Treatise on the Cameroons: ‘We Remain Their Slaves’: Voices from the Cameroon Conflict

In a three-chapter document with an opening introduction, detailing the relationship between the Cameroon Conflict and slave trade, Roxana Willis and her colleagues in what they call the Cameroon Conflict Research Group at the University of Oxford carried out and published their research which in a short span reached a high volume of reading due to its controversial findings.

The research offers new insights into the Cameroon conflict and suggests a strategy for action. Based on an ethnography study offering empirical evidence, the group interviewed 32 persons on their first-hand experiences in the once independent state of Southern Cameroons. such an approach to research brings out collective voices and foregrounds in a socio-historical framework in which participants frame their perception of themselves. Based on this method, research investigators deduce a general perception of slavering from the participants.

The introduction to the piece starts out with a quote of participant detailing their fear, frustration, and a feeling of abandonment. The introduction exposes the socio-political situation of Cameroon. They note in this introduction that contrary to popular believe that the conflict in English Cameroon is a result of language and cultural differences, it is rather a conflict which stems from ‘socioeconomic marginalisation, unequal access to resources and opportunities, and gross levels of power imbalance’ (p4). They also note that the conflict is hinged on inequality and difference, and contrary to international reports that report violence on both sides, they have different interpretations of the violence and note that the conflict is not balanced but has relations of slavery deeply embedded.

In this introductory section, the authors detail the research methodology which is largely qualitative. They conducted interviews with 32 individuals from different backgrounds.  In their data collection and analysis, they acknowledge shortcomings of the methods including absence of Fulani (Mbororos) in the population and those displaced living in French-speaking regions of Cameroon.

On a contextual perspective, the researchers dig deep into the past of the peoples of the once autonomous territory of Southern Cameroons, into their history and memory of slavery and slave trade and how this past plays into the collective consciousness of the people as reflected in the discourses articulated during the interviews.

These experiences of slavery (largely implied from stories of the participants) are between the ‘profiteers of slave-ownership and those who currently control the resources of Cameroon’ (pg. 12) and are multi-layered ranging from the regional elite, to the majority French-speaking population of Cameroon and then the international community, largely the French and the Europeans.


Inequality: the root of the conflict

Chapter 1 opens with a series of testimonies from people of different walks of life about their plight because of the armed conflict. The inequality is so bad it even acknowledges escaping from war is a privilege to a few. The chapter shows that inequality is unlike what many think, in not a result of the majority Francophone and minority English-speaking, but more a structural inequality and an appreciation of power imbalance (pg. 15).


Cargo plane being loaded at Tiko International Airport, Southern Cameroons

Economic frustrations are examined with Southern Cameroonians disadvantaged in the misallocation of resources. The research participants discuss the exploitation of their rich natural resources; unequal educational and employment opportunities, linguistic inequality, language of learning in higher (professional) institutions, and access to jobs post education/training were the key complaints. Joblessness and ever thinning of opportunity also constitute primary root causes of the conflict, the researchers find.

‘Slaves’, ‘cockroaches’, and ‘rats’: the anglophone underclass is the title of a sub-section based on perceptions of a people who are ‘deemed to be deficient and undeserving’ and thus a sub-human status. The use of the words in quotes is indicative it is these people who see themselves as such. Willis critiques the underclass concept and shows how this powerful idea of the sub-human class – a so-called residuum – has persistently been employed to unjustly exclude, discriminate, stigmatise, and objectify underprivileged communities. These perceptions of treatment as ‘animals’, and the ‘continuity of the historical subjugation of the Southern Cameroons population in the present day led some of the research participants to assert their right for freedom’, a root cause to the conflict.

Worsening levels of inequality, leading to homelessness and loss of livelihood are direct results of the armed conflict and sustain the ongoing crises. Homelessness and loss of livelihood results also results in loss of farmlands and an impending famine for a people whose lives depend on subsistence agriculture.

Stolen education, signalling greater inequality comes out as a major concern. Although previous forms of education were criticized, the participants lamented the current absence of viable education facilities leading to acquisition of technical skills as a foundation for future plights.

Willis et al. thus conclude the chapter by observing that the roots of the conflict go deeper than “Francophone-Anglophone” conflict, but based on ‘ongoing structural inequalities, in which historically oppressed populations in the Southern Cameroons are further oppressed by groups with relative power’.


The Error of Moral Equivalence

In chapter 2, the authors suggest it is an error to think violence is perpetuated by both sides. They explain, quoting Lord Alton in an exchange in the House of Lords, of the British Parliament who cautioned that ‘it is not a level playing field’ between the government and the separatists. The Biya government’s well-equipped military – the BIR cannot be comparable to ill-equipped self-defence volunteers (amba boys) largely with Dane guns. Reflections of English-speaking participants describe the disparity between state and “Amba boys” violence, in various crucial respects.


Archive photos attesting to the existence of Southern Cameroons as a separate entity from French Cameroun

Aside disparities in equipment, with trained soldiers ‘armed to the teeth’, they also note participants’ observations reflected disparities in terms of effect of the war on them. Physical and psycho-social effects are highly noted on the part of the respondents, making them a weaker party in the conflict sustaining the argument of error of moral equivalence. The war is fought on the territory of the Southern Cameroons. The third disparity they note is that of spin. The government has more power to control the narrative given large funding and control of media outlets.

Aside the physical and financial strength of the state, it also uses its structures and mechanisms of aggression to extend the ‘business of extortion’ through bribery and corruption, seizing of property including phones, ID cards, motorcycles and cars, kidnap and jailing of citizens who are freed only upon payment of bribe. Other forms of abuse and error of moral equivalence include fraudulent elections as a façade of state legitimacy. The authors suggest that ‘[a]ctors that value democratic governance ought to acknowledge these civilian voices and recognise the Cameroonian ‘elections’ are a parody. A key observation by the authors is the complete silence in media and state narratives of the role of the state in the abuse of school children and teachers and their contribution to the disruption of education. They also note the silence of the narrative in indicating that ‘amba’ fighters stop schools to protect their own from abuses perpetuated by the BIR (Paul Biya’s elite military force that received training assistance from the United States to fight Boko Haram)..

The ‘violence of the Amba movement must also be understood in the context of a recent history of inordinate oppression and a necessity to defend’. The authors assert the violence of the ‘Amba’ is a response to state violence. The researchers note a marked level of support for ‘amba boys from ground zero’ who are seen to be defending the separatists.

‘Amba’ targets include symbols of the state and defectors of the cause. The wealthy supporters of the Yaoundé mainly Francophone government are also seen as a symbol of the state as most wealthy persons have somewhat managed to sail through a state system which is corrupt. An attack on the wealthy is seen to fund a war which benefits everyone and thus a strategy to level our poverty.

The authors conclude this chapter by observing that the way the military extorts from Southern Cameroons’ civilian population is consistent with a deeper and historical trend of treating them as second-class citizens, or complete outsiders… The state of Cameroon is committing distinct crimes that cannot in good conscience be covered over with ‘both sides’ rhetoric.

The conclusion suggests that the authors think the war is lopsided against Southern Cameroonians, yet local and international media and organisations use the phrase ‘both sides’ to downplay the abuses meted on the peoples of the English-speaking region.


Complicity of the International Community

In the third and final chapter, a participant (retired professor) notes that ‘they [international community] allowed the Rwandan genocide… [and] ‘there is a silent genocide in Cameroon’. In this chapter, the authors outline the relationship Cameroon has with the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Germany, China, and Canada and how each has contributed to supporting the state of Cameroon financially and militarily. Other supranational organisations like the IMF and the World Bank too have contributed to sustaining the state. The research details the contributions of each nation-state actor and international agencies and organisations.

International political organisations like the United Nations and its agencies have also been shown to have stakes in the conflict. Cameroon’s External trade relationships including Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU and oil deals with other nationalities as detailed in the nation-state deals also contribute to the collusion of these bodies in sustaining the government of Cameroon.

The authors conclude the chapter by indicating that international parties have lucrative trade deals in exchange for military and financial gains for the state thereby sustaining the conflict, perpetuating the abuses and discrimination and thus protecting their gains.  

The work ends with a concluding section titled routes to peace in which the authors suggest ideas for action. They indicate that the international community has to recognize the extent to which individually and jointly they are compromised by this conflict: from the enslavement, the colonial history, the handling of the plebiscites, the federation, and the dissolving of it, through to the military aid, training the BIR, facilitating trade deals with exploitative oil companies (and allowing them to use offshore tax havens), high-risk lending practices, and generally giving legitimacy on the world stage to a regime which is committing atrocious human rights abuses etc.


Five recommendations ensue from the work

      1. Commentators to afford greater attention to the crimes committed by the Cameroon army

2. Avoid adopting a language of moral equivalence, which lends legitimacy to the Biya administration

3. Nation states and other international parties to act multilaterally and place concerted pressure on the Cameroon government to end the violence,

4.  International community to facilitate true dialogue, convened by an independent arbitrator,

5.  Representatives of nation states and other international agencies to avoid proclaiming whether a given option (e.g., secession) is non-negotiable - local stakeholders must have control of the available negotiating positions.


This working paper is the first comprehensive research detailing the stakes of the conflict in Cameroon challenging the discourse of ‘violence on both sides’. Without drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of Symbolic Capital, Willis et al. show how lopsided the conflict is. The government controls military and financial power, relations with nation-states and supranational organizations which continue to fund them, media power and human resources, and are meant to be compared with ‘amba boys’ who can boast only of meagre weapons, largely Dane guns.


The authors show that it is a fallacy or an error of moral equivalence to judge and compare the atrocities of the BIR to those of the amba boys (self-defense volunteers) given the strategic advantage of the state armed forces. Worthy of note is not only the material and financial poverty of the “amba boys” but also the psycho-emotional damage caused by an enslaving regime.


In all, although acknowledging the atrocities of the “amba boys”, the paper vindicates their actions and using 5 recommendations calls for the people of the once independent state of Southern Cameroons to be granted the right to self-determination through mediation.


Prof Lilian Lem Atanga, the Reviewer and Opinion Columnist at Large


Authors: Roxana Willis, James Angove, Caroline Mbinkar, and Joseph McAuley

Date of Publication: April 15, 2020

Publisher: Working Paper, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford