by Bernard Ngalim
Ethnic cleansing surfaced in the context of the 1990’s conflict in the former Yugoslavia during that same period, the Rwandan genocide awestruck a world paralyzed into inaction as about one million Tutsi were slaughtered before the world cameras with CNN ratings hitting the roof off. After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the international community promised to prevent a repeat of such horror. Twenty-four years later, the world silently watches another human catastrophe ripping Ambazonia, Anglophone Cameroon. This time rather, instead of the tribes being cleansed, the Anglophone are being francophonized. The eight million people of Ambazonia, the English speaking region of Cameroon are victims of targeted and indiscriminate killings, disappearances, mass arrests, detentions, indiscriminate razing of villages, rape, torture etc.
There is a long story behind the horror but the situation deteriorated in 2016. Ambazonian lawyers and teachers called general strikes against what they called the francophonisation of the judicial and educational systems. Ambazonian lawyers and teachers petitioned the government against the deployment of French speaking magistrates and teachers to English speaking courts and schools. Government ignored the grievances, access to justice and due process eroded, and the quality of education dropped terribly.
Unable to contain government’s inaction, lawyers and teachers called sit in strikes, and in solidarity, frustrated Ambazonian joined them. Government responded by mass arrests and detentions – sometimes in unknown detention centers. Amongst the detainees were Human Rights Lawyer and activist, Felix Agbor Balla, leader of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium and Justice Ayah Paul of the Supreme Court. To concretize the arrests, government banned the consortium, deployed armed soldiers to cities and villages, tortured students, shut down internet supply in the affected zone and decreed curfews in the area.
Government brutality exacerbated the Ambazonian quest for independence. On September 22 and October 1, 2017, millions of Amazonians defied government curfews, poured into the streets armed with green leaves, blue and white stripes (flag of and official colors of Ambazonia), declared and celebrated the independence of Ambazonia from French Cameroon. Government again reacted responded with brutal force causing the deaths of protesters. Rights Groups such as Human Rights Watch evaluated satellite imagery of 131 villages and concluded there was evidence of building destruction in 20 villages and small towns consistent with burnings. Amnesty International reported government firing indiscriminately on crowds, including from helicopters. International Crisis Group documented death toll resulting from the use of live ammunition and excessive use of tear gas, including in homes and against the faithful as they left church.
The multiplier effects of government brutality have been devastating. In May 2017, 160,000 people were internally displaced and 22,000 refugees fled to Nigeria and more continue fleeing to Nigeria. Militias constituted themselves to protect their people and property, leading to increased armed violence between government forces and pro-independence fighters. Civilians are the biggest casualties of the violence; they are forced to flee, take refuge in forests, and families are separated. Yet, the world silently watches as the humanitarian situation deteriorates.
Ambazonian remember the Never Again Campaign pledged after the Rwandan genocide and wish it were reality. The government adopted a scotch earth policy razing villages, using life ammunition and killing indiscriminately. As the world silently watches, children have dropped out of school and some have joined militia groups, schools destroyed, people live in bushes without healthcare, the economy is shrinking while the military and militia groups kill, kidnap and torture civilians. The conflict has transformed to war. While government claims monopoly of violence, militia groups claim right to self-defense. Between the protagonists, lie the vulnerable civilian population who die daily. Government has refused access to rights groups making it difficult to document deaths, atrocities and update information on casualties and displaced people. In a Facebook post on August 6, 2018, an Ambazonian activist claimed government killed at least 77 Ambazonian between June and July 2018. The list details the names, date and place of death. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights alarmed by reports of serious rights breaches regrets government’s refusal to grant UN and humanitarian investigators access but promised to explore other options including remote monitoring.
Civil society operates in a tight and hostile environment making it difficult to collect, update and publish data on the atrocities. The International Crisis Group quoted reports from Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa, a local rights group that put the death toll on October 1, 2017 at 100 persons. To effectively tell the story, local rights groups partner with or furnish foreign rights groups with information. Though most reports recommend government conducts impartial investigations, government congratulates the military for their professionalism. The Catholic Church issued a statement detailing the historical and constitutional root causes of the problem. International Crisis Group posits the Church remains the veritable voice to broker dialogue as a route to resolving the conflict.
War is raging in Ambazonia, people are dying, fleeing into forests and others into Nigeria. It is international good practice to bypass national sovereignty and restore peace in the face of humanitarian and catastrophic human rights violations. Government refusal to grant access to the UN and other international humanitarian organizations is open to interpretation, transmits bad faith and puts the burden of proof on government. Rights groups and the US Ambassador have accused government of using excessive force, targeted killings, collective punishment, arbitrary and indiscriminate arrests making. Consequently, government cannot conduct impartial investigations. Based on the US information on the planned and targeted killings of civilians US, the US can take a lead role to investigate and publish a report on the actual situation thereby invoking international humanitarian action. Following the deployment of 300 US military personnel to Cameroon, the US has enough information on atrocities. Ambazonia is the former UN trust territory of British Southern Cameroon which attained independence in 1961 by “joining” French Cameroon. The “joining” was conditioned on a federation but French Cameroonian abolished the federation, occupied Ambazonia and is francophonizing the people. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights recognized Ambazonians as a people. As a people they have the right to self-determination and should determine their political future. An internationally mediated dialogue remains the sustainable solution to the conflict.