Children losing lives in Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict
By Rebecca Tinsley
A year ago, a massacre in a school in Kumba brought rare international attention to Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict. At the time, it was hoped that the slaughter of seven students in classrooms might jolt the warring parties into re-evaluating their tactics. Yet, two weeks ago in the same region of South West Cameroon, five-year-old Carolaise Ndiale was shot by a Cameroon gendarme who allegedly was trying to extort a bribe from the vehicle in which she was traveling to school. As reported in Pan African Visions, onlookers had so little faith in the country’s legal system, they arrested and killed the gendarme on the spot.
The 2020 Kumba massacre is back in the news because four individuals have recently been found guilty and sentenced to death after a military trial. However, some Cameroonians and Human Rights Watch in its report about the proceedings, are doubtful that those convicted are the true perpetrators.
Meanwhile, the right to an education is still a pawn in the struggle between the Cameroon authorities and armed separatists fighting for an independent country they call ‘Ambazonia.’ Caught in the middle are hundreds of thousands of students who must respect the separatists’ restrictions on school or face the consequences. Although the Cameroon government committed itself to protecting schools, many parents see no evidence that their children will be safe attending or even getting to school. In August, for instance, an eight-year-old pupil was killed by a stray bullet as military and separatist fighters clashed.
The killing of Carolaise points to the pervasive sense of impunity now prevailing in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. International human rights watchdogs decry the normalization of violence, impunity for human rights violations and atrocities, lack of accountability for perpetrators, and the absence of justice for victims. As Cameroon’s defence and security forces enter their fifth year of battling armed groups, which are increasingly sophisticated in their weaponry, the conflict shows no signs of abating.
There are no reliable estimates of the numbers of children or other unarmed civilians killed or wounded, although groups such as the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (CHRDA) document incidents as they occur. Certainly, hundreds of villages have been partially destroyed, causing massive internal displacement as people fled their homes and farms to escape the violence. Thousands of families struggle as they now live in the bush for months and years, putting the welfare of a generation of Anglophone children in peril. Others have fled to Nigeria and across oceans, with kids facing the unknown.
On the day Carolaise was shot to death, Cameroon was re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the 2022-2024 term. The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect commented that Cameroon has “a history of violating human rights and perpetrating atrocities at home.” This track record stands in contrast to the UN’s stated values, and would seem to be at odds with the Human Rights Council mandate. Civil society groups have called for Cameroon to be suspended from the UN Human Rights Council, in addition to the Commonwealth and La Francophonie, a grouping of countries with historic ties to France.
On October 28, Cameroon External Relations Minister Mbella Mbella summoned the diplomatic community in Yaounde to a meeting at which he discouraged them from interfering in the conflict. Mbella Mbella reminded diplomats of the ‘special status’ accorded to the Anglophone regions after the government’s Major National Dialogue. Yet, civil society and thought leaders argue that the special status is cosmetic and insufficient to tackle the constitutional issues at the heart of the conflict, with atrocities continuing.
Local human rights organizations have repeatedly called on the government of Cameroon, the armed separatist groups, and the international community to work together with civil society and faith groups to resolve the Anglophone Crisis, beginning with a temporary cessation of hostilities and third-party-mediated peace negotiations. Civil society activists argue that the ‘Anglophone Problem’ is a political issue requiring a political solution, rather than guns, atrocities, extrajudicial killings, and the imprisonment of political opponents, journalists, and lawyers. Attempts by Switzerland to broker talks are still being met with resistance, particularly from the Cameroon government of President Paul Biya; and so has the Vatican’s offer of assistance.
Calls for consequences
Under the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, to which Cameroon is a party, the government has a duty to act when a minority group under its sovereignty faces persecution. However, the UN has failed to invoke the doctrine in the case of Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict. In June this year, the United States announced visa restrictions against individuals on all sides who are blocking progress toward peace, and there are calls for other countries to enact similar sanctions aimed at securing a ceasefire and participation in inclusive negotiations.
Activists have called for the postponement of International Monetary Fund disbursements to Cameroon until the government participates in credible peace negotiations. They have also called for further curbing of military aid, military training assistance, or military equipment sales to a government that abuses human rights. However, Cameroon has yet to earn international pariah status partly because it has been aiding the international community in its fight against Islamist insurgents in the Lake Chad region. In addition, President Biya has been careful not to antagonize other African leaders or international partners. Hence there has been no move to exclude the government of Cameroon from multilateral forums, although increasingly many wonder whether this rationale can hold for much longer.
Believers in peace and justice may take some comfort from the recent legal judgment in Frankfurt, Germany, in which Universal Jurisdiction was used to prosecute an individual for crimes against the Yezidis committed outside of Germany. Various countries may soon think of similarly prosecuting Cameroonian military and armed group leaders for command responsibility of atrocity crimes committed on Cameroonian soil. Less encouraging though, is the knowledge that, so far, even atrocities against children in Anglophone Cameroon have merited but little sustained international condemnation.
School children will likely continue losing their lives unless the perpetrators of violence on all sides are effectively punished. Perhaps such punishment will ultimately bring all sides to sit together and work out a peaceful resolution of this senseless war.