Introduction

Since October 2016, the conflict in the North West (NW) and South West (SW) regions of Cameroon, also referred to as the “Anglophone Crisis,” “Anglophone Struggle,” “Anglophone War,” “Anglophone Problem,’’ or “Anglophone Conflict,” has persisted and morphed into an armed conflict characterized by unprecedented violence between government forces and non-state armed groups (NSAGs), otherwise known as the “Amba Boys.” Some of the prominent NSAGs include the Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF), Southern Cameroons Defense Forces (SOCADEF), Ambazonia Restoration Forces (ARF), Red Dragons, and Tigers of Ambazonia, among several others with an estimated 4,000 fighters across the restive regions.1See International Crisis Group (ICG), “Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis: How to Get to Talks?“, Africa Report, No. 272 (2019); and Ngala, H., “Cameroonian Insurgent Groups: A Primer,” New Africa Daily, (July 2020). While many of these groups became more popular after October 2016 when peace in the region deteriorated, they simply added their voices to the existing clamor for the excision of the two English-speaking regions from the Republic of Cameroon. Unlike the previous groups that adopted peaceful means of protest, these groups have engaged in separatist armed struggle with government forces.2Simpeh Kwabena, S. ‘’The Anglophone Problem: An Analysis of the Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon’’ Conference Presentation: KAIPTC: Accra Affiliation: Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC). DO- 10.13140/RG.2.2.30078.33606.

The heavy toll exacted on civilian lives and property over the past five years has triggered multiple initiatives for peaceful conflict resolution led by national and international actors.3More about some of these reforms and initiatives by the government of Cameroon can be accessed through: Okereke, C. Nna-Emeka. “Analysing Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis.” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 10, no. 3 (2018): 8-12. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26380430. Grassroots efforts and voices have, however, been largely ignored, thereby prompting this effort at action-oriented research.4This study was conducted by a multidisciplinary and trans-geographical research team based at the Centre for Trust Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) at Coventry University, African Leadership Center, University of Buea and some grassroots-based civil society organizations (CSOs) in Cameroon. Based on a qualitative research approach, this article analyzes some grassroots perspectives and voices captured through field interviews, focus group discussions, and collage-making sessions with local populations across the Anglophone regions. It revisits some critical implications of the conflict and prospects for peacebuilding processes in the restive regions. The essay is organized into five sections. This includes the introduction, which sets the context of the study, followed by the second section, which examines the cost of the conflict, while the third discusses the challenges to ongoing peace efforts. Section four presents grassroots perspectives on how the actors involved can transcend the current stalemate and reach a sustainable solution, while the last section provides the summary and conclusion of the findings.

Causes of the conflict

It is worth recalling that federalist and separatist tendencies among some Anglophones began immediately following the alleged violation of the terms of the federal constitution adopted at the May 1961 Foumban Conference between the Republic of Cameroon and former British Southern Cameroons.5Konings, P., and Nyamnjoh, F.B. (1997) ‘The Anglophone Problem in Cameroon’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 35(2), 207-229. The 1972 referendum, which resulted in the United Republic of Cameroon, further nurtured federalist and separatist claims among Anglophone Cameroonians who continue to criticize the political move by then-President Ahmadou Ahidjo.6Ibid. In 1984, President Biya signed a decree, which changed the country’s name from “United Republic” to “The Republic” of Cameroon, the same name adopted by former French Cameroon at independence on January 1, 1960.7Ibid. These political moves by successive regimes of Ahmadou Ahidjo and Paul Biya prompted the organization of the All Anglophone Conferences (AAC I & AAC II in 1993 and 1994 respectively). The conferences ended with strong resolutions for a Federal System of government as provided for by the Federal Constitution of 1961, without which they would resort to separation.8Okereke, C. Nna-Emeka. “Analysing Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis.” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 10, no. 3 (2018): 8-12. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26380430

The failure of the Cameroon government to consider the grievances of Anglophones as articulated through the AAC I and AAC II inflamed the situation, thereby prompting the creation of movements such as the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) to champion the right to self-determination for former British Southern Cameroons.9Konings, P., and Nyamnjoh, F.B. Anglophone secessionist movements in Cameroon. In: de Vries, L, Englebert, P, Schomerus, M (eds.), Secessionism in African Politics. Aspiration, Grievance, Performance, Disenchantment (2019). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 59–89. This political and historical trajectory of Cameroon partly underlies the complexity, controversies, and complicated process rekindled by corporate demands of teachers and lawyers in October 2016.

Consequences of the conflict

The direct consequences of the persistent violence in the Anglophone regions are multifaceted. Psychological trauma, internal displacement, food insecurity, poverty, gender-based violence, economic collapse, high unemployment especially among youth, poor infrastructural development, limited access to basic services, and high rates of displacement to perceived safer regions and neighboring Nigeria are some of the consequences respondents highlighted.10During the focus group discussions and key informant interviews, many respondents stressed the issue of internal displacement and movement to Nigeria by some Anglophones under very deplorable conditions. The priority to them remains safety and security before other basic needs.

From October 2016 to date, the State of Cameroon has lost over 900 billion Central African Francs (CFA), or about 1.8 billion US dollars, due to the Anglophone conflict.11See GICAM (February 2020), GICAM White Paper on Cameroon Economy, retrieved from: https://www.legicam.cm/media/upload/2020049/gicam-livre-blanc-anglais.pdf, accessed December 8, 2021. See also: Kindzeka, Moki Edwin (September 2020), “Cameroon Says Conflict Destroying Anglophone Regions’ Economies,” retrieved from: https://www.voanews.com/africa/cameroon-says-conflict-destroying-anglophone-regions-economies, accessed December 18, 2021. Companies such as the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC) and Cameroon Palm Oil Refinery (PAMOL) recorded devastating losses.12Ibid. According to the Groupement Inter-patronal du Cameroun (GICAM) and the National Institute of Statistics (NIS), unemployment, poverty, and hardship have been at an all-time high across the Anglophone regions with a crumbling economy and stagnating infrastructural development.13Simpeh Kwabena, n.d.

Education has also been hit hard as many schools have been closed especially across rural communities, with over 800,000 pupils and students out of school despite the fact that many schools resumed for the 2021/2022 academic year.14ACAPS (19 February 2021), thematic report; Cameroon education crisis in the North West and South West regions. Retrieved from https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Baseline%20Research_Education%20in%20Crisis%20in%20the%20Anglophone%20Regions_Final.pdf, accessed on April 26, 2021. A respondent explained how seriously schools have been affected:

“The community was deeply affected at the educational level since all schools were closed with parents transferring their children to safer places where they could attend school. Parents who do not have the means to send their children to school elsewhere left them at home.”15Interview with VK, Bomaka, November 2020.

Sadly, attempts at school resumption efforts have been impacted by horrendous incidents such as the “Kumba Massacre,” in which seven students were gruesomely murdered by armed men who invaded Mother Francisca International Primary and Secondary School Kumba, SW Region on October 24, 2020.16UN News, “UN shocked and outraged over horrific attack on school in Cameroon,” October 26, 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/10/1076112. The incident was followed by several other attacks on schools, teachers, students, and pupils across these regions.

Participants also shared their views on how the conflict has affected life in and outside their communities. One participant for example noted:

“We are not free in the quarter because even now the military is in my quarter. And if you are going out with a bag, they search it. At times they ask you to give money, i.e., even after they have searched your bag, they still ask you to give something. So, the military and the “Boys” are the same. You see any of them you are afraid.”17According to a participant (R6) during FGD in Dchang, November 2020.

Others corroborated this with more disturbing experiences, especially regarding the movement of goods and persons:

“Passing through Fundong is like going ‘round the world. Moreover, you have to take a car through many checkpoints manned by the army or the “Boys” before you climb behind the car or you take a bike on stones, bad roads, and at times, you have to move on foot even though you have paid your transport fare. The transport fare has also increased.”18From a participant (R9) during FGD in Dchang, November 2020.

Given the destructive impact of the ongoing armed conflict in the region, it is important to review some of the major initiatives undertaken so far by national and international actors to address the adverse effects of the conflict.

Why hasn’t peace returned despite the initiatives from national and international actors?

The peak of the national quest for a lasting solution to the Anglophone conflict was the organization of the Major National Dialogue (MND) from September 30 to October 4, 2019 in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Among the key outcomes from this dialogue was the attribution of a “Special Status” to the NW and SW regions in consonance with Article 62(2) of Cameroon’s Constitution which states that “the law may take into consideration the specificities of certain Regions with regard to their organization and functioning.” However, as one of the respondents lamented:

Some of us attended the MND. They spoke about dialogue; dialogue has not worked in Cameroon and dialogue will not solve our problem. I mean, dialogue organized by the same party mediating and controlling the dialogue… it will not work.”19Still according to R9, Dchang, November 2020.

There has been another initiative in the form of the Special Presidential Reconstruction Plan for the NW and SW regions with international backing of development partners led by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Cameroon. Unfortunately, their impact on the resolution of the crisis has been limited.

However, many Cameroonians and analysts, especially from the Anglophone regions, have expressed mixed feelings vis-à-vis the implementation of the outcome of the dialogue and reconstruction efforts. In spite of the “promising” outcomes20Cameroon Tribune, 7 October 2019, “Major National Dialogue: Recommendations to Restore Peace, Stability and Development,” https://www.cameroon-tribune.cm/article.html/28306/fr.html/major-national-dialogue-recommendations-restore-peace-stability. of the MND, the fact that normalcy, peace, and security are yet to return to the restive Anglophone regions leaves many with more unanswered questions and doubts about the government’s real intentions:

Yes, but if the imprisoned pro-independence fighters had been included in the dialogue, things could have been different because they are at the forefront of the fight. In essence, those pro-independence fighters and leaders in prisons should be released and included in the dialogue table for the crisis to be resolved.”21Interview with YR in Muyuka, November 2020.

Hence, the challenge remains: How is it possible for peace, normalcy, and reconstruction to return to the two regions without the political will of the government and NSAGs to commit to a genuine dialogue and effective implementation of its outcomes? Participants in the study shared their perspectives regarding expectations from the government of Cameroon, NSAGs, and the international community to effectively broker peace.

Perspectives from the grassroots

Cognizant of several initiatives so far undertaken to address the Anglophone Conflict, inhabitants of these regions are yet to experience concrete indicators toward lasting peace. Hence, the grassroots populations provided the following recommendations to the government, African Union (AU), and the international community.

Government of Cameroon: Many respondents were of the view that the government has the responsibility of ensuring an immediate ceasefire and demilitarization of the conflict-plagued zones. Others insisted on the unconditional release of all those detained in connection with the crisis since 2016. Many more were of the view that government needs to commit to a more inclusive dialogue on neutral ground under the auspices of a third party. According to some of the respondents, an immediate ceasefire and a referendum (with options regarding separation, federation, or the current unitary decentralized state) is critical to any sustainable peacebuilding efforts considering that “construction and reconstruction cannot be going on in the midst of war.” One respondent opined:

“We need dialogue…We need a ceasefire; we need a referendum. Because with the ceasefire, the IDPs will come back to their villages, the refugees will return. Then a referendum…or a dialogue before a referendum, and peace will return.”22Interview with UW, in Jakiri, September 2020.

Another respondent pointed out:

“Since 2017, I stressed that to immediately solve this problem, return the two stars on the flag [the flag of the Federal Republic of Cameroon bore two yellow stars representing former British Southern Cameroons and former French Cameroon, which became West and East Cameroon respectively following the 1961 Federal Constitution]. Put back the two stars [referring to a state federation], I am a linguist, the two stars spoke of the United Republics of Cameroon. They are republics that were united…If you ask me honestly, I will tell you that we go back to the root causes…”23FGD (R9), in Dchang, November 2020.

Regional Institutions

Following the escalation of the Anglophone conflict to date, the African Union (AU) has issued statements in support of calls by other organizations like the Commonwealth for a national dialogue to seek lasting solutions to the conflict. Similarly, the AU Chairperson Moussa Fakil Mahamat visited Cameroon in 2018 and 2019 during which he emphasized the AU’s “unwavering commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of Cameroon.”24More details and analysis on the role of the African Union and international community towards peaceful resolution of the Anglophone region is presented in the following online article: https://theconversation.com/african-union-needs-a-more-robust-response-to-conflict-in-cameroon-132449, accessed on December 20, 2021 The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), however, has remained silent. During the FGDs, participants expressed the urgent need for a more proactive and assertive role by the AU and ECCAS in living up to their expectations of initiating peace talks, mediation, enforcing security, and inclusive dialogue between the warring parties. This could be facilitated by an AU-led mediation and/or conflict resolution team under its Peace and Security Council. According to a female respondent:

Like the UN, African Union, let them intervene, call for a frank dialogue. Then those people who were arrested, some of the ringleaders should also be present, they talk so that they reconcile then, both parties, let them put down their arms. Then those in the diaspora who continue to fuel this thing, let them know that people are really suffering down in the field. So, let them try to calm their boys, tell them, let people drop their arms so that peace should reign.”25FGD participant (R5), in Dchang, November 2020.

This is possible under Article four (h) of the Constitutive Act of the AU which provides for “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity…’’

Collage painting on evolution, consequences, and solutions to the Anglophone conflict. Photo: Bernard Nsai, December 2020.

International Community

Many grassroots participants called upon the international community, including the United Nations, to take a more active role in mobilizing and effectively providing the urgently needed peacebuilding interventions. As one of the participants in the FGDs noted:

“I think the United Nations should come and chair, let the people who say they want to leave, those separatists, they should sit on this side and the government of Cameroon sit on this side. Let them go back to the roots of the history; the way it was, how they want it to be. One should speak and the other too should speak and let it be the neutral body to bring a solution…26FGD participant (R8), in Dchang, November 2020.

Participants expressed the view that the international community should support the active participation of local actors in dialogue and initiatives geared towards a return to lasting peace in the Anglophone regions.27According to many participants during the FGD in Limbe, Douala and Yaoundé, November 2020. Other participants also argued that a UN Security Council Resolution (UNSC) on the conflict is necessary to ensure stakeholders commit to a dialogue process.28Mostly shared by some key informants in Buea and FGD participants in Dchang, in September and November 2020 respectively.

Conclusion

From the foregoing analysis of grassroots perspectives on ending the prevailing conflict and fostering peacebuilding in the NW and SW regions of Cameroon, several conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, it is evident that all parties involved in the conflict have contributed to serious socio-economic and physical damage experienced by grassroots people over the last five years. Secondly, a cross-section of stakeholders from the NW and SW are increasingly clamoring for urgent measures such as genuine and inclusive dialogue, justice, and reconciliation to end the conflict and implement more sustainable peacebuilding and reconstruction processes. Thirdly, despite the series of efforts made by the government of Cameroon, regional institutions, and the international community, the conflict has degenerated and become more violent with the use of sophisticated weapons such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket launchers by NSAGs. Hence, there is an urgent need for concerted action by national, regional, and international actors towards ensuring an immediate ceasefire, followed by an inclusive and genuine dialogue with various stakeholders including grassroots populations that have been bearing the brunt of the conflict from 2016 to date. Additionally, it is imperative for such a process to address the root causes of the conflict to ensure a return to sustainable peace, social cohesion, and development in the NW and SW regions in particular and Cameroon in general.

Acknowledgements

This study was supported by Grants No. AH/V005324/1 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, United Kingdom. Any recommendations or conclusions are those of the author and the AHRC does not take responsibility for views expressed.

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