Tensions between English and French-speaking Cameroonians have been simmering for years. Despite English being one of the country’s official languages, Anglophone communities are being marginalized, systemically discriminated against, and economically deprived. This minority accounts for nearly 20 percent of the country’s 22 million citizens; concentrated mainly in the northwest and southwest regions of the country.
In late September, peaceful protest of English-speaking groups were met by excessive force and arbitrary detention by defense and security forces. When Anglophone secessionist groups claimed the independence of their new state, Ambazonia, on October 1, 2017, these actions only intensified. Over the course of four days, at least thirty people were killed — though local organizations estimate the number to be closer to one hundred — scores more were injured and hundreds arrested. Many disturbing reports emerged of physical and sexual abuse of those being detained. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Nigeria has since reported the arrival of more than two thousand English-speaking Cameroonians as a result of this conflagration. UNHCR is now preparing to receive up to forty thousand Cameroonians in Nigeria— a country that struggles with its own displaced populations.
Well-before the recent escalation, English-speaking Cameroonians were leaving their country in search of a better life. During Refugees International’s mission to Italy in March 2017, our researchers met an Anglophone Cameroonian couple who had made the two-month journey to Europe through Nigeria, Niger, Algeria and Libya and then across the Mediterranean. The harrowing trek through the desert left them without food or water for days at a time. When asked why they left Cameroon, the husband said that there was “no place for English [speaking] people in society.” With widespread discrimination and little employment opportunities, he and his wife left. “I [am] looking for somewhere where I won’t be marginalized. I don’t want my own children to go through marginalization,” he explained.
As support and mobilization for secession increases among Anglophone communities, the government’s escalating use of violence to quell the independence movement has reached new levels. With more and more Anglophone groups openly calling on supporters to take up arms in their struggle to achieve greater rights and gain independence, it is more crucial than ever that a political solution be reached without further delay through inclusive dialogue. Cameroon — already at war with Boko Haram and trying to reconstruct areas destroyed by this conflict — cannot fan these internal flames of conflict any further. They will only generate further conflict and violence, resulting in additional refugees fleeing this troubled country for Nigeria.
This budding crisis can still be mitigated. Concerned by the escalating violence, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres met with Cameroonian President Paul Biya on October 27. The international community, including the United States, must urge all sides to come to the table and seek a peaceful resolution to this worsening conflict and to ensure that the Anglophone minority is equally protected and integrated, including those currently suffering in Cameroonian prisons for peacefully protesting.
Should the international community fail in the endeavor to facilitate such talks, we cannot feign surprise by a further explosion in violence and bloodshed.
The blog author, Alexandra Lamarche, is the RI Advocate for Sub-Saharan Africa and Peacekeeping.
Top photo: Demonstrators carry banners as they take part in a march voicing their opposition to independence or more autonomy for the Anglophone regions, in Douala, Cameroon October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Joel Kouam