Kumbo, Cameroon — The alleged use of ethnic militia by the government adds a dangerous new dimension to the conflict.
At a glance: A massacre and a worsening conflict
- At least 21 civilians dead in seperatist region, including 13 children and one pregnant woman.
- Eyewitness survivors blame government forces and an ethnic Fulani militia; the government blames an exploding fuel container.
- Alleged use of ethnic militia by the government adds dangerous new dimension to the conflict.
- Massacre comes amid escalation of violence triggered by nationwide parliamentary and local elections in February.
- More than 700,000 displaced and thousands dead after three years of conflict.
Rights groups are accusing Cameroonian security forces of waging an increasingly brutal counter-insurgency campaign against English-speaking separatists after one of the deadliest civilian massacres in recent years sparked international condemnation and fears of an expanding conflict.
The attack on 14 February in Ngarbuh village left at least 21 civilians dead, including 13 children and one pregnant woman, according to more than a dozen eyewitness survivors who spoke to The New Humanitarian on the ground shortly after the incident. Government forces and an ethnic Fulani militia were to blame, the survivors said.
Analysts told TNH that the government's alleged use of the local Fulani militia - who are fighting for their own identity-based interests - in the Ngarbuh attack, represents a dangerous new phase of conflict that may increase tensions between the Fulani community and other ethnic groups who are perceived to support the separatists.
The massacre comes amid a recent escalation of violence triggered by nationwide parliamentary and local elections in early February. Both government forces and rival anglophone separatists have stepped up arrests, abductions, and raids, according to rights groups, driving thousands from their homes.
The government has dismissed reports of the Ngarbuh massacre as "terrorist propaganda". In its version of events, five people died - one woman and four children - when fuel tanks exploded during a gun battle between the security forces and separatist rebels based in the village.
But the survivors TNH spoke to in a village close to Ngarbuh denied any rebels were present, and instead described an unprovoked attack, with summary executions, beatings, and the torching of homes by the security forces and Fulani militia.
Eyewitnesses and local residents - none of whom are being named out of concern for their safety - said the attack was aimed at punishing the community for allegedly supporting rebels fighting for the secession of the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions from the rest of majority francophone Cameroon.
More than 700,000 people have been displaced over the course of the three-year conflict and over 3,000 civilians have been killed, with poverty and food shortages now deepening in affected areas.
Survivors recounted the events of 14 February to TNH two days after the attack. Between 4am and 5am, residents of Ngarbuh 3 neighbourhood woke to gunfire and found themselves surrounded by uniformed soldiers and roughly 30 Fulani civilians, who they recognised from neighbouring villages.
Gladys Kwitchere, a woman in her 50s, was the first victim. Emerging from her doorway, she was shot dead by attackers, who entered her home and killed her daughter and five of her grandchildren, who were all under the age of 18 and one of whom was just five months old.
Kwitchere's two other grandchildren, Jude and Mediane, fled the house into the thick brush surrounding the village where they were also shot and killed. Both their bodies, in the brush, and the house were then set alight.
Seven people in a nearby house were also killed and set on fire, witnesses said, as attackers swept through the village, shooting indiscriminately at fleeing men, women, and children. Some victims were shot dead in the street and their corpses set on fire where they fell; others were dragged back into their homes, which were then set alight.
The attackers next moved to neighbouring Ngarbuh 2, where they rounded up and beat dozens of men, stole cell phones, looted homes, and warned residents that they would return in three days and kill anyone who remained in the village. Any retaliation against Fulani in the area would also be met with death, the attackers told residents.
By midday, 21 civilians had been killed.
The following day, survivors told TNH they buried their dead in four mass graves, while two injured civilians, including one pregnant woman who lost her baby due to her wounds, remained at a local hospital receiving treatment.
The violence displaced around 700 people, according to the UN's emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, which travelled to the area to conduct a needs assessment.
In the week following the Ngarbuh attack, Fulani militia carried out subsequent attacks in the nearby villages of Fundong and Mmen, displacing almost 2,000 more civilians, local aid organisations and UN officials said.
Anglophone separatists - who feel economically, politically, and socially marginalised in the majority French-speaking country - first took up arms in late 2016.
Civilian killings and the destruction and looting of properties have been common elements of the conflict, but violence involving government security forces and separatists, who called for a boycott of the long-delayed elections, has reached new highs in recent months, according to Human Rights Watch.
Another concerning pattern in the conflict, especially in attacks perpetrated by government security forces, is the high ratio of reported deaths to injuries, aid and human rights groups said. In the Ngarbuh massacre, for instance, 21 civilians were killed and only two injured.
"It is highly suspicious that in almost all incidents, the vast majority [of cases] are deaths rather than injuries, leading one to assume [it's] more of an execution-style being perpetrated," said Andrew Pendleton, OCHA's representative in the Northwest.
The violence in Ngarbuh moved UN Secretary-General António Guterres to call for an independent investigation, while both France and the United States condemned the killings.
Cameroon's President Paul Biya has agreed to an inquiry, though the military continues to reject the testimony of eyewitnesses who spoke with TNH and other human rights investigators.
"The military were there for security operations, and they had information about the headquarters of terrorist secessionists [being in the village]," an army spokesperson, Commander Cyrille Atonfack, told TNH.
The Ambazonia Restoration Forces - one of the secessionist rebel groups fighting the government - denied its fighters were in Ngarbuh and that clashes with the security forces led to the civilian deaths.
"There were no restoration forces involved and not a single one of them died. None of them were there in that village," Chris Anu, the communication secretary for the secessionist movement, told TNH.
The presence of local Fulani civilians alongside government security forces in Ngarbuh is particularly worrying, analysts said.
The mainly pastoralist Fulani community - known locally as Mbororos - began arriving from neighbouring Nigeria at least a century ago.
The traditionally nomadic community started settling in the highlands of Cameroon's Northwest and Southwest regions and has since suffered marginalisation and oppression, struggling to obtain citizenship and land ownership rights.
For decades, cattle-grazing Mbororos have clashed with local communities, who are primarily engaged in sedentary agriculture, but tensions have worsened with conflict and reports of rebels seizing Mbororo cattle, demanding political allegiance, and forcing some pastoralists to flee.
The government, which views the farming communities in the region as pro-separarist, has exploited this local conflict, promising the Mbororo land in return for their support, one local opposition politician told TNH, asking for anonymity to speak freely.
"The separatists intimidate whosoever you may be; they can seize from anyone," said Arrey Elvis Ntui, the International Crisis Group's senior analyst for Cameroon. "It's not fair to say it was the separatists versus the Mbororo. But the Mbororo have a reputation for violent retaliation and community defence."
The strategy of creating pro-government militia, which extends beyond the Mbororo to include other communities - as well as ex-insurgents that have switched sides - reduces the military's losses in its costly campaign to stamp out the rebels.
The separatists - known locally as the Amba Boys - are estimated to control some 80 percent of the heavily forested Northwest region. Increasingly better equipped and organised, they have recently been carrying out more sophisticated guerrilla-style ambushes and attacks.
"[The government] has grown quite tired of it," said OCHA's Pendleton. "Some of its gendarmes have been killed; some of its military sniped off."
But Richard Moncrieff, Central Africa director for the International Crisis Group, told TNH he was concerned that the government's recruitment of local militia as proxy forces would "drive a wedge between local communities".
He said the strategy, which began last year, risked widening the violence in Cameroon, and was "empowering groups to commit abuses".
Since December 2019, there has been an uptick in attacks on civilians by Mbororo and other vigilantes, both alongside and independent of government security forces.
In the past three months, local aid and human rights groups have documented 17 attacks and raids on villages across the Northwest region, including in Menchum, Boyo, and Donga-Mantung, with people displaced and killed and their homes burned and livestock looted.
"Even with a peace accord [between the separatists and government], this is still going to be going on with or without the military," warned one aid worker who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. "They [the government] have started something here."