On September 22, protests across the Anglophone regions saw participation rates in the mid-thousands. Security forces responded in force, killing some 17 protesters while employing live fire to disperse the crowds and commencing helicopter-borne patrols over Bamenda and Buea. Subsequently, on October 1, Anglophones activists, led by the separatist Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC), took to the streets, defying a ban on political manifestations to symbolically declare “Ambazonia’s” independence. Approximately eight people were killed also by live fire employed by security forces during these protests.
On October 3 an IED detonated near a police station in Bamenda, in Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwestern Region. The blast failed to cause casualties, and authorities found and defused an additional IED planted nearby. On October 20, an additional IED was found in front of a school in Bamenda and was subsequently dismantled by security forces. These incidents were the latest in a string of eight similar attacks either claimed or attributed to the Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF), the armed wing of the separatist AGC organization, the most notable being on September 21 in Bamenda, a bombing which wounded three police officers.
In 1961, Southern Cameroon, until then an English-speaking British mandate, joined in federation with its French-speaking counterpart. In the aftermath, Anglophones living in the semi-autonomous region began accusing the Francophone government of systemic discrimination. These grievances soon devolved to a protracted civil rift when in 1972 a new constitution replaced the federal state with the Republic of Cameroon, a more centralized unitary state dominated by the French-speaking majority. In 1994, Anglophone representatives issued the “Bamenda Declaration”, warning that should the federal state not be reinstated within a reasonable timeframe, Southern Cameroons would assert its independence from the Republic of Cameroon.
The bombings come in the wake of a civil disobedience campaign which initially began in October-November 2016, when Francophone judges were appointed to the Anglophone region. The appointment inflamed longstanding concerns over the encroachment of French on English-speaking courts and classrooms, prompting civil society groups to organize street demonstrations and “dead city” strikes across western Cameroon. Police cracked down on these protests, arresting hundreds while continuing to apply harsh means against labor strikes, including government-initiated internet disruptions, which persisted throughout 2017.
Assessments & Forecast
The recent spate of bombings underline the growing rift between the francophone Cameroonian state and its anglophone citizens. In recent weeks, the latter have mobilized under a decidedly more separatist banner than in previous protests. Demonstrations back in February saw some unrest, but ultimately sought the reinstitution of federalism rather than total secession. This shift is likely due to a combination of factors, with the government’s failure to adequately resolve any of its Anglophone population’s grievances being the most significant. Indeed, President Paul Biya’s administration has, apart from releasing Anglophone prisoners, introduced a “National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism”, seemingly to address Anglophone-Francophone rift, while also staking out slots for English speakers in the judiciary and recruiting hundreds of Anglophone judges and teachers.
However, these measures did little to alleviate fears of Francophone domination, especially as Yaounde maintains its perceived repressive measures in the Anglophone regions. As people in the region failed to see compelling changes that would ultimately diminish their perceived marginalization after a year of extensive social activism, notable sectors of the Anglophone public started advocating for secession rather than the reestablishment of federalism. Compounding this is the fact that while previous protests were spearheaded by civil society groups, more recent events were led by the AGC, whose armed wing, the ADF, has been implicated in the bombings. To this point, it appears that the ADF, presumably under the auspices of the AGC, had been attempting to stir unrest prior to October 1, as suggested by reports of bombings in September in an attempt to increase the Anglophone crisis’ exposition both domestically and internationally. However, the recent incidents and the casualties caused by it were likely the main trigger that prompted the spike in the protest movement’s separatist sentiments.
FORECAST: As the government continues its restrictions on freedom of movement throughout western Cameroon and maintains intermittent internet restrictions, these policies will keep tensions elevated. This, in turn, creates the conditions for additional ADF attacks, which have the potential to increase as the space for more peaceful demonstrations continues shrinking, rendering recourse to violent action. We assess that these attacks are most likely to occur in key Anglophone urban centers, especially Bamenda and perhaps in Buea as well, though the latter did not itself see any of the recent bombings. Military facilities and other assets belonging to security forces or police are particularly at risk of being targeted.
FORECAST: While the government can conceivably maintain this siege-like policy, launching crackdowns and raids on civil activists while keeping its anglophone citizenry under a raft of physical and cyber restrictions, this may prove not to be tenable solution, as the economic cost of maintaining intermittent internet disruptions has already proven significant. Back in January, when the government initially cut-off the internet, over 700,000 USD worth of tax revenue was reportedly lost in a span of 15 days. A more recent figure showed that businesses in both English-speaking regions saw a downturn of 41 percent in private business wages since October 2016 in light of the civil unrest recorded therein. Should the political situation worsen, this figure could grow, particularly jeopardizing the emerging high tech industry around Buea, commonly known as Cameroon’s “Silicon Mountain”. Given Paul Biya’s stubborn stance against any concessions towards federalism, as Cameroon’s unitary character has historically represented a distinct source of his power’s legitimacy, the economic constraints arising from the conflict are poised to continue. As such, with steadily low oil prices, and the continuation of a costly war against Boko Haram in the country’s Extreme North Region, Cameroon risks hobbling one of its most rapidly expanding markets, depriving itself of a major source of revenue.
Yaounde additionally faces the possibility of growing international criticism. Following the most recent protest deaths, the US issued an admittedly formulaic rebuke, calling the government’s behavior “unacceptable” while urging calm and dialogue, also notably equating internet access with human rights and freedom of expression. The crisis has also captured the attention of regional and international actors, including prominent international humanitarian organizations who on October 13 cited “inhuman conditions” at detention facilities where Anglophone activists, arrested during demonstrations, are kept, going so far as to call them “human rights violations”. However, African bodies, most importantly the African Union (AU), have remained silent on the issue. Indeed Cameroon is part of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), a regional body formed by countries known for questionable human rights records, including Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea and Chad.
FORECAST: Overall and given Cameroon’s importance insofar as containing the Boko Haram insurgency, in the near future, foreign observers are liable to issue little more than tepid condemnation towards the Anglophone crisis. As such, the lack of regional accountability provides Younde with sufficient leeway to implement hardline policies vis-a-vis the Anglophone regions, which Biya will likely capitalize on despite the economic damage, due to his personal political interest in maintaining a unified Cameroon. In this context, the situation in western Cameroon is poised to fester, with the continuation of social unrest and potential for further ADF bombings representing a distinct possibility in the coming weeks and months.
Travel to Douala and Yaounde can continue while adhering to heightened security precautions regarding armed criminal activity. Those operating or residing in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions are advised to maintain heightened vigilance, while avoiding all travel to planned and ongoing public political manifestations and protests given the distinct possibility of unrest.