The Central African country of Cameroon—whose tourist slogan for years was “all of Africa in one country”—presents itself as a unifier of diverse environments, languages, and culture in this nation located in the middle of the continent. The last weeks in Cameroon, however, suggest the worst of conflict, corruption, and colonialism, primarily relating to the country’s intensifying repression against the English-speaking minority in the region of Ambazonia, little-known even to Africanists and anti-colonial academics from the Global North. Despite the efforts of Ambazonian scholars based in the U.S., and a trickle of not-always-helpful information from Amnesty International and the BBC, the escalation of military violence over the past few months, and especially a new “scorched earth” burning of entire villages since last May and several massacres in the first half of July, have gone largely unnoticed even by human rights experts.
On the evening of July 11, 2018, five students were separated during a round-up by government military forces at the University Center in the town of Bambilli, allegedly for not having identification cards. Bambilli is a college town north in the Ambazonian territory. Though BBC reported on the incident, they did not make the connection to the pattern of attacks on Ambazonian students, activists, and community leaders which have worsened over the past year. Three days later, ten more unarmed Ambazonians and one Ghanaian pastor who was working with them were slaughtered in the town of Batibo.
Though this news may never have surfaced if not for the connection to clergy in Ghana, organizations such as the Network for Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa have begun to analyze, document, and report on these incidents. Several Pan-African groups, including affiliates of the prominent Network of African National Human Rights Institutions (which share a collegial relationship with the Pan African Nonviolence and Peace-building Network), have raised growing concerns about military-perpetrated, government-instigated violence in the area which makes up the southern border of Cameroon and Nigeria.
Nonviolence has always been the strategy and philosophy of choice there, with the decades-long freedom slogan focusing on the logic of Ambazonia freedom, by “the force of argument, not the argument of force.” In1961, the United Nations Trust Territory of Southern Cameroons voted for full independence from colonial Great Britain, and neighboring Francophone Cameroon quickly incorporated the territory into its own “United Republic” of Cameroon. Since that time, a mass, unarmed civil resistance movement has declared its desire for full independence, given its distinct languages (English and Indigenous African), culture, history, and geographic base. In 1984, when Cameroon President Paul Biya removed the “United” from the official name of the country, an even more intense crisis ensued. “All this time, however, from the 1960s until 2017,” noted Eben, U.S. facilitator of the Ambazonian Prisoners of Conscience Support Network, “barely a single stone was thrown as part of our resistance. Armed resistance was never a tactic we engaged in.
Following a series of lawyer-led uprisings which began on October 1, 2016, escalating nonviolent civil resistance, and a massive general strike in September 2017—met with gunfire from Cameroon government helicopter gunships—some Ambazonians did initiate an armed struggle on October 1, 2017, declaring independence and setting up a government in exile. Cooperation between the governments of Nigeria and Cameroon might play a negative role in the aspirations of Ambazonians, as Nigeria handed over some who were taking refuge there, and who now make up a growing political-prisoner population in Cameroon.
Nigeria’s inability to resolve their “Boko Haram problem”—the Islamist fundamentalist-military movement with close ties to Iraq—also plays a role. Nigeria can push Boko Haram forces across the border into Cameroon, and Cameroon in turn attacks both Boko Haram military units and Ambazonian independence activists as if they represented the same “nuisance” to the common people. It is the ordinary civilian, however, who is most caught between governments, militaries, and borders. A horrifying video of Cameroon soldiers murdering two women, a young child, and a baby—apparently in mid-July and because their families allegedly had ties to Boko Haram—has begun to go viral and gain the condemnation of Amnesty International. In an eerie flash-back to words uttered fifty years ago in Vietnam at the heinous My Lai massacre, one soldier can be heard asking his commanding officer: “Are we going to kill the children too?”
Ironically, Amnesty—widely seen as the unquestioned expert on human rights in the region—has been slow and significantly misguided in reporting the facts of events in the region. An incredibly detailed and well-documented critique of the June 2018 Amnesty International report on “Anglophone Cameroon” spotlights ways in which the respected organization has misunderstood and distorted the reality of Ambazonian life and struggle. The popular refrain that there “is violence on both sides” not only gives too much emphasis to a very limited armed struggle, dismissing the decades of previous history, it also ignores the fact that the last two years have seen a sharp increase in the breadth and scope of nonviolent civic engagement on the part of Ambazonians, both in the territory and in diaspora. An entire network of home-front media producers has congealed around a Southern Cameroon TV project, dozens of diaspora organizations have formed and successfully pressed for attention from local and national politicians, the Southern Cameroons Congress of the People was formed as a political party, and a veritable social media army has begun to link refugees, political prisoners and their supporters, home front organizers, and those living abroad.
Independent internationalists might be especially confused by the July 19, 2018 briefings and commentaries issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW). On the one hand, their poignant report “These Killings Can Be Stopped” recounts in 59 detailed pages how the area “is slipping into a protracted human rights crisis in the largely Anglophone North-West and South-West regions that border Nigeria.” It documents how, for the past two years or so, the Cameroon government has responded to demonstrations, legal challenges, and unarmed protests with “heavy clamp-downs,” “repression and arrest,” and “abuse” which likely caused a radicalization on the part of the Ambazonian freedom movement.
On the other hand, in HRW’s summary press release sent out the same day, “Cameroon: Killings, Destruction in Anglophone Region,” they misleadingly and inaccurately assert that “in response to protests and violence by armed separatists, government forces have killed civilians, used excessive force against demonstrators, tortured and mistreated suspected separatists and detainees, and burned hundreds of homes in several villages.” Want to find evidence that the HRW summary press release is inaccurate? Read the HRW full report! The poor attempt to be “even-handed” tragically dilutes HRW’s basic good point: these killings can and must be stopped—by support for justice-seeking nonviolent campaigners and a condemnation of government-based military violence and oppression.
The crisis in Ambazonia—like so many anti-colonial crises that seem to be escalating in this age of neocolonialism—cannot easily be resolved, especially by traditional military or diplomatic means. As grassroots women’s and social groups inside the country and supporters or allies in the Diaspora continue to put pressure on the colonial regime, unarmed civil resistance is the best hope for lasting change. But change cannot take place without clear, pro-justice, international attention and support—which so far has been sadly lacking.