A botched decolonization: inside Cameroon’s civil war

In Cameroon, civil war is brewing along linguistic lines. Its origins lie in the botched decolonization of the country’s anglophone territory, but President Paul Biya’s repressive regime has poured fuel on the fire. Lorraine Mallinder reports.

Lucy speaks of her last day in her village of Mbonge with arresting clarity. The 64-year-old was cooking plantains to sell by the roadside when soldiers came sweeping in to root out separatist rebels known as Amba Boys. She remembers the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns and the screams of villagers scattering ‘helter-skelter’ – many fleeing to the bush, shot in the back as they ran. ‘Whosoever the bullets met, the people died,’ she says.

Mbonge is in Cameroon’s anglophone southwest. The soldiers were with the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), an elite Israeli- and US-trained corps deployed by the francophone regime to crush an anglophone uprising in the northwest and southwest regions. In Douala, a port city just over the border from anglophone Cameroon, countless people who have fled the conflict tell similar stories: of security forces shooting indiscriminately, torching homes and sometimes entire villages in their determination to snuff out the separatist threat.

Some call it the ‘anglophone problem’, others ‘the war’. Semantics can be blurring, but the numbers don’t lie. At least 1,600 people have lost their lives, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). Caught between government forces and the Amba Boys, nearly half a million have fled their homes, many trapped in the bush, terrified of returning to their villages but unable to seek refuge in the towns, often because they don’t have ID cards. Wary of being seen to take sides in a conflict that is becoming deadlier by the day, NGOs struggle to get food and medical assistance to those in need.

Colonel Didier Badjeck, chief of army communications, terms the regime’s actions as ‘legitimate defence’. The military, he claims, is targeting the Amba Boys – the nickname a reference to the separatists’ self-declared independent state of Ambazonia – in their rural camps, minimizing the risk of civilian deaths. He accuses groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has reported on military abuses, of supporting the separatists. These groups, he says, are ‘compromising the country’s honour’.

One NGO source says otherwise. The BIR, he says, has a ‘licence to kill’. And it wields it liberally, with utter impunity.

At first sight, the musket-bearing Ambas would appear to be no match for the mighty BIR and its high-tech Israeli rifles. But the BIR and its lowlier army counterparts are unaccustomed to cat-and-mouse games of guerrilla warfare. And the mice are proving especially nimble, a rag-tag of around seven separatist militias and an unknown number of smaller cells, according to ICG, who know the dense forests like the backs of their hands. More importantly, the separatists have the support of the people, for even if they themselves have been guilty of killings and torture, anger at military excesses is reaching boiling point.

In recent speeches, President Paul Biya has paid lip service to bilingualism and decentralization, but he fails to convince. Lion Man, as his supporters call him, has not survived 36 years in power by making compromises. So confident is he of his cast-iron grip on the country, maintained through paralysing bureaucracy, entrenched patronage networks and legal witch-hunts against political opponents, that he can afford to chillax at length in Geneva every year. Meanwhile, in the sealed-off anglophone regions, the conflict rages on, far from the world’s view.

‘The way things are going now, the situation will be endless,’ says the NGO source.

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