The latest developments are the culmination of escalating tensions over several months, which have seen widespread strikes, protests, arrests and deaths.
On 17 January, Cameroonian activists on social media struck a tone of both despondency and defiance as news broke of the arrests of two prominent civil society leaders. Felix Agbor Nkongho and Fontem Neba had been at the forefront of the campaign for greater autonomy for the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, and their sudden arrests came as a shock to many.
“We are finished. So this is how it was all going to end,” lamented one campaigner. Another responded more hopefully, commenting that “tears rolled down my cheeks when I got the news… [but] our leaders will find a way”.
Soon this exchange was cut short, however, as the Internet went down across Cameroon, and in particular the English-speaking areas.
This clampdown on communication has spread greater uncertainty over what will come next in these restive regions, which have seen escalating strikes, protests, arrests and fatal violence over the past few months.
Many in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions – the Northwest and Southwest – claim that they have been discriminated against since reunification in 1961. They say that the central government privileges the majority French-speaking population and eight other regions. Amongst other things, campaigners complain of being treated as second-class citizens, of marginalisation in the education and judicial system, of lack of representation in government, of a perceived lack of returns from oil extracted from the region, and of the erosion of Anglophone identity.
These grievances have been simmering since the 1990s, when the Southern Cameron National Council (SCNC) was established with the aim of “restoring” the independence of West Cameroon. But this discontentment has resurfaced and intensified recently, though the emphasis today has been on demanding a referendum on federalism rather than secession.
Escalation of grievances
In May 2015, the Common Law Lawyers association sent a letter to President Paul Biya, objecting to the appointment of French-educated judges – who they say do not understand English common law which is used in West Cameroon – to their courts. They requested the withdrawal of these magistrates and demanded the restoration of federalism, which had ended with the adoption of a new constitution in 1972.
In October 2016, in the face of the government’s non-response, the lawyers finally decided to make their voices heard by striking and organising marches to the courts. In November, police dispersed demonstrations with tear gas, leading to multiple injuries.
On 21 November, this Anglophone campaign intensified as thousands of teachers joined the lawyer’s sit-down strike, complaining against what they see as the imposition of French in schools. On that same day, activist Mancho Bibixy embarked on a solo protest centred on the poor state of roads in Bamenda, the largest city in West Cameroon. He marched along Commercial Avenue, carrying a coffin and saying he was ready to die for his cause. Along his journey, he picked up support from commercial bike riders and other citizens. Eventually, security forces intervened, leading to bloody clashes and the death of one protester.
In the following days and weeks, tensions mounted as the strikes continued. The police engaged in mass arrests of protesters and there were a number of deaths at the hands of police. On 29 November, when students at the University of Buea embarked on their own related protest, security forces beat students with batons, fired teargas, and allegedly sexually assaulted some protesters.
Another flashpoint in the escalating crisis came shortly after on 8 December, as Paul Atanga Nji, a minister in Biya’s government, who had previously angered activists by dismissing their grievances, organised a ruling party meeting in Bamenda. Angry protesters stormed the premises and attacked the gathering, requiring soldiers to rescue officials. Four protesters were shot dead, many others were injured, and dozens were arrested.
In response to mass arrests and state violence in the face of the mostly peaceful protests over the past few months, international bodies have increasingly raised concerns. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the government to investigate the police’s use of “excessive force”. Amnesty International demanded authorities refrain from “unlawful force” and warned that “excessive force threatens to further enflame an already tense situation”.
Meanwhile, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a highly critical press release, stating: “The Special Rapporteur condemns very strongly the alleged use of disproportionate force against civilians, the violent and deathly suppression of peaceful demonstrators”.
In mid-January, there were momentarily signs that the long-running impasse may be coming to an end. Members of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, a grouping of organisations behind the protests, agreed to meet with the government despite earlier reservations.
In a press briefing from the Consortium on 14 January, representatives explained that: “In spite of the non release of those children kidnapped and taken to Yaounde where they have been tortured mercilessly, the Unions still accepted to talk to govenunent [sic] in the hope that reason might prevail.” It claimed that, “The talks were frank, heated and occasionally cordial.”
Yet it continued that after security forces “went on rampage…shooting four unarmed young men and severely wounding them” while the talks were ongoing, the Consortium had no choice but to pull out. Instead, the campaigners declared a “ghost town” on 16 and 17 January and called on supporters to stay at home in peaceful protest.
On both these days, many Cameroonians heeded the call with businesses staying closed and many roads lying largely abandoned. However, some protesters took their anger to the streets, with one group reportedly blocking trucks from transporting petroleum and timber to Francophone Cameroon. Further arrests and violence was witnessed.
This set the stage for 17 January, when the government appears to have lost patience. In the afternoon, it announced the banning of the Consortium along with the secessionist SCNC. Government spokesperson Issa Tchiroma suggested the leaders of the Consortium were in fact working for the SCNC and were hiding their real agendas behind other demands.
Felix Agbor Nkongho and Fontem Neba, respectively the president and secretary-general of the Consortium, were arrested and the government terminated its invitation of dialogue. Soon after, access to the Internet was severely limited.
In a hurried release following its banning yesterday, the Consortium warned supporters: “it is uncertain how things turn out in the hours ahead; things may go so fast and you may be seeing this release when most of us could be under detention”.
The campaigners quickly designated two foreign-based activists – Mark Bara in Belgium and Tapang Ivo Tanku in the US – to take over the leadership of the movement, reassuring supporters that “they have been sufficiently briefed on our non-violent approach to this struggle”.
In a final bid, the Consortium also called for more peaceful ghost towns “from Monday to Wednesday every week…for a period of one month” in order to “tell the world our plight and suffering”.
On 18 January, two former leaders of the Cameroon Bar Association, Barristers Akere Muna and Bernard Muna, led a group of 30 lawyers to Yaoundé to secure the release of the Consortium leaders who had been transferred from the town of Buea overnight. Some of the lawyers took photos with Felix Agbor and shared them on Facebook, reassuring citizens that the strike leaders are in good condition. Tassang Wilfred, who had been speculated to be the next likely leader of the Consortium and targeted for arrest, was reported to have gained asylum in an Embassy in Yaoundé.
The recent arrests of prominent activists, the banning of the Consortium, and the shutdown of the Internet mark the culmination of months of escalating tensions between the government and activists. The government is no doubt hoping this crisis point will force the campaigners to yield, but with so much uncertain and frustrations intensifying, it remains to be seen how the movement will now respond.
*African Arguments.Mbom Sixtus is a freelance journalist based in Yaoundé.