Cameroon’s Forgotten Civil War Is Getting Worse

Infighting among Anglophone separatists and denial by the Cameroonian government is escalating the ongoing conflict.

By R. Maxwell Bone, a writer whose reporting and analysis have been published in the New Humanitarian, African Arguments, and other publications.

Cameroonian army soldiers at a polling station in Lysoka, near Buea, southwestern Cameroon, on October 7, 2018. MARCO LONGARI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

On Nov. 12, riots broke out in the city of Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region, in response to the killing of 8-year-old Brandy Tataw by a stray bullet after a police officer fired a live round at a car that had supposedly not obeyed orders at a checkpoint.

After the killing, residents took to the streets with tree branches, a traditional symbol of peace, and expressed their outrage. The protests soon turned violent, with buildings burned and the military firing into the crowd. The scenes in Bamenda nearly mirrored those in Buea, the capital of the Southwest region, a month prior, when 5-year-old Caro Louise Ndialle was killed by security forces under similar circumstances and furious bystanders beat to death the officer who fired the fatal shot.

Weeks later, on Nov. 24, unidentified gunmen attacked a school in Ekondo Titi in the Southwest region, killing three students and a teacher. The government blamed secessionists, who in turn blamed other groups within the splintered Anglophone movement and the Cameroonian government.

The Anglophone crisis in Cameroon has escalated in recent months at the hands of all parties to the conflict. The crisis began in 2016 as peaceful protests by lawyers and teachers demanding linguistic reforms but rapidly escalated into a war of secession that has killed thousands of people and displaced over a million. To many in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, the recent killings are not new but instead a continuation of the heavy-handed techniques, corruption, and impunity demonstrated by the security forces.

In the aftermath of the killings, multiple factions of the divided separatist movement announced retaliatory measures, ranging from restarting a ban on all schooling, a controversial policy that they claim is to keep children safe but is seen by many on the ground to be a means of maintaining leverage and exerting control over the population, to calls to attack all members of the military.

These are far from the only recent escalations in the conflict. On Nov. 10, an explosive device was detonated inside a lecture hall at the University of Buea and injured 11 students. Just days before, a taxi driver was killed when his car exploded in the same city. The explosions followed widespread shock after passengers were forced out of a bus and tortured by separatist fighters, purportedly for not obeying orders to enact a “ghost town.”

The idea of a ghost town—similar to a general strike, albeit enforced—was originally a means for the civilian population to demonstrate their support for the striking lawyers and teachers, but it has come to be seen on the ground as an oppressive tool used by the Anglophone diaspora to demonstrate their control. While calls to create ghost towns have not been strictly followed in recent months, the explosions and attacks have caused a new sense of fear among the population.

These actions reflect a hardening of positions by all parties to the conflict, underscoring that it will continue unless the two sides shift their focus from zero-sum approaches, denials of the conflict’s severity, and infighting. However, actions by both parties indicate that the opposite is occurring.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the Cameroonian government has been in denial, hiding the burning of villages and attempting to blame the separatists for atrocities that it later took responsibility for. The government has attempted to unilaterally propose solutions that do not address the conflict’s root causes.

It held a national dialogue in 2019 that was boycotted by separatists, which led to the implementation of decades-old changes to the Cameroonian Constitution through regional elections held in December 2020. The opposition and many civil society groups boycotted these elections while the government continued to commit the very abuses that led to the conflict in the first place.

The government has continued this denial and taken its heavy-handed approach to the conflict even further. In October, Cameroon’s foreign minister summoned the diplomatic corps in Yaoundé, the capital, and said the government had undertaken “expensive and extensive structural and administrative reforms” to address the conflict, saying they demonstrated the government’s commitment to ending it.

In reality, the government allowed nascent peace talks with imprisoned separatist leaders to fall victim to political infighting and has continued to state that symbolic actions that do not include separatists are a sufficient means of addressing Anglophone grievances. Doing so continues to show its unwillingness to accept responsibility for allowing the crisis to escalate, its continued human rights abuses, and its refusal to engage in meaningful talks.

Recently, the government has taken its disproportionate and heavy-handed approach beyond its own borders, particularly into Nigeria.

Recently, the government has taken its disproportionate and heavy-handed approach beyond its own borders, particularly into Nigeria. Nigeria hosts more than 60,000 refugees from the conflict but has also served as a source of materials including armaments and medical treatment for separatist fighters, who take advantage of the porous border between the two countries.

While Nigeria facilitated the arrest and extradition of separatist leaders to Cameroon in 2018, an act that was later declared illegal by local courts, Anglophone Cameroonians had largely been able to live in the country with minimal interference from authorities. This situation has changed rapidly in recent months.

Anglophone Cameroonians have been facing unprecedented levels of harassment and intimidation at the hands of Nigerian authorities, including extrajudicial deportation to Cameroon, often resulting in being imprisoned and tortured once being handed over. This often takes the form of joint operations against those accused of supporting separatists but regularly leads to civilians being harassed, picked up, tortured, and deported.

In other cases, the Cameroonian military has crossed into Nigeria in search of separatist fighters, leading to complaints from Nigerian villagers about harassment and intimidation by foreign forces. When Cameroonian forces crossed into Nigeria earlier in the conflict, it led to a diplomatic standoff between Yaoundé and Abuja. Now, it seems to be done in coordination between the two. Some observers speculate this is the result of a visit by Cameroonian officials to Abuja in July, after which the Nigerian government stated it would ensure that its country was not a safe haven for separatists in Cameroon.

Some speculate that this is the result of a partnership, announced in April, between one of the major Cameroonian secessionist groups, the Ambazonia Governing Council, and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a secessionist group in Nigeria. The Cameroonian government has taken advantage of the secessionist issue in an effort to convince Nigerian officials that both governments face the same threat. Cameroonian leaders frequently mention shared security challenges along the countries’ southern border and even congratulated the Nigerian government on its arrest of IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu this year.