By Ajong Mbapndah L
Fresh off a surprise visit to Nigeria where he spent Easter with refugees of the Cameroon Anglophone crisis, Dr Christopher Fomunyoh, Founder and President of the Fomunyoh Foundation says the dire situation he saw fuels the urgency for a negotiated end to the conflict so people can return home, regain their humanity and a sense of normalcy.
The Senior Associate for Africa and Regional Director at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) delivered food supplies to the refugees as he saw firsthand the precarious state of pain and suffering of a people bearing the brunt of a crisis not of their making.
“Life is extremely difficult for these refugees. Even those that are formally registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have seen their monthly stipends drop from approximately $22 to $15, and now approximately $7,” Fomunyoh told PAV in an exclusive interview.
To Dr Fomunyoh, there is no way the conflict can be resolved militarily. A military option only causes more death, destruction, further hate and resentment and is not a tenable option to resolve the conflict that has impacted millions in the four years of warfare, he said.
“Despite the ‘NEVER AGAIN’ pledge after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, despite the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect, the passivity and indifference of some major international partners is mind norming,” Dr Fomunyoh said in the interview which also discusses the role of the international community, expectations from the Biden administration and more.
Could we start with getting some context on your Easter trip to refugees of the Cameroon Anglophone crisis in Nigeria, what prompted the Fomunyoh Foundation and partners to undertake the visit at this time?
Many of us in the Cameroonian community been extremely concerned not just with the deaths and destruction from the ongoing armed conflict in the North West and South West regions or the territory of what used to be Southern Cameroons prior to reunification in 1961, but also that our brothers and sisters who escaped the armed conflict into foreign lands, notably the tens of thousands of refugees in neighboring Nigeria, do not seem to be on most people’s list of top priorities. Fleeing armed conflict in one’s home country and finding refuge in a foreign land with not much means of survival is hard enough; it is even doubly so when one is a refugee because of one of the world’s most underreported or neglected conflicts.
I wanted to go see for myself the state of wellbeing of these refugees, and decided to partner with the Community Refugee Relief Initiative (CRRI), one of many Cameroonian-led NGOs that has been providing assistance to the refugees these past years in food drives, anti-COVID 19 supplies and capacity building training in basic livelihood skills. TFF and CRRI decided that the Easter season as a period of renewal and hope would be the best time to visit and commune with our refugees and provide them relief in food supplies as hunger remains one of their most acute predicaments. Part of us also hoped that the trip would draw more national and international attention to the plight of these refugees and hence, generate more efforts to ameliorate their conditions and work towards an end of the war so they could safely return to their respective homes and normal way of life. The partnership worked beautifully and staff and volunteers of both organizations are very pleased to have made the trip.
What parts of Nigeria did you visit and what was the reaction you got from the refugees?
We visited areas in South Eastern Nigeria, close to the border with the conflict areas of Cameroon — 12 stops in total, concentrated in Benue and Cross River states as well as in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. We couldn’t get to Taraba and Akwa Ibom states which we understand also host tens of thousands of Anglophone Cameroonian refugees. Our teams visited the localities of Adagom 1 & Adagom 3 (around Ogoja), Agborkim Waterfalls, Ajassor, Bashua, Biajua, Caabar, Ikom, Ikyogen, Oban, Okende, and the Federal Capital City of Abuja. In some cases, refugees are in settlements or camps; and in others, they’re squatting around with families and host communities. Overall, the conditions are extremely difficult.
The reactions of the refugees brought out a real clash of emotions: on the one hand, as a woman settlement leader said in Adagom 3, they were very happy to see us, and some even shed tears of joy and appreciation for our physical presence as well as for the food; at the same time, it was heartbreaking to see the masses of innocent populations that are now victims of this senseless war, and to listen to their personal testimonies and life stories. We had children dancing happily to the music that played at each event site, seemingly oblivious to the precarity of their situation; and, at the same time, you saw so many children less than five years old, meaning they were born in the refugee camps. Some of the girls carrying young kids on their backs told us they were the mothers; yet they looked so underaged and fragile. The situation is not good at all, and deserves greater attention. Most importantly, it adds a sense of urgency for a negotiated end of the conflict so, among other things, these refugees can return home, regain their humanity and sense of normalcy.
From the experiences and interactions you had, how is life like for these people away from their homes, how are they surviving in Nigeria?
Life is extremely difficult for these refugees. Even those that are formally registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have seen their monthly stipends drop from approximately $22 to $15, and now approximately $7. It breaks your heart when an elderly woman on a wheelchair tells you she’s lost all her relatives and is in the camp all by herself, and another refugee mother says she escaped the conflict with one of her three children as gun fights raged in her village, and till today doesn’t know the whereabouts of her other two children. And we learned that these are even the lighter cases. Many other refugees are not yet registered with UNHCR and so are extremely vulnerable as they squat around and scrub by, however best they can. The circumstances of their daily survival are very hard and could be traumatizing for the fainthearted.
From your discussions with some of the refugees, what will it take for them to return to Cameroon?
To a person, when asked, the refugees said they would love for the armed conflict to end and for peace and justice to prevail, so they don’t have to again face the same circumstances that provoked their departure from their homes, villages, towns or cities of origin. It again reminded me of how much political will and commitment would be needed to restore a sense of safety and security for each of these individuals, and how much physical and human rebuilding would be needed to repair a broken people. I have serious doubts that the powers that be and those commandeering and prosecuting this war fully grasp the magnitude of the consequences of their decisions and actions.
How concerned are the refugees about their own security and were you able to discuss with any Nigerian authorities during the visit?
Refugees registered with UNHCR and living in settlements or camps feel pretty secure; but they are tens of thousands of others, including young girls, women and children in host communities or in big cities like Abuja, Calabar, and Uyo, whose vulnerabilities are aggravated just by who they are, and that is extremely dangerous. We met representatives of host communities in some of the settlements and thanked them profusely for their hospitality and humanism, and for facilitating peaceful coexistence between the refugees and host communities who, incidentally, also have material needs of their own. We ran into a few officials from the Emergency Management Agency at the state level (SEMA), and I do plan on the next trip to meet state governors and other higher ups, first to appreciate what they’ve done so thus far, and then to see what more could be done to alleviate the suffering and dire needs of the refugees.
Has the trip changed your perception about the crisis and what needs to be done to get a lasting solution?
This trip only reinforced my position expressed on multiple occasions since the beginning of the crisis that has now morphed into an armed conflict, which is: that the grievances raised by Anglophones or the people of the North West and South West regions, or of the former Southern Cameroons, are legitimate and need to be addressed and tackled politically. This conflict will not be resolved militarily; on the contrary, a military approach only causes more death and destruction and further hatred and resentment. On top of the legitimate grievances that existed prior to 2016, we now see superimposed, the pain and suffering and other hardship of the millions impacted by four years of warfare, either because they’ve lost loved ones and / or property, or have become internally displaced persons or refugees.
Many continue to wonder why the international community remains so aloof, why the Cameroon Anglophone crisis is being trivialized when the consequences are so devastating?
Countries such as the United States and Canada have been outspoken about the need to end the fighting and find a negotiated resolution of the conflict, and should be commended for their stance. Others haven’t seen fit to urge the government of Cameroon to do more to end the killings and atrocities and address the grievances raised, and that’s disheartening but not surprising. World history is replete with names of leaders who passively sat on the fence in the face of killings and mass atrocities. Despite the ‘NEVER AGAIN’ pledge after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, despite the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect, the passivity and indifference of some major international partners is mind norming. It is extremely painful to see some of such leaders hide behind bureaucracies and short term personal privileged relationships as a pretext not to act in the face of ongoing killings, atrocities and sheer injustice. History will not judge them kindly.
With the Biden/Harris administration now in charge in the United States, how could their approach to the Anglophone crisis be different from the Trump years?
I believe that when US President Joe Biden states that human rights and democracy will be central pillars of his foreign policy, including towards Africa, that entails paying closer attention to the ongoing conflict and finding ways to contribute to an end of the fighting and to obtain a negotiated resolution of the root causes. President Joe Biden’s nomination of a new ambassador (pending Senate confirmation) who knows Cameroon well is a good start. Moreover, the United States Senate by a bipartisan Resolution 684 adopted January 1, 2021, also took a tough stance in appealing to the international community to work collaboratively to bring the conflict to an end. The Senate resolution also calls for targeted sanctions against perpetrators of violence and other measures that can help bring an end to the conflict. There’s reason to be hopeful now that greater attention would be paid to this conflict from both the Biden administration and the US Congress. They must act quickly and boldly to stop more lives being lost and further aggravation of the conflict.
How complicated could things be going forward with the absence of key Anglophone voices such as Chief Mukete and Cardinal Tumi?
Irrespective of their political inclinations, Anglophone Cameroonians have lost two icons in Chief Mukete and Cardinal Tumi. It is very sad to see them transition to eternity while this conflict rages on, with the Anglophone minority that willingly joined the Republic of Cameroon in 1961, now confronted with an existential threat for present and future generations. May their souls rest in perfect peace.
As you are aware, the ongoing conflict touches on the very foundation of today’s Cameroon, and personalities such as Chief Vfon Mukete and Cardinal Christian Tumi who had played some role in the reunification process in the late 1950s / 1960s developed, on top of everything else, a sentimental attachment to the resulting nation-state.They were therefore moderating voices par excellence, and their passing from the scene leaves behind a younger generation of Anglophones who may be less inclined to embrace a nation they did not help conceive or deliver, and in which they don’t see a future for themselves. Similarly, as more senior Francophone leaders of Paul Biya’s generation exit the scene, we could be left in the not-too-distant future with a younger generation on both sides with little or no attachment to a union whose iniquities have been exacerbated by decades of marginalization and four years of brutality and war. We all, including international partners, have a vested interest in negotiating a peaceful resolution to this conflict, sooner rather than later.
Does the Fomunyoh foundation have any plans for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Cameroon?
So far, the Foundation, through its offices in Bamenda and Kumba, has made humanitarian contributions to various vulnerable groups, and will strive to do more in the months ahead. Given the approximately 800,000 IDPs generated by the conflict, one of the greatest things the Foundation can do is continue to lend its voice to those advocating for an end to the conflict and mediated support in addressing the root causes so millions of impacted citizens can regain their lives and sense of normalcy, with peace and social justice, and a future that inspires hope and dignity. I plan to continue to do that.