Since October 2016, growing secessionist sentiment has been brewing in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions. What originally began as a protest movement by legal practitioners and teachers using the English language, claiming that the majority French-speaking administration was discriminating against them on linguistic grounds, has gained momentum and escalated into violent confrontation between security forces and protesters, as well as armed attacks on government targets. A symbolic unilateral declaration of independence or the government’s reticence to engage in a constructive dialogue suggests the trend will continue over the next year.
- October 2016: Teachers and lawyers rally against perceived cultural and linguistic discrimination
- 10 August 2017: Significant arms cache discovered, including semi-automatic weapons
- 22-28 September 2017: The government imposes curfew and orders closure of border with Nigeria after three bomb attacks the previous day and large-scale protests
- November 2017: Several police and military are killed in a series of attacks by unidentified assailants
Going back to the start…
On 1 October 1961, the English-speaking Southern Cameroons, a former British Mandate territory in west Africa, became an integral part of the predominantly French-speaking and newly independent Republic of Cameroon. Fifty-six years later, secessionist organisations in the English-speaking regions of Northwest and Southwest declared independence from Cameroon, following large marches in the cities of Bamenda and Buéa, the respective regional capitals of Northwest and Southwest. The new hypothetical state is called Ambazonia. Although the announcement was not the first of its kind – other groups have called for independence since 1994 – nor supported by any effective control of territory (a precondition to full independence) it highlighted the increasingly fraught relations between the Anglophone Cameroon and the French-speaking central government. As A2 Global warned last December, should the government fail to address some of the grievances highlighted by the English-speaking lawyers and teachers, the protest movement would expand and intensify.
The central government, based in the capital Yaoundé, has done the opposite. It has clamped down hard on secessionist activity in the area, with around 100 protesters and officials having been killed since last year by security forces who have used live ammunition to disperse some rallies. It has also refused to engage in any constructive dialogue or debate relating to some secessionist calls for a federalisation process.
In August and September, the independence movement marked a new turn, with several deadly attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and arson targeting law enforcement and military personnel in the area. These occurred one month after security forces discovered a significant arms cache in the town of Mbengwi, 24km west of Bamenda. While the exact details of the arms discovered remain unclear, the communications ministry has reported that among the items seized were semi-automatic firearms, night-vision devices, significant amounts of ammunition and plans of how to manufacture IEDs using a series of different kinds of chemicals, including ammonium nitrate. The exploitation of a laptop which was also seized at the scene revealed the presence of electronic files containing information on the manufacturing of improvised explosive devices and a map unveiling the hidden units of the Southern Cameroon Liberation Movement.
Although the various attacks using IEDs, bladed weapons and arson are not supported by the larger civil-society organisations pushing for independence or federalism, they indicate growing exasperation with the inaction and hard line of the central government, a trend which is likely to continue in the absence of tangible agreement. Over the next year, ahead of presidential elections due in October 2018, secessionist political mobilisation is likely to continue intensifying and attacks on government targets are likely to multiply. Government authorities are likely to impose further restrictions on the freedom of movement or assembly by closing access to online internet services, or through state-of-emergency measures or curfews, as it did at the end of September and early October after several IED attacks in the city of Bamenda, the provincial capital of Northwest.
The Anglophone regions’ strategic importance
Part of the government’s hard crackdown on secessionist activists could stem from the regions’ strategic importance to the national economy, including significant agribusinesses and cement works, as well as the country’s only oil refinery. They also host important transnational infrastructure, have access to the Atlantic Ocean and are home to a fifth of the country’s population. However, the regions remain under-developed compared to some French-speaking southern regions.
Cameroon is the fifth-largest cocoa producer in the world, with most cocoa plantations being located in the southern parts of the country, including in Southwest. While the region is not the main centre of the country’s cocoa production, it does contain significant cocoa plantations in its far-western parts, near the border with Nigeria. Other cash-crops grown in the area include palm oil and rubber. Palm nut plantations for biofuel are particularly prevalent in Southwest, where the bulk of national production is located.
The port of Limbe in Southwest is also home to the country’s only oil refinery, which is operated by the state-owned Société Nationale de Raffinage (Sonara). Although in recent years the refinery has lost some of its strategic importance – it was initially set up to refine the lighter Arabian light crude oil, but Cameroon’s reserves contain a heavier version of the black gold – it remains strategic to the economy, processing crude oil from other oil-producing countries nearby, including Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria. More recently, U.K.-based consortium Joule Africa announced in October that it had entered an agreement with the government to construct a USD1 billion 45MW hydropower plant in the locality of Kpep near the border with Nigeria. The plant would improve energy supply to the national grid, which could favour economic development once the project has reached completion in about four years’ time. Important cross-border transport links also transit Southwest, including paved sections of the Lagos-Mombasa Highway and railway links from the port city of Douala in the southern Littoral region to the city of Kumba, the main trading centre in the country for palm oil and cocoa. The rail link is currently being upgraded by Bolloré Africa Logistics Cameroun, a subsidiary of French infrastructure engineering firm Bolloré Group. Both these links are likely to become strategic in the coming years, as the concession of the Kribi deep sea port – the first of its kind in central Africa – was finally signed in July this year after several delays, and Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the construction project will be rolled out in coming years.
In addition to their strategic potential, Northwest and Southwest have also grown to become political strongholds for the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the main opposition party, which was formed in Bamenda in 1991. After presenting a serious challenge to the power of President Paul Biya in presidential elections in 1992 – the SDF garnered 36 per cent of the vote against the incumbent’s 40 per cent according to official results – the party’s influence in national politics has dwindled in the past two decades, amid election boycotts and repeated allegations of vote-rigging against Biya. However, the SDF’s support has remained strong in the English-speaking regions.
It appears almost certain that without any tangible steps towards reconciliation between regional actors and the central government, violent protests and armed attacks against government targets are only likely to increase over the next six months. Should that be the case, the government is likely to impose further restrictive measures on the freedom of movement or assembly, and maintain a high military presence in the restive areas…