Friday, December 28, 2018

Cameroon Anglophone crisis: Real threat of Genocide -- but not necessarily by the Military

For over two years Cameroon has been engulfed in a political impasse that has over time degenerated into a humanitarian and human rights crisis in the Northwest and Southwest regions of the country. Many people have been killed and thousands displaced internally and internationally, and there have been allegations of a genocide happening in the affected regions. While there is evidence of possible war crimes committed by the Cameroonian military operating in the Anglophone regions of the country, there is no concrete evidence of a genocide - in the true sense of the word - happening yet. However, there is a real possibility of a genocide in the future if the crisis is not addressed, but the impending genocide would not necessarily be committed by the military. The Bangourain attack, allegedly by an armed group from the English-speaking region, and the retaliatory attack against Anglophones in Bangourain that followed are a warning sign and a blueprint of what could spark a genocide. 

In 2016, lawyers in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon went on strike - decrying what has been described as the "Francophonization" of the legal system in the regions by way of, for example, appointing French-speaking judges to courts in English-speaking regions. When their demands were not met they took to the streets in peaceful protest. The protest were met by tear-gas and a heavy-handed response by state security forces. Teachers, students and the general population joined the protests, and the situation morphed into a mass uprising against marginalization of English-speaking Cameroonians in a majority French-speaking country. The government's heavy-handed response continued and what started as a call for reform turned into calls for outright secession of the English-speaking regions.

Armed groups emerged and the Anglophone regions of Cameroon became engulfed in outright armed conflict between separatist groups and state defense and security forces. Hundreds - if not thousands have been killed, schools and houses burnt down and hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes in Cameroon's Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 437,000 people in the Northwest and Southwest have been displaced internally as of November 30, 2018. The socio-political situation in Cameroon remains tense, and there have been a proliferation of non-state armed groups. According to UN estimates, thousands of Cameroonians have fled to Nigeria. Over 20,000 Cameroonian refugees were registered in Nigeria as of March 2018.

Civilians have been caught in the crossfire and "genocide" has been used to describe atrocities committed in the region, sometimes against whole villages. "This is a genocide", a woman reportedly told The Guardian. According to The New York Times, many have accused the Cameroonian military of "genocide".


A genocide, according to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, means "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm  to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
Drawing from the afore definition, genocide is a serious crime. It is not a word to be thrown around lightly else risks losing seriousness. That said, atrocities have been committed in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon, and the Cameroonian military has been linked, by credible sources and analysis, to the atrocities. These atrocities including extrajudicial killings and the burning down of civilians' houses and in some cases the razing down of whole villages. In June 2018, using satellite imagery and eye-witness testimonies, BBC Africa Eye linked Cameroon's state security forces with the burning of villages.

Some of the atrocities committed by the military rise to the level of war crimes, but, in my view, fall short of genocide. The atrocities include burning down of villages and houses, destroying sources of livelihood in civilian areas, torturing and killing captured suspected separatists. War crimes have, without a doubt, been committed in the armed conflict in the Northwest and Southwest regions. These war crimes include the burning of schools, destruction of hospitals and health centres and kidnapping of civilians, including students and teachers by non-state armed groups. 

As to genocide, it looms but has not been committed yet. It will happen when Anglophones or Anglophone non-state armed groups will target and kill Francophones or vice versa, and the affected group retaliates -- targeting and killing members of the other group "with intent to destroy in whole or in part" as retaliation. Last weekend there were glimpses of what could spark a genocide in the context of the Anglophone crisis when homes were set ablaze in Bangourain in the West Region allegedly by armed Anglophone non-state actors. The reported attack on the French-speaking community reportedly happened on December 23, 2018, and was captured on video that was widely shared on Facebook. In the video a voice is clearly heard saying the attack is retaliation for the treatment of Anglophones. According to BBC News Pidgin the assailants were about 300
 gunmen. One person was killed, about 80 houses burnt down and 15 people kidnapped. Members of the Bangourain community on their part retaliated three days later by publicly beating to death two Anglophones suspected of involvement in the Bangourain attack, and reportedly asked Anglophones to leave the area. The gruesome killing that could be aptly described as a public lynching was also captured on video and widely shared on Facebook.

I am afraid we have not heard the last of Bangourain yet. Both sides, Anglophones and Francophones in Bangourain and in the rest of the country must exercise restraint in order to avoid an escalation that could lead to mass killings along linguistic lines or, yes - a genocide.   

The Bangourain tragedy is a warning sign and a blueprint of how a genocide could be sparked in the context of the Anglophone crisis. The genocide would not necessarily be committed by the military. It would be committed by civilians, when, for example, someday, for some reason, French-speaking Cameroonians turn against English-speaking civilians or vice versa. That is how the Rwandan genocide happened. Hutus turned against Tutsis.

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