.

“He was honest, friendly and hardworking” Sombella, the mother of Divine pauses and blinks her eyes rapidly as she recollects the sad day.

“What did he do to deserve that?” she asks rhetorically.

Clement and Divine are just two victims of a bloody conflict that has paralysed the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon for over seven months. The government admits to six protester deaths, though activists say the true toll is much higher.

Crippled Regions

Divine was shot on a Thursday at approximately half past midday. Customarily, on that day and time he was supposed to be receiving lectures at Longla Comprehensive College where he was a lower-sixth student. But he was not in school because teachers were on an indefinite strike to protest Anglophone marginalisation.

“We are calling on all schools in the North West and South West regions to resume with immediate effect” Cameroon’s Minister of education, Ngalle Bibehe Jean Ernest said in early February 2017.

It was the eighth time he was making the call.  The Cameroonian government now claims that classes have resumed effectively and schools are functioning normally but it is not true.

In Buea and Bamenda, Anglophone’s main cities, I visited over 100 schools and all were closed. Over a million pupils and students in the Anglophone part of the country have not gone to school for six months now.

Blaise Nche is one of them. He is 11 years old and is in form one. I met him cleaning dishes outside their home.

“I have not gone to school since, since” he says clicking his two fingers.

“My school is closed. I want to go back to school but I don’t like the way government is treating my parents and their friends. All my friends are not going to school” he adds.

He now finds solace in helping the parents in the farm and learning to be a carpenter. Many of the school children are now hawkers on the streets of Bamenda.

“UNESCO had earlier said that all certificates in Cameroon for this academic year 2016/2017 shall not be recognised internationally. However, the power to declare the school year blank rests only with the Government of Cameroon” says Mark Bareta, a young bearded man who seems to have earned the respect and recognition of Anglophone Cameroonians for his staunch devotion to what is now called ‘Anglophone struggle’.

“We have not had classes for six months out of nine months in an academic year and it is obvious that there will be no classes until the academic year ends next month May. It is logical to cancel all certificates because they will not represent the knowledge of the students” says Mark.

Apart from teachers, lawyers in the Anglophone regions are also on strike.

“Our strike started since October last year. So we have been on strike for seven months now” says Barrister Ashu Emmanuel. “No Anglophone lawyer goes to court in North West and South West. Only Francophone lawyers still go to court”

To deepen the strike actions in Anglophone Cameroon, every Monday of the week is ghost town- everybody is expected to desert the streets and no activities are tolerated. Even government officials forced by circumstances inadvertently respect ghost town.

Internet has been shut down for over three months now in the two Anglophone regions. According to Access Now, businesses in Cameroon have lost over $1.39 million due to the shutdown.

The two regions are heavily militarised. Some of the soldiers fighting Boko Haram have been redeployed to the Anglophone regions to ‘quench’ the Anglophone struggle according to a military source. They patrol the regions day and night heavily armed.

“We live in absolute fear. It is like we are living in a war zone. They (soldiers) break our doors almost every week demanding that we identify ourselves” says a man in his late sixties who prefers to remain anonymous. Interviewing people in Bamenda is a hideous task. People fear they will be arrested if their interviews are aired by journalists.

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Anglophone Cameroonians make up approximately 6, 000.000 of Cameroon’s 23 million population. The majority are Francophones.

Blaise, at his tender age thinks, Anglophones are despised in Cameroon

“They hate us (Anglophones)” says little Blaise. At first, I could not understand the anger and resentment of a boy that young but preceding events explain why. For most Anglophone Cameroonians, the unrest has been a long time coming.

 

Blaise and his brothers doing  household chores in Mankon. PHOTO/ARISON TAMFU

How Did We Get Here?

To understand the Anglophone struggle, you need to understand the history of Cameroon. Most of the territory known today as the Republic of Cameroon was a German protectorate from 1884.

However, after the defeat of Germany during the First World War, the protectorate was divided into British and French Cameroons in 1916.

British Cameroons (known as Southern Cameroons) and French Cameroun (known as La Republique du Cameroun) were separate legal and political entities and historians have postulated that although this partition was said to be temporary, Britain and France instituted two different administrative styles and systems which were to impact on any subsequent movement towards eradicating the provisional nature of the partition and facilitating reunification. On Jan. 1960, La Republique du Cameroun became independent.

In 1961, United Nations agreed that Southern Cameroons was qualified to achieve independence either through association or integration which “should be on the basis of complete equality between the peoples of the erstwhile Non-Self-Governing Territory and those of the independent country with which it is integrated.

The peoples of both territories should have equal status and rights”. It was with this understanding that on the 11th of February 1961 British Southern Cameroons voted to join La Republique du Cameroun and the two became one country.

“The majority of Southern Cameroonians wanted to be independent as a separate political entity but the UN deleted this option” says Prof. Victor Ngoh, Historian.

Just few years into the Union, Anglophones began to complain about marginalisation. In 1990, John Ngu Foncha, the architect who brought Southern Cameroons into the union said he was saddened by the way Anglophones were being treated.

“The Anglophone Cameroonians whom I brought into the union have been ridiculed and referred to as ‘les Biafrians’(the Biafrans), ‘les ennemies dans la maison’(enemies in the house), ‘les traitres’ (traitors) etc., and the constitutional provisions which protected this Anglophone minority have been suppressed, their voice drowned while the rule of the gun replaced the dialogue which the Anglophones cherish very much” said Foncha.

That declaration marked the dawn of the Anglophone struggle. A C.I.A 1986 report that was declassified in 2011 warned that “the Anglophone minority is a potential time bomb and should the central government fail to respect their cultural and linguistic traditions, the population may view armed confrontations as their only alternative”.

As tension escalated, the government was adamant and denied the existence of any such problem in the media and in public speeches.

On a day in October 2016, more than half a century after the Union of the two Cameroons, Anglophone lawyers seemed to have had enough and began an indefinite strike action to restore the Common Law practice that was erased after Southern Cameroons joined La Republique du Cameroun.

“It must be recalled that the strike action of Common Law Lawyers that took off on October 6, 2016, did not only focus on the restoration of the Common Law juridico-cultural system, it included a demand for proof of whether or not there has ever been an Act of Union between Southern Cameroons and La République du Cameroun” says Barrister Bobga Harmony, the man who initiated the lawyers strike action. He later fled the country and is currently in America.

The strike action grew, drawing in all Anglophone teachers, enraged by state attempts to switch them with French speakers with no knowledge of English language and the GCE syllabus. Students joined in too and the strike action quickly gained the acceptance and instant participation of virtually all Anglophone Cameroonians.

When things came to a head, in November 2016, for the very first time since the struggle started in 1990, four venerated Anglophone Catholic bishops decided to address a strongly worded memorandum to President Paul Biya of Cameroon in which they talked of the misery and marginalisation of Anglophone Cameroonians.

“Anglophone Cameroonians are slowly being asphyxiated as every element of their culture is systematically targeted and absorbed into the Francophone Cameroon culture and way of doing things” the memorandum read.

They outlined major aspects of widespread and systematic marginalisation in various areas of public life which point to the existence of a ‘deliberate and systematic erosion of the Southern Cameroons cultural identity’ which the 1961 Constitution sought to preserve.

According to the Bishops: National Entrance Examinations into Schools that develop the human resources of Cameroon are set per the French Subsystem of Education which makes it very difficult for Anglophones and Francophones to compete on a level playing field.

-There is a gaping inequality in the distribution of posts of responsibility between Anglophones and Francophones. There is only one Anglophone out of 36 Ministers.

In addition, there seems to be key ministries that have been reserved for Francophone Ministers only and Anglophones do not even qualify to be Secretaries of State under them. These include, but are not limited to, Defence, Finance, Territorial Administration, and Economy.

-In the 1961 Constitution, the Vice President was the second most important personality in state protocol. Today, the Prime Minister (appointed Anglophone) is the fourth most important person in State Protocol, after the President of the Senate and the President of the National Assembly. Even so, Anglophone Cameroonians believe that he wields no real authority.

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State institutions produce documents and public notices in French, with no English translation, and expect English speaking Cameroonians to read and understand them.

National Entrance Examinations into some professional schools are set in French only and Anglophone candidates are expected to answer them. Sometimes this happens even in the English-speaking regions.

Visitors and clients to government offices are expected to express themselves in French, even in the English-speaking regions, since most of the bosses in the offices speak French and make no effort to speak English.

Grave of Ngwa Clement. PHOTO/ARISON TAMFU

-The Military Tribunals in the Northwest and Southwest Regions are basically French courts.

-The flooding of state Anglophone educational and legal institutions with French-trained and French speaking Cameroonians who understand neither our educational subsystem nor the English Common Law undermines Anglophone education and legal heritage and subverts the original intentions of the founders of the nation to build a bi-cultural nation, respecting the specificity of each region.

Federation “would be for us a lasting solution to the irksome Anglophone Problem, and would be acceptable to the majority of Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians” the memorandum concluded.

The memorandum never received any reply from the President, rather the response from the government was ruthless.

Government Reaction

On the very day and time Clement and Divine were shot dead by police in Bamenda, President Paul Biya, himself a Francophone now 85 who has ruled Cameroon for 34 years appeared on state TV all-smiles and taking selfies with female footballers of the national football team who had failed to win the Female Africa Cup of Nations that was hosted by Cameroon.

“It was a message from the President that the Anglophone problem was a non-event to the government. A perfect display of how government regards Anglophones as second class citizens” says Ebenezer Neba, an Anglophone activist on self-exile in South Africa.

The following day after the President’s show, five ministers granted a press conference and reiterated that there is no Anglophone problem in Cameroon.

“Lawyers and teachers are being manipulated because they no longer talk about the problems of education, training or coaching. Rather, they talk about the alleged marginalisation of Anglophones in Cameroon. Some even mention the return to 1961 federalism. It is unacceptable and intolerable and no sensible person can take these lawyers and teachers seriously” said Atanga Nji, a close security advisor to the president and minister delegate at the presidency in charge of special duties.

The comments infuriated Anglophones and they intensified the strike actions. Students of the University of Buea joined in and met with the brutality of the forces of law and order. Videos broadcast on social media showed cruel policemen dragging female students in the mud, spraying students’ rooms with tear-gas and contaminated water, and then locking some up.

I met a young girl in her early twenties in Buea two months after the incident. Out of fear and shame, she did not want her identity to be disclosed. She recounted a gruesome encounter she had that evening with three men she claimed were in police uniforms.

“They pulled me and tore all my dresses and started raping me one after the other” she paused and took a deep breath.

“I started bleeding and they assaulted me, saying in French, ‘we will maltreat all Anglophones’” she said and refused to talk any further.

It is alleged that more than 10 students were raped that day by policemen.

“My brother’s daughter has been raped in BUEA. How do you have an army that is supposed to protect children step out there, beat them and rap some?” Hon. Wirba Joseph, a member of Parliament of the opposition in a rare show of valour told parliament in a widely circulated speech two days after police brutality in Buea.

“And we come here and sit just talking about the budget? You normalize murder, you normalize rape? I want to tell this House that what had happened to those children in Buea University and in Bamenda has convinced me that the people who say that Cameroon should go in two parts are correct” he added.

Weeks later, a warrant of arrest was issued for him in absolute contradiction to the constitution that guarantees immunity for all MPs in active service. Hon. Wirba fled and is now on self-exile in Europe.

The government must have assumed that, like in the past, the police torture, arrests and killings will frighten the people rather the strike gained momentum. Paul Biya for the very first time came out from his sumptuous palace and admitted that there was an Anglophone problem in Cameroon.

“All the voices that spoke have been heard.  They have, in many cases, raised substantive issues that cannot be overlooked” he said in a televised speech but referred to the Anglophone Cameroonians on strike as “a   group   of manipulated   and   exploited extremist rioters” and emphasized that government was ready to dialogue on any issues raised except “the form of our State,” meaning federation.

An immediate reaction from the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, a well-known rights group that was leading the strike said it was “very disappointed” with the president’s speech.

“The speech has once again only been delivered in French, as it has been for the last 34 years, to the disadvantage of most people in English speaking Cameroon,” said barrister Nkongho Felix Agbor- Balla, president of the Consortium.

 

Mr Balla said the President’s speech has completely misjudged the situation for Anglophone Cameroonians whose education, culture, language and economic aspirations have been severely undermined over a period of 55 years.

“The people are thus very determined to secure their Anglo-Saxon heritage and aspirations as was enshrined in the constitution of 1961” Mr Balla said.

Government instantly banned the Consortium and proceeded to arrest its leaders including Barrister Balla and eight Anglophone journalists. Government has so far arrested and detained over 500 anglophone activists and detained at Kondengui Prison known for its inhumane treatment of inmates.

Most of the leaders of the protest movement have been charged with “terrorism, hostility against the fatherland, secession, revolution, contempt of the president… group rebellion, civil war and dissemination of fake news” – charges that could carry the death penalty.

Their first trial before a military tribunal has exposed Cameroon’s linguistic problems. Bewigged defence lawyers, seated across the room from bare-headed Francophone prosecutors, struggled to follow proceedings conducted in French. When an interpreter was eventually provided, the translation was so poor that the case was adjourned.

It is a sign, Anglophone Cameroonians say, that they will never be understood or accepted by the French speaking majority.

“We have a common culture, a common language. The Francophones want us to think like them, behave like them, act like them — which is not possible” says Henry Ngale Monono, a barrister.

International Reaction

For most part, the instability, characterised by various waves of contestation, has been up to Cameroonians to handle but amid growing secessionists muttering, the International Community has become more active in recent days in attempting to defuse the confrontation.

Paul Biya himself sought the advice of the Pope and travelled to the Vatican last March to meet him.

According to a communique from the Holy See Press Office, the Pope told the president to bring peace to Cameroon and stressed that it was important for Cameroon to enhance “the richness of the various historic and cultural traditions of the country, with respect for human and minority rights”, something that Paul Biya has failed to do in the last 34 years.

The United Nations has been putting up a wait-and-see attitude and finally officially called for the release of the Anglophone leaders, and the full restoration of internet services in the two regions.

“This is a deplorable situation. I encourage the Cameroonian Government to take all the measures it deems appropriate, as soon as possible and within the framework of the law, in order to create conditions conducive to building the confidence needed to end the crisis” said François Louncény Fall, Head of the United Nations Regional Office for Central Africa after undertaking a four-day fact-checking mission to English-speaking regions of the north-west and south-west.

Rights Group, Amnesty International also demanded the “immediate and unconditional” release of Anglophone civil society leaders.

“This worrying pattern of arbitrary arrests, detention and harassment of civil society members is entirely at odds with the international human rights law and standards that Cameroon has committed to uphold,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International Central Africa Researcher.

The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the loss of life, injuries and damage as a result of protests.

“We call on all parties to exercise restraint, refrain from further violence, and engage in dialogue for a peaceful resolution to the current protests” said John Kirby Assistant Secretary and Department Spokesperson.

But diplomacy has also angered some Anglophone activists, who think that such rhetoric without action from the international community has been too little too late.

Thousands of Anglophone who have fled from government crackdown to live abroad, have now constituted themselves with other Anglophone Cameroonians abroad into a new organisation called Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front-SCACUF, with a prime objective to seek the Independence of Anglophone Cameroonians. SCACUF will elect an executive to lead the movement in May 2017.

With internet shutdown and rampant arbitrary arrests and detention of activists continuing, many young Anglophone Cameroonians are putting pressure on SCACUF to introduce armed confrontation with the government just like the CIA predicted in 1986.

“Our ancestors and our forefathers trusted you to go into a gentleman’s agreement that two people who considered themselves brothers could live together. And if this is what you show us after 55 years then, we will resist till they kill all Southern Cameroonians” said Hon. Wirba.

Cameroon’s stability and unity is now, more than ever before, bleak.

“The politics of fear and iron-fisted rule, a government specialty, has been completely crushed by Anglophones with Francophones taking full notice. State-citizen relations have been dramatically altered in a way similar to that of East Germany just before it collapsed in 1989. It is becoming increasingly questionable whether elections scheduled for 2018 will be possible” says Dr. Denis Foretia, senior fellow at the Nkafu Policy Institute

As I separate with little Blaise in Bamenda, he dreams of a day that the crisis will end and he will start school either in an Independent Southern Cameroons or a Federal Republic of Cameroon.

“We don’t think there is a place for us in this centralised state”says Hon. Wirba.

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