Inquest into the Southern Cameroons’ War of Independence: How did it start and how will it end?

The killing of a civilian at Foncha Street in Bamenda on Sunday, July 4, 2021, and the resulting outrage of the population against the military, underscores the persistence of the pro-independence conflict, and the dwindling options to resolve the crisis.


Sunday’s killing was yet another grim reminder of a certain October 24, 2020, when unidentified gunmen stormed a secondary school in Kumba, killing seven children and injuring a dozen others. Cameroonians called the attack a massacre. They took to the streets to demand justice for the victims.



Ngoran Djibiring Dubila's demise at the hands of soldiers who share drinks with him regularly is seen as troubling


“Why should we allow people to be snuffing the lives of our children?” Activist Gladys Viban said at the time, as she led the women’s protest in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.


 “All killing is wrong, no matter where it is coming from. They have to stop it. They have to put down the guns. They have to come to the table and sit down and negotiate. There is nothing that surpasses the power of dialogue and negotiation,” Mrs. Viban cried out.


It has been five years since the pro-independence conflict in the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons began. At least 3,500 people have been killed and over one million forced from their homes, according to the United Nations, although local rights groups and others place the figure at well above 12,000. Both the government and pro-independence fighters have been accused of abuses.



So how did the Southern Cameroons crisis start?


Well, the dispute had been simmering for decades, with indigenes of the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons complaining they were being marginalized and removed from decision-making spheres by the predominantly Francophone administration in Yaounde.


Slightly over 20% of Cameroon’s population is Anglophone. It is a divide that dates to colonialism.


Initially colonized by Germany, Cameroon was later shared out to the allied powers, Britain, and France, following the defeat of the Germans in 1916. The two parts of Cameroon were thus administered separately until 1961 when the British territories, known as the British Southern Cameroons, gained independence by joining an already independent French Cameroon, another part- the British Northern Cameroons joined Nigeria.


The federalist system of government they agreed upon would last just a decade. The country scrapped it with the 1972 “constitutional” referendum in favour of a centralized system that rested power firmly in the capital, Yaounde.  Southern Cameroonians say they suffered further marginalization as a result.


In 2016, frustrations boiled over. Southern Cameroons’ lawyers and teachers went on strike in Bamenda and Buea, the two main cities of the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons.


They said the majority French-speaking government was trying to destroy the common law system and English education practiced in the region.


The military took a hard line, and demonstrations grew violent. Southern Cameroonians began demanding more autonomy. A pro-independence movement emerged demanding out-right self-determination and the renaming of the territory ‘Ambazonia.”


Sisiku Julius AyukTabe proclaimed the independence of Southern Cameroons restored as Ambazonia in 2017 (C) American University of Nigeria.


On October 1, 2017, tens of thousands of Southern Cameroonians took to the streets in several towns across the former UN Trust Territory to proclaim the independence of Ambazonia. The choice of date was not an accident. The 1st of October 1961 was the day Southern Cameroons got independence from Britain.


Violence ensued. More than 20 people were shot dead by security forces and hundreds arrested, said Amnesty International.


This led to the growth of pro-independence groups. On November 29, 2017, pro-independence fighters known as the Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF) killed four soldiers in an ambush outside the town of Mamfe, and the following night, they killed two policemen. 


The very next day, President Paul Biya told pressmen at the Nsimalen International Airport on arrival from an AU-EU Summit in Abidjan that it was time for action to be taken against pro-independence activists.


President Paul Biya declared war while reading from a piece of paper prepared for him (C) Mhepo


“I heard with deep emotion, the assassination of four soldiers and two police officers in the Southwest region of our country,” the President said, emphasizing that “Following the disappearance of these six military officers, I’ll like to present my condolences to the bereaved families as well as to our defense forces. I think that things are becoming clearer to everyone now that Cameroon is victim to repeated terrorist attacks from a secessionist group. In the face of such repeated aggression, I’ll like to assure Cameroonians that measures have been taken to eliminate these criminals and bring back peace throughout the national territory.”


It was no doubt a declaration of war against the pro-independence groups, and ever since, things have moved ever so fast.


pro-independence groups called for ghost towns and a school boycott and instructed their armed groups to enforce them. They carried out arson attacks on government installations, particularly military installations. And as the fighting intensified, pro-independence groups began acquiring more sophisticated weapons, and so what started as a teachers' and lawyers' strikes over long-held grievances had metamorphosed into a full-fledged conflict.


President Biya has maintained from the start that the country will remain “one and indivisible” and deployed the military to the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons, pledging to destroy all those who want to ‘divide’ the nation.



Who leads the separatists?


The lawyers, teachers, and civil society leaders behind the 2016 strikes faded from view amid mass arrests and the emergence of a mosaic of pro-independence armed groups in the region.


It was a former university administrator and engineer, Sissiku Julius AyukTabe, who surfaced in 2017 as the leader of the self-declared Federal Republic of Ambazonia.


“We are no longer slaves of Cameroon,” AyukTabe proclaimed (via social media) on Oct 1, 2017.


“Today we affirm the autonomy of our heritage and our territory.” The following year, he was abducted by authorities in Nigeria, where he was living at the time, and bundled to Cameroon, although the countries were yet to sign an extradition treaty.


AyukTabe is currently serving a life sentence in Cameroon, along with nine of his collaborators. In September 2020, the Court of Appeals upheld their convictions for terrorism, destruction of state property, secession, and undermining state authority.

Meanwhile, the Ambazonian interim government formed in Zaria, Nigeria in 2017 has split, with some backing AyukTabe’s successor-turned rival, the US-based former pastor, Samuel Ikome Sako. Six other movements, besides the interim government, continue to run their activities both abroad and on the ground with armed groups.


The fight for legitimacy between these dueling pro-independence leaders has played out among fighters on the ground, with clashes between fighters loyal to various groups and their leaderships.


On the ground though, there is a feeling that the leadership of the pro-independence movement hasn’t got a handle on field fighters: they’ve got far too many commanders and generals, and there is no clear criterion on how these ranks are conferred.



What efforts have been made to resolve the crisis?


All efforts at dialogue have failed.


pro-independence movements insist they will negotiate nothing but the terms of their independence, something the government has categorically refused to discuss. The government has also refused to consider the demand from more moderate elements for a return to federalism, which would grant the region more autonomy.


In 2016, the then Prime Minister, Philemon Yang, tried to negotiate with the striking teachers and lawyers, but the talks collapsed as both parties failed to find common ground.


Philemon Yang, former Prime Minister of Cameroon made several moves as resolution without success


In response to the strike, the government had announced reforms such as the recruitment of bilingual teachers, the deployment of Anglophone magistrates to common law courts, and the use of the English language in courts. However, the mounting violence had deepened tensions. The government rejected the strikers’ demand that it withdraws troops from the streets and release all those arrested in connection with the strikes and unrest.



With the deadlock, fighting intensified


“If my appeal to warmongers to lay down their weapons remains unheeded, the Defense and Security Forces will be instructed to neutralize them,” the President said on December 31, 2018, during his end-of-year address to the Nation. But fighting continued, and in October 2019, the President convened a national dialogue to resolve the Southern Cameroons’ conflict.



Too little, too late?


The national dialogue brought together top government officials, civil society leaders, the clergy, and some political party leaders in the capital, Yaounde. However, the pro-independence movements boycotted, demanding the talks be held outside the country on what they termed neutral ground. The leading opposition parties also boycotted the dialogue, which they dismissed as theatre.


Among the proposals to come out of the talks was one to accord a special status for the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons.


In the last week of 2019, Cameroon’s Parliament approved the bill granting it. The bill allows the two regions to have a house of chiefs for each region, regional assemblies, and regional councils with elected presidents. Mayors will also be empowered to recruit hospital staff and teachers.


“It is, therefore, high time to silence the guns. It is therefore high time to stop the killings, violence, and destruction," said Aboubakary Abdoulaye, the French-speaking Senior Vice President of Cameroon's Senate, as he closed the session that adopted the bill.


Critics of the measure say it failed to address the underlying issues of governance.


“What we would have expected is to empower the regions to determine policies over the educational, judicial, legislative, and executive system, to determine issues at a national level, and not just at local level," said Barrister Henry Kemende, an opposition senator from the restive Southern Cameroons.


The National Dialogue also proposed a CFA F 89 billion recovery and reconstruction plan for the troubled region. The money is earmarked to rebuild or repair 350 schools, 90 health centers, 40 bridges, and over 12,000 homes, but with intensifying fighting, it’s still hard to see how work effectively starts in the war zone.


Meanwhile, military operations continue in the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons. The killing, Sunday, July 4 of a man at Foncha’s street is perhaps the most recent evidence of the fighting that has refused to go away.


Amid the continuing violence, banditry and criminality have soared as well.



What options remain?


Some see an inclusive dialogue mediated by a neutral international body as the way out. At one point, there was talk of possible mediation by the Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), but pro-independence movements were split over that option, with some saying they suspected collusion between Switzerland and the Yaounde government.


Pro-Independence Movements want the United Nations to mediate talks that would address the root causes of the conflict. By that, they mean the UN must give English speakers the chance to re-negotiate their independence, something Yaounde is unlikely to ever agree to.


President Biya has made it clear that he sees this as a Cameroonian problem that will only be solved by Cameroonians and in Cameroon.


Pro-Independence Movements are demanding the United Nations’ involvement in these talks as it was the UN in 1961 which conditioned the independence of the Southern Cameroons from Britain to those territories joining either Nigeria or La République du Cameroun.


Meanwhile, a prominent think tank, International Crisis Group, has suggested that the Catholic Church may be the only local institution with the legitimacy to broker a deal.


The country’s leading Catholic official, the late Cardinal Christian Tumi, said the Church could negotiate a way out of the crisis because it won’t be influenced by political considerations.


“Only the truth can save Cameroon,” Cardinal Tumi said.