Jan 14, 2022 - World

Separatist rebels strike in Cameroon during African Cup of Nations

Security forces at an African Nations Championship game last year in the Anglophone city of Limbe. Photo: AFP via Getty

Two deadly attacks this week in Anglophone regions of Cameroon underscore the security challenges the country faces as it hosts one of the world’s biggest soccer tournaments, the Africa Cup of Nations.

The big picture: What started in late 2016 as a protest movement led by teachers and lawyers in two English-speaking regions of western Cameroon has evolved into a civil war that has forced around 1 million people to flee their homes, left 700,000 children out of school, and carried on for five years with no sign of resolution.

Driving the news: Separatist rebels killed one soldier during an attack Wednesday in the city of Buea, where four national teams taking part in the tournament are staying.

  • A rebel leader told Reuters the aim was to disrupt preparations for the games played on Wednesday in the nearby city of Limbe, which is slated to host five more games this month.
  • In a separate incident on Tuesday, a prominent senator was shot dead in northwest Cameroon. No group claimed responsibility, but separatist militias have assassinated several politicians they deemed insufficiently supportive.

The history: The former German colony of Kamerun was divided into French and British protectorates after World War I, and reunified as independent Cameroon in 1961.

  • Both French and English are official languages, but French is spoken by around 80% of the population.
  • Lawyers and teachers launched peaceful protests in late 2016 against what they saw as the marginalization of the Anglophone culture, and more specifically against the appointments of French-speaking judges and teachers in the Anglophone regions, says Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Central Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.
  • The government responded with force. “They dispersed the protests, they shot at peaceful protesters, they arrested hundreds of them,” Allegrozzi says. “This led to frustration, to resentment, and also to the creation of armed groups.”

Separatist rebels declared the English-speaking regions an independent state called Ambazonia in 2017 and set out to make it impossible for the central government to control.

  • One particularly controversial tactic is a forced school boycott that has seen scores of pupils threatened, attacked or kidnapped for attending school. Many who still go to school attend secretly, making sure not to wear their uniforms in public. The UN says 2 in 3 schools in northwest and southwest Cameroon remain closed.
  • The army, meanwhile, has allegedly burned villages and conducted arbitrary arrests during its counterinsurgency campaign, and it's “preparing for a long war,” according to an International Crisis Group report.
  • "With neither side clearly ascendant and both reluctant to engage in talks, the conflict has reached a stalemate amid a lack of international attention," the report notes. Both sides have been accused of abuses against civilians.

With Africa's most-watched sporting event coming to Cameroon this month, the government has attempted to show that it has control over the entire country, including by picking Limbe as one of the six primary venues.

  • The separatists, meanwhile, want to undermine the government and draw international attention to their cause.
  • When organizers planned for the tournament's mascot to visit the large Anglophone city of Bamenda last month, it required not only a lion costume but a bulletproof vest and military escort.
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