In the ongoing war between separatists and the Cameroon government, there is no winner but there is a clear loser: the Cameroonian people
It is Monday morning in Bonadikombo (aka Mile 4), a sub-municipality of Limbe township, in the South West region of Cameroon. Residents awaken with gratitude for a peaceful night passed and cautious optimism for the day ahead. The usual Monday morning hustle and bustle marking the beginning of a new work week is absent here. The main road through the village is quiet, with only a few cars moving up and down. The market which should hold on Mondays (and Thursdays), is empty. There are no taxis to be seen, and the motorbike park at the market entrance is deserted, the rowdy bike riders in their yellow vests dare not be seen conducting business today. Besides, there are no passengers to carry even if they wanted to — workers and students are staying home today. The main highway leading into Limbe is equally quiet, where downtown many shops and offices, including government offices are closed.
A similar scene unfolds on Mondays in other towns and villages throughout the South West and North West, the English speaking regions of Cameroon. This weekly shutdown known as Ghost Town, is a product of the ongoing conflict between armed separatist fighters and the Cameroon government. The conflict erupted in November of 2016 when lawyers and teachers in the Anglophone regions staged protests against what they saw as an unfair expansion of French language and practices into the legal and educational systems of the English-speaking regions of the country. The protests escalated into calls for a separate state, named Ambazonia by separatist fighters who are now at war with the security forces of the Republic of Cameroon.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, from the beginning of the conflict through 2018, over 420 civilians have been killed by rebels and government security forces, and over 400,000 have fled their homes either to other areas of Cameroon or neighboring Nigeria(1). Recently there have been a spate of kidnappings of civilians by the separatists (or those claiming to be), seeking ransom. HRW also reports that dozens of homes and other structures have been burned, with evidence pointing to the security forces in some cases. Earlier this year the arch diocese of Kumbo in the North West reported that according to their records, in the span of seven months between 2018 and 2019, 385 civilians were killed and 750 structures torched(2). In typical fashion the government has denied killings of civilians and arson by its forces, and a minister recently proclaimed on television that the situation is “under control”. The truth was an early casualty in this conflict, and misinformation, propaganda and outright lies are spread through Whatsapp and other social media. Copy cat bandits claiming to be Amba boys, as the separatists are called, continue to take advantage of the situation to extort money from civilians through kidnappings and threats.
As with the loss of life and property, the civilian population is bearing the brunt of the economic impact of this conflict. Apart from waging armed war against “La Republique”, the separatist fighters have taken measures to make the impact of the movement felt by the government, economically and otherwise. One such measure is the weekly shutdown of commercial activity on Mondays. While this practice took some time to spread and is not equally severe in all areas, the work week has effectively been altered throughout English speaking Cameroon. In many schools in Limbe for example, classes no longer hold on Mondays — some schools hold Saturday classes and/or extend the school term to make up for this lost time. Some shops which normally would be closed on Sunday have altered their hours to open on Sunday in an attempt to make up for business lost on Mondays. For other establishments, changing hours is not an option and the work week has simply been shortened to 4 days. For other businesses which operate throughout the week including taxis, bikes and buses, the lost productivity and income simply will not be recouped. I spoke to a nurse who lives in Mile 4 and works at the regional hospital in Limbe — she says she and other colleagues who live outside of town no longer go to work on Mondays. The workers who live in town and can make their way to the hospital do so. This is clearly detrimental to a healthcare system which is already lacking in many ways.
Despite compliance by the general population some business owners do defy ghost town strikes. Shopkeepers shut their doors but will sit outside or in the back, waiting to sell to customers who come by. Stubborn bikers will ride without their official vests, transporting passengers within the quartiers (neighborhoods), avoiding main roads and highways. They do so however at risk of damage and violence to their property and/or persons — people who are perceived to not be in solidarity with the strike are threatened (sometimes by impostors/copycats) and may be asked to pay money as atonement.
From talking with residents of Limbe and nearby Buea, I got the sentiment that Anglophone Cameroonians generally share the grievances held by the separatists against the government, however most civilians do not support the violence and other measures of rebellion which have negatively impacted the Anglophone population. For instance, early in the conflict the separatists called for schools in the anglophone regions to be shut down, and in some areas, they kidnapped and otherwise threatened staff and students of schools which continued to operate. Attendance of boarding schools in particular dropped significantly, and some schools remain closed to this day, their students having either transferred to schools in the Francophone region or been consolidated into other schools which are still operating in the North West and South West. While government teachers continue to be paid, staff and teachers of non-operational private/mission schools have lost their income if they were not fortunate to be posted elsewhere.
In March of this year a group of student athletes (footballers) at the University of Buea were abducted during their early morning practice. They were initially stripped naked, beaten and threatened with death by their captors who identified themselves as Ambazonia separatist fighters. In a bizarre turn of events as recounted by one of the students, when the leader of the unit arrived, he chastised his soldiers for mistreating their captives, who were then subsequently fed and treated “nicely”, according to the report given. They were later released after each of their families paid a ransom(3). This is one of several incidents of kidnapping and ransom demands which have occurred between 2018 and 2019. Some are carried out by separatist fighters while others appear to be orchestrated by opportunists impersonating the fighters for their own personal gain. While the separatists are often referred to in terms of a singular movement, there appear to multiple groups organized in different regions, although the degree of collaboration among them is not clear.
While the civilian population live in fear of the Amba boys, the presence of security forces is not reassuring. The police, army and specialty forces (BIR) are a constant presence throughout the region, armed to the teeth, with numerous checkpoints set up on main roads. While their official purpose is to secure the area and protect the population, the reality of their interactions with civilians does not reflect this. As mentioned earlier, the security forces are believed to be behind the burning down of homes and other structures, along with other crimes against civilians, as described by Human Rights Watch.
When it suits them, the armed forces round up young men who are then harassed, and sometimes beaten and taken to local police stations and made to pay money for their release. Their crime may be not having an ID card on their person, or sometimes nothing at all, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At checkpoints, drivers who are stopped are sometimes made to pay bribes to the officer who may have found them to be in violation of some section of the driving code such as not having all of their paperwork (license, insurance, etc). Again, sometimes they are guilty of no violation and pay simply so they can be released and continue their journey.
On Monday March 25 of this year (a Ghost Town day), security forces in Buea went on a rampage, indiscriminately arresting young men in different neighborhoods — some were accosted while playing football, others pulled from their homes. The detained citizens, some who did not have ID cards in their possession, and others who did, were required to pay 25,000 CFA (about $43) each before they were released(4).
Extortion and violence against civilians by the security forces did not begin with the Anglophone crisis and has been an ongoing reality for all Cameroonians for decades.
It would be incorrect to interpret, as I’ve heard some do, the ongoing conflict as indication of a divide between French- and English-speaking Cameroonians. The fact that Anglophone Cameroonians may feel they have been underrepresented and marginalized should not be taken to mean that Francophone Cameroonians are privileged. One only has to take a drive through Douala, the largest French-speaking city and economic capital of the country, to know that the government is not doing the average Francophone any favors. In a country where corruption has become an accepted way of life and 37% of the population is living below the poverty line(5), it’s clear there is a bigger issue here than language. The truth is that the country is failing all Cameroonians, French and English speaking, and the only hope we can have at this point, is that this conflict will be the catalyst for a larger, much needed change.
- Human Rights Watch “Cameroon: Events of 2018”
2. Rev. Elvis Nsaikila Wanyu Njong “Kumbo Diocese documents 385 deaths in 7 months” The Horizon, April 2, 2019
3. Basil K Mbuye, “UB Footballers Narrate Nightmare In Captivity” The Post, March 25, 2019
4. Basil K Mbuye, “Buea Mass Arrests Reinforce Ghost Town” The Post, March 29, 2019
5. World Bank “Poverty & Equity Brief: Cameroon” April 2019