Relations between the largely Anglophone regions of Cameroon and the country’s dominant Francophone elite have long been fraught. Over the past three years, tensions have escalated seriously and since October 2017 violent conflict has erupted between armed separatist groups and the security forces, with both sides being accused of committing human rights abuses.Jump to full report >>
The tensions originate in a complex and contested decolonisation process in the late-1950s and early-1960s, in which Britain, as one of the colonial powers, was heavily involved.
Federal arrangements were scrapped in 1972 by a Francophone-dominated central government.
Many English-speaking Cameroonians have long complained that they are politically, economically and linguistically marginalised. Some have called for full independence for the Anglophone regions.
The immediate trigger for the current crisis was the appointment of French-educated judges to courts in the English-speaking regions. Local lawyers demanded their removal and the restoration of a federal system of government.
By the end of 2016, local teachers and lawyers had launched a campaign of strikes and demonstrations. University students and other activists began to get involved too. The security forces responded heavy-handedly. The Internet and all educational institutions were closed down. In December 2016, four protesters were shot dead during protests outside a ruling party meeting in the city of Bamenda.
Tensions remained high during the first half of 2017. Then, on 1 October 2017, the anniversary of Anglophone Cameroon’s independence from the UK, Anglophone separatists in a group called the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front unilaterally declared independence. Mass demonstrations were met with force. Amnesty International estimated that at least 17 people were killed in the clashes.
In recent months, there has been an increase in the number of kidnappings in the two Anglophone regions. Ransoms are often demanded in return for release. By late May 2018, at least 50 people had been kidnapped.
Ordinary civilians are increasingly caught in the middle in what some are now describing as a ‘dirty war’. Civil society is also facing harassment, with several journalists being detained and facing what human rights groups believe to be politically-motivated charges. Meanwhile, there have also been reports of clashes between rival armed separatist groups.
At the end of May, over two dozen alleged insurgents were reportedly killed by the security forces in the town of Menka – the bloodiest clash since the violence began.
The UN estimates that around 160,000 people have been internally displaced by the crisis, with another 20,000 fleeing into Nigeria.
Presidential elections are due to take place in October 2018. President Paul Biya is likely to seek re-election and is widely expected to win again. Few impartial observers think that the election will help bring about peace. It is impossible to say how many people in the two Anglophone regions support secession.
The UK government has called on all sides to de-escalate violence and begin dialogue. The US government, which trains Cameroonian military personnel, has specifically accused the security forces of carrying out “targeted killings”.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-8331
Authors: Jon Lunn; Louisa Brooke-Holland