November 1, 2018

IntelBrief: Armed Separatist Violence Drives the Humanitarian Crisis in Cameroon

Pedestrians walk past an election campaign billboard of Cameroon Incumbent President, Paul Biya, at Mokolo Market in Yaounde, Cameroon (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba).
  • On October 22, Cameroon’s presidential election results were announced and President Paul Biya won a seventh term as president and will serve a seven-year term in office.
  • Several violent separatist groups have formed in the region and seek an independent state, while violent clashes have occurred between the French-speaking majority and the English-speaking minority.
  • The majority of violent separatist attacks have targeted Cameroon’s security forces, but civilians, schools and state-owned companies have also been attacked. Cameroon’s security forces have responded indiscriminately, and often with a heavy-hand.
  • There is a growing humanitarian crisis in the Anglophone region, with between 160,000 and 300,000 people displaced and 600 killed, including 160 members of the security forces. Approximately 30,000 Cameroonians have fled to Nigeria as refugees.


On October 22, Cameroon’s election results announced that octogenarian President Paul Biya had won his seventh term in presidential elections, extending his presidency for another seven years. The vote took place amid growing sectarian conflict in the Anglophone west of the country. Biya’s opponents called for protests and a re-run of the election amid allegations of fraud. A significant number of Cameroonians in the north and west of the country did not vote because of security concerns. Throughout Biya’s previous terms in office, he has faced both domestic and international criticism that he has concentrated power among the majority French-speakers, neglecting the English-speaking minority in the Anglophone region. Biya’s re-election appears unlikely to herald a de-escalation of the current sectarian crisis, meaning there will be more displacement and a growing humanitarian crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone region.

For years, the Anglophone minority has argued that it is oppressed and lacks equal rights. After decades of seeking a peaceful path to a separate nation, in early 2016, lawyers, teachers and others began protests calling for English to be used in schools and in courtrooms. This unrest was violently suppressed by government forces. Since then, several different violent separatist groups have formed in the Anglophone region. In early October 2017, these groups symbolically announced the independence of Ambazonia, a new state formed by English-speaking Cameroonians. The violent separatist movement is fractured and there is little reliable information on the size and capabilities of each group, with some likely operating as self-defense militias. But the most well-known and active is the Ambazonia Defense Front, which according to its leader, is comprised of 1,500 members spread across Anglophone Cameroon.

Over the past year, the lion’s share of separatist violence, much of which goes unattributed, was directed against Cameroon’s security personnel, including kidnapping and armed attacks. However, violent separatist groups have also attacked civilians and state-owned government buildings and there have been reports of violence against schools and teachers, as groups look to enforce a boycott of government-run schools in the Anglophone region. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said that over 40 schools have been targeted in violence. On September 3, seven students and their teacher were kidnapped in Bafut, in northwest Cameroon. Over the past year, the scale and diversity of these attacks have moved across both northwest and southwest Cameroon. Reports indicate that the separatist groups have begun to use home-made bombs, which included targeting a police station in the northwest. In late September, separatists attacked a prison and freed approximately 100 prisoners.

This violence in Anglophone regions has led to an aggressive and heavy-handed response from Cameroon’s military, with state forces shooting at civilians from helicopters and burning villages. Between September 29 and October 3, 2018, the government implemented a state of emergency and martial law. This was accompanied by widespread violence, arrests and looting by military and the police, which included violently dispersing a peaceful protest. A combination of separatist violence and heavy-handed government retaliation has created a growing humanitarian disaster. Most reliable accounts indicate that somewhere between 160,000 and 300,000 people are currently displaced, with 600 killed, including 160 members security forces. Approximately 30,000 Cameroonians have fled to Nigeria as refugees, which is struggling with its own issues, including the terrorist group Boko Haram.

Prior to the election, and following international pressure, the government had implemented some concessions to the Anglophones, which included more English-speakers in the cabinet and the implementation of the National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. If the crisis is to be defused, President Paul Biya will likely have to grant more power to the affected Anglophone regions, whether through federalism or devolution, in addition to providing more opportunities for English-speakers in the Anglophone region. Without these steps, based on current trends in the Anglophone region, the violence seems likely to spread and intensify, with separatist groups potentially growing more professional and coordinated in their aims, which will result in more violence and displacement affecting ever-increasing number of civilians throughout West Africa, already beset by growing security concerns from an increasing presence of the so-called Islamic State.


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