The longer the Cameroonian “Anglophone Crisis” goes on, the more deeply-entrenched the bitterness among citizens becomes.
I spent part of June in Cameroon where I observed, learnt, and tried to make sense of the nationwide impact of the on-going Anglophone Conflict. Unlike last year when I was all over the place, this time friends advised that I not go to the Anglophone regions because there the conflict has degenerated into kidnap for ransom, vicious killings, score-settling, and the practice of “short-sleeve,” or “long-sleeve,” a brutal form of torture used in the Sierra Leonean and Liberian wars. [[i]]
Rather my attention was focused on trying to understand the impact of the crisis on Douala and Yaoundé, Cameroon’s economic and political capital respectively, and the nation’s largest cities. Friends and relatives visited with me in those cities. “People in the Anglophone region are suffering,” they repeatedly said, adding that the world seems to have forgotten them. They were right. At a maximum hour of need, global attention has shifted away from the Anglophone Crisis. The region remains a very dangerous place. Nightly gunshots and killings are routine. Each day, there are new stories of torture. Each day, locals wonder when all these will end.
Going into its fourth year, the Anglophone Crisis has had a nationwide impact. Cameroonians in other parts of the country are feeling the effect of the crisis. A visit to the central market in Douala was revealing. There are shortages and prices of foodstuff such as tomatoes, plantains, cocoyam, and bananas have skyrocketed because those goods are no longer coming from the Anglophone regions. [[ii]] The impact of the Crisis is felt at every level. A fundamental question, which must be asked, is: What will Cameroon be without its English-speaking regions and people? At the University of Yaoundé I, a leading professor and administrator noted that the crisis has had an impact on university-level education, stating that while they support the administration, the time has come for the president to have a genuine dialogue to resolve the crisis. “No more games,” he concluded.
The Anglophone Crisis has deepened the divide in the country. In Yaoundé when our bus rented from an Anglophone travel agency as shown by its name and license plate pulled into a fuelling station people there shouted: “Go buy petrol for Buea,” “People for here no de go Kumba,” “We no want Amba for here,” and so on. It was the typical anti-Anglophone street rant by Francophones, yet this time the context was different. Anglophones based in Yaoundé nursed feelings of nostalgia, uncertainty, and fear. [[iii]] The crisis has created more tension and deepened the divide in the country. And, unfortunately, media outlets including Cameroon Radio and Television rarely focus on those challenges. The celebration of Cameroon as “Africa in miniature” with superb cultures may turn out to be among the nation’s biggest challenges. [[iv]] Unlike other African nations, Cameroon is not bound together by a common language, religion, or culture. The Anglophone Crisis brought awareness to this problem.
Along with other national security challenges, the Anglophone Crisis has taken its toll. The City of Yaoundé, for example, once a vibrant forward-looking metropolis, way ahead of other cities in the continent, has fallen behind. The wheels of progress in that city seemed to have gone flat. Things are more disorganised, with trash lying all over the place, major streets filled with potholes, dead bulbs on streetlights go un-replaced, and so on. There is a general sense of decay. When asked why things are the way there are, the typical response is: “Ça ne va pas.” The state of the City of Yaoundé reflects the various crises in the country.
Internally displaced persons
An important and perhaps not well-covered topic is the category of people now known as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). These are people who escaped from the violence created by the Anglophone conflict to Francophone Cameroon. While some relocated to safer Anglophone areas such as Limbe, the bulk of the IDPs ended up in the major cities of Douala, Yaoundé, Bafoussam, and Nkongsamba. In Douala they are crowded in the neighbourhoods of Bonaberi, Elf, Ndokoti, Bonamoussadi, and Mabanda. Yaoundé is no different where they are in Biyemassi, Mendong, Essos, Obili, and Melen.
The conflict, indeed, depopulated communities in the Anglophone region. While exact figures of IDPs are non-existent, estimates put the numbers in the hundreds of thousands. [[v]] Many relocated from the towns of Kumba, Bamenda, Buea, Mamfe, and several local communities. They are angry, frustrated, and in pain. Many are resigned to their faith. While some see themselves as the true victims of the conflict, others consider their condition as temporary. The conflict dramatised the magnitude of injustice in the country.
They provided terrifying accounts of why they escaped from the Anglophone region, and the challenges they face in their new location. Each story was decisive. One lady, in her late twenties, and a former high schoolteacher in Bamenda, noted a member of the Ambazonia “boys” came to her class disguised as one of the students. He wore the school uniform and sat quietly in the back. At the end of the class the student approached her with a warning: “why are you coming to school? You must obey our orders. I know you…. I know where you live…This is the only warning you will get.” It was nerve-racking, she said, more especially as some of her colleagues had already been tortured. For a moment she considered escaping into the bush but decided to get out of the region. “Those boys do not joke,” she said. She packed-up a few belongings, left her child with family, and headed to Douala. She imagined it would be a temporary move but already in her second year in town, she has doubts about returning to Bamenda. She has applied for several jobs but is still to be invited for a single interview. Her life, she said, has been turned upside down. At times, she cries, noting God will guide her through the hard times.
Her story was typical of the IDPs I spoke with. Many who had never gone far away from their hometown now live in Douala and Yaoundé. “Things are not moving,” they stated. Survival in the big city entails much, and while some have delved into petit trading, others have ended-up in prostitution and other vices. It is a loss of innocence of a generation. They were uprooted from the life they knew, from the tranquillity of their community, and their present is bleak, and their future is uncertain.
To many, things may get a lot worse before the tide is turned. Another lady noted that in Douala she has been forced to do what she never imagined just to make it. In Yaoundé, IDPs are homeless sleeping wherever they could find space. They blame [President Paul] Biya for their problems noting the crisis is a result of “human wickedness and greed,” adding they will be no breakthrough crisis until he rescinds his declaration of war he made on Anglophones. Another was blunter: “Biya has destroyed Cameroon,” adding that is why secession is justified. Despite the complaints, most stated that enough was enough and were prepared to return to their home.
A tale of two nations
At the Bois d’Ebenne Restaurant in Yaoundé, members at our table, all from different parts of Cameroon engaged in an interesting discussion about the impact of the conflict. With a life band, Bois d’Ebenne was a good place to relax. [[vi]] On that day, the band was at its best playing tunes from famed musicians such as Lady Ponce, Davido, Eboa Lottin, and more. When a member of the group from Kumba ordered a Brasseries drink, another asked when he last had one. Because of the conflict, Brasseries products were banned in Kumba and other parts of English-speaking Cameroon. The exchange opened the door to a larger conversation about the impact of the conflict on the way of life in the Anglophone region. Bois d’Ebenne, with all its ambiance was typical of evening life in Cameroon but the conflict robbed the Anglophone region of such places.
In the pre-conflict days, the Anglophone region was the site of nightlife, cabaret, clubs, dance parties, and the outdoors. People went to Seme Beach [[vii]], Saddle Hill Ranch [[viii]], and other resorts. The Mount Cameroon Race, which attracted people from all over the world, is now very sparsely attended [[ix]]. In short, the conflict has cost the Anglophone region a key part of its culture. The same situation applies to education. While students in Francophone schools worry about their studies and other extra-curricular activities, those in Anglophone schools worry whether there will be gunshots in their community. There is more. In Francophone Cameroon, while people went around freely, life in Anglophone Cameroon is restricted by one curfew after another. It is truly a tale of two nations in one.
The way forward
The Anglophone Crisis has taken a toll, and President Biya’s one-track military solution has only intensified the crisis. Surprisingly, the regime has ignored perhaps the simplest request from Cameroonians that President Biya goes on television and speaks directly to the people. From day one they have been waiting to hear from him. His long silence and absence from the public has people questioning whether he is in-charge. While Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute delivered a message to the region about the possibility of dialogue [[x]], the reversion to military attacks soon after that created doubts about the sincerity of the message. The longer the crisis goes on, the more deeply-entrenched the bitterness becomes. Already some are talking about the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission.
Let an IDP have the last word: “Cameroon is as beautiful as the colours of the rainbow, and its leaders must have a passion for honesty, compassion, and respect for human dignity.”
*Julius A. Amin is Professor and Alumni Chair in Humanities, Department of History, The University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, United States of America.
[i]https://www.amazon.com/s?k=coulter+chris%2C+bush+wives+and+girls&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_nossaccessed on 14 July 2019
[ii]https://cameroonpostline.com/economy-losing-billions-due-to-anglophone-crisis/accessed on 14 July 2019
[iv]https://cameroontourismlink.wordpress.com/cameroon-africa-in-minature/accessed on 14 July 2019
[v]https://www.iom.int/news/nearly-200000-internally-displaced-cameroon-iomaccessed on 14 July 2019
[ix]https://www.africanews.com/2019/02/22/mount-cameroon-race-of-hope-2019/accessed on 14 July 2019
[x]https://newscentral.ng/anglophone-crisis-cameroons-pm-says-government-is-ready-for-dialogue/accessed on 14 July 2019