Life in anglophone Cameroon has been severely disrupted since violence broke out in 2016. Peaceful protests by lawyers, teachers and civilians against the marginalisation of anglophone institutions by the majority francophone state were met with force. Since then, a brutal conflict has grown and thousands have been killed.
Despite recurrent reports of mass killings and images of families in shared graves, the international response has been conspicuously limited. Beyond the efforts of a handful of humanitarian organisations and journalists, the conflict and loss of lives in Cameroon have been largely overlooked.
The Cameroon Conflict Research Group at the University of Oxford sought to understand the conflict in Cameroon from the perspectives of those most directly affected by it - individuals on the ground. By listening to people trapped in the battlefields, our research reveals new insights into the conflict and potential pathways to peace.
Our research participants drew special attention to the responsibility of international stakeholders to respond to the conflict. Indeed, on examination, several foreign states and actors are implicated in the current violence. Additionally, our participants reported stark differences in levels of force used by state and non-state actors; this lies in contrast to much coverage to date, which emphasises a sameness here. As we examine more fully in our report, these differences are genuine and we bear a moral duty not to gloss them over.
Cameroon is a Central African country with a diverse mix of languages and dialects, cultures and religions.
Formerly colonised by Germany, and subsequently divided by the British and French colonial powers, Cameroon gained independence in 1960. The west of the country is predominantly anglophone, with English-speaking civic institutions, including a common law legal system. The rest of the country is francophone majority, with civil law courts and French-speaking institutions.
Despite a mostly peaceful subsequent history, in 2016 violence broke out over the marginalisation of anglophones. Our first research report documented the human rights abuses taking place.
We found that the current abuses appear to be a continuation of state violence against the minority anglophone people, first inflicted by the colonial forces, and then later by the independent state of Cameroon. The current conflict can therefore be seen as an escalation of pre-existing tensions.
In order to learn more about the conflict from the perspective of those living through it, we designed an empirical study, which involved interviewing 32 people in the anglophone regions of Cameroon, from January 2020 to March 2020. Participants included men and women, between the ages of 24 and 88, from village and urban backgrounds. They were contacted through a range of different gatekeepers.
The interviews were primarily conducted over an encrypted communications application, in either Pidgin or English, and involved broad and open-ended questions so that themes could emerge directly from the collective experiences.
The responsibility of the international community
Interviewees repeatedly called on the international community to intervene and end the violence. In the words of Nina (pseudonyms used throughout):
"The international community must not abandon us - human rights here will be wiped out. It's urgent, and it's getting worse. I noticed from the day this crisis started, it has only been on an increase; the suffering, the pain, has only been on an increase."
Ozias points to the British historical involvement:
"Why is Britain silent when they caused all this? Why is Britain silent? And the United Nations, what about their Charter? What about the United Nations Charter?"
In Michel's view,
"the worst part of it is that France is an enabler. France is behind it. I cannot mince words. Because anywhere we want to go, France is intervening."
He feels, moreover, that his people's voices are not being heard by anyone now:
"We have talked a lot, and the UN is not responding. How shall - to whom shall - we talk now?"
Calls for international intervention indicate a perception that this is far from an internal dispute. Indeed, in our report, we discover that international governments, institutions and private agents are intricately connected to the functioning of the Cameroon state.
Moreover, there is substantial international control of Cameroon's resources: for example, operations by British companies such as New Age, BowLeven, and Victoria Oil & Gas; the Anglo-French company, Perenco; the Chinese Addax Petroleum Cameroon Company (invested through state-owned means); and US funders such as Sculptor Capital/Och Ziff have substantial ownership of oil and gas interests.
International companies such as these export raw material, yet the benefits are not enjoyed by local people, very few of whom are involved in the exploitation of the country's natural endowments.
Appeals for international action therefore draw attention to the pre-existing involvement of a range of international actors who have a corresponding duty to respond.
The power of the state
International actors frequently frame the conflict as principally involving "wrongs committed on both sides" - that is, the francophone state of Cameroon and the anglophone Ambazonian oppositional forces, popularly called Amba.
Although all militant parties stand credibly accused of committing crimes against humanity, which are undoubtedly wrong and disturbing, our research participants often saw them as unequal.
As Pa Elias explains,
"The secessionists or the restorationists, they may target a single person who is an enabler for the government. They may set one house ablaze, but they don't go burning villages. The army does that. They [the Amba boys] don't have the capacity to do that."
Beyond holding far less military power and force, our research participants also point to the defensive nature of the Ambazonian movement. Many explain how the Ambazonians appear in response to the sound of gunshots.
Ozias sums up a point made by others:
"The Amba boys are just there to help. When they hear the sound of guns, and people are running away, and they realise that soldiers are looting people's property, it's at that time that they try to come to defend."
Many of our research participants, and especially the most socioeconomically disadvantaged, described the Amba as defenders. This is captured by Blasius's observation:
"If not for them (the Amba fighters), we would not be alive. If they were not there, many people would have died. Even though there's a lot of people who have died, if they were not there, many more would have died."
Indeed, an examination of the conflict shows that it was the state that first used violence in response to peaceful protests. Only gradually, as the state violence escalated, did the Amba forces develop military strength, which does still pale in comparison. Our report further details the disparity between the approaches, scale and effect of violence between state forces and independence fighters.
Considering this wide disparity, those international actors who support the Cameroon state financially and militarily (including Britain, France and the US) ought now to be considering just how complicit they are in the state's violence on its anglophone population.
Hopes for peace
Our research participants universally wish for peace, whether that is sought through independence, federalism, or some other negotiation.
Recent talks of a ceasefire bring this shared hope into view. However, for this to materialise, the Cameroon state needs to commit to laying down its arms. If the state's gunshots cease, then the Amba will no longer have a compelling claim to acting in defence.
For the ceasefire to work, the numerous international actors involved with the Cameroon state must actively support an end to state violence.