Catalonia’s bid to break away from the Spanish government made headlines around the world last October, but little attention has been paid to similar political upheavals across the African continent.
In Nigeria, Togo, Cameroon and the Western Sahara strong secessionist movements have sprung up in response to instances of repression and marginalisation. In particular, Cameroon is starting to emerge as the epicentre of rebellion with the escalating situation in the cocoa-producing nation constituting its greatest political crisis in decades.
At the end of 2016, demonstrations challenging the government’s treatment of the country’s minority Anglophone populace emerged, as lawyers opposed the increasing marginalisation of English-speaking institutions in the judiciary and education system. The government was perceived to be slowly imposing its own linguistic dominance upon Cameroon’s minority English-speaking citizens. The government’s heavy handed use of force and swift crackdown on civil liberties rapidly degenerated into a militarised conflict.
Grievances levelled at the central government date back to the colonial period in which France and Britain carved up the continent into their own territories after the Second World War. France, had control over the majority of Cameroon’s territory while Britain presided over the north east and south west regions. Over time, the French language became the predominant medium for communication across all the country’s most important institutions and in the years that followed the Anglophone regions became economically and politically deprived. The socio-economic isolation of the English speaking regions continued unabated for decades and the repercussions of colonial imposition can be seen in present day Cameroon.
Now, Anglophone insurgents spurred by the actions of the incumbent Biya regime have called for secession, pushing for the creation of a new state, the Ambazonia republic. The government, besieged by calls for independence from its Anglophone region is now combating a fierce guerrilla warfare movement that threatens to destabilise the region.
President Paul Biya – one of the longest serving heads of state in Africa – initially appeared to try to appease the north east and south west regions, in particular by appointing two politicians from English-speaking regions to top positions in the government in a cabinet reshuffle. But it seems that the stick method has come to reign supreme as a slew of human rights abuses have been documented in the past year.
Following Biya’s promise to eliminate the secessionists and the denouncement of them as terrorists, an estimated 100 people have been killed and hundreds have been reported to be in detention. Figures are predicted to be far higher than the official toll released by the government. The violence has ushered in a dire humanitarian refugee crisis. More than 30,000 civilians have fled from the north east and south west regions to the Nigerian border. Extrajudicial executions, raids of local villages and other mounting atrocities committed by security forces have been documented – breeding the conditions for an unending circle of violence.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted that extrajudicial killings may entice civilians to the secessionist cause, reporting:
“Allegations of summary executions of civilians by members of the security forces have been reported, and are generating widespread resentment”.
The bellicose actions of the Biya regime have resulted in an ever-growing insurgent movement. Various armed groups – most of whom initially responded to localised violence as a form of self-defence – have launched attacks on government forces and are now beginning to operate with the armed militias of the Ambazonia Republic: the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) and the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces.
Along the Nigerian-Cameroon border, attacks lodged at the border town have resulted in the deaths of 24 soldiers and several kidnappings of high level government officials. There is legitimate fear that Cameroon is on the precipice of a civil war.
The situation is proving to be increasingly precarious as both insurgents and military forces seem prepared to utilise belligerent tactics in an attempt to dominate the other and discontent grows every day. Some reports have indicated that even members of the security forces are joining the insurgency.
The deterioration of the political situation is but a reflection of the instability that can occur when a government responds to an intrinsic socially-embedded crisis through the use of force instead of dialogue. When compared to the ongoing situation in Catalonia interesting parallels arise.
Catalonia’s referendum was marked by an adherence to democratic due process and while the Spanish security personnel used heavy force to deal with some of the demonstrations, Catalan separatists have been elected to the regional government.
The same cannot be said for Cameroon. Anglophone separatists have been ostracised from the central government, treated as dissents and denied a political platform to voice their acute grievances. This is exacerbated by the scale of the violence on both sides.
While Catalonia was a divisive social and cultural issue that was primarily confined within the parameters of the political sphere, the separatist movement in Cameroon has created a deeply precarious security issue. The emergence of guerrilla warfare brings forth serious ramifications and has caused destabilisation beyond its own borders.
For a time, Cameroonian separatists looked to Catalonia as an example, in the hopes they could emulate a peaceful solution to their secessionist demands but ultimately Cameroon’s cultural and political context has determined their fate. It is an increasingly grim outlook for a country whose Anglophone citizens have tried and failed to exercise the basic rights that should have been granted to them by a democratic state.
The question remains as to whether the outside world has a responsibility to aid English-speaking Cameroonians in their fight against stark brutality and oppression. The international community appeared to champion the freedom of speech that thousands of Catalonians chose to exercise on the day of the referendum. With the advent of a burgeoning challenge to state authority, Cameroonians residing in the Anglophone regions are exercising the same civil liberties. But it seems that the world have adverted its gaze to an independence movement that may engulf an entire country.