The assassination this week of a prominent senator from Cameroon’s English-speaking western region, while the country is hosting the Africa Cup of Nations 2022, has put the spotlight on a conflict that the government has tried to overwrite. While President Paul Biya hails the tournament as a symbol of unity, his government’s policies have exacerbated deadly gaps.
On Wednesday night, hours before the coastal city of Limbé hosted its first match in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON, or CAN as it is called in French), Senator Henry Kemende left his house in Bamenda, a city further inland in the troubled country. English-speaking region in the western part of the country.
He never returned home.
Hours later, the body of the opposition politician was found in his homeland of Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s war-torn northwestern province, his chest full of bullets.
Kemende, a lawyer and legislator for the Social Democratic Front (SDF), one of Cameroon’s main opposition parties, was an outspoken human rights defender. He was also a leading representative of the country’s marginalized English-speaking minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the country’s 28 million population.
His killing came as international sports journalists were on their way to Limbé for Thursday’s match between Tunisia and Mali at the Omnisport Stadium. AFCON has seen the usual displays of national pride accompanied by choirs of buzzing vuvuzelas. The tournament started on Sunday with the hosts beating Burkina Faso, which led to an explosion of delight among Cameroonian football fans, many emblazoned in green, red and the yellow colors of the national flag.
A Cameroon fan outside Olembe Stadium, Yaounde, Cameroon, January 9, 2022. Mohamed Abd el Ghany, Reuters
But Africa’s top football tournament this year has been overshadowed by serious security concerns.
Militants from a motley mix of armed groups fighting for a separate state – called “Ambazonia” – in the English-speaking West have threatened to disrupt the Games. When the government was confronted with a separatist uprising in the west, a jihadist threat in the north and a pandemic around the world, the government still responded with a confident motto: “Security will be guaranteed”.
But the Cameroonian state – led by 88-year-old President Paul Biya, who has been in power for four decades – has not been able to guarantee the security of its citizens in the western provinces in recent years. The English-speaking uprising has claimed more than 3,000 lives and displaced nearly a million people over the past five years, with both sides accused of committing atrocities and abuses.
No one has taken responsibility for Kemende’s killing so far. The Ambazonian Defense Force (ADF), one of the largest English-speaking separatist groups, has denied responsibility for the killings.
However, the group claimed an attack on Wednesday, killing a Cameroonian soldier in Buéa, a city west about 20 kilometers north of Limbé, where four Group F national teams – Mali, Gambia, Tunisia and Mauritania – are based.
The assassination of a prominent parliamentarian in the northwestern region, followed by a deadly attack in the southwestern region, has put the spotlight on a conflict that the Cameroonian government has sought to protect from the international community.
The hosting of AFCON – which was postponed from 2021 due to the pandemic – has also raised questions about the use of major sporting events by authoritarian leaders to project national unity while their policies exacerbate divisions – with deadly consequences.
A new murder, an old colonial problem
Kemende’s killing has revealed the elusive nature of a crisis amid fears that the moderate English-speaking politician could have been assassinated by extremist Ambazonia militants, known locally as “Amba boys”.
With his legal background defending the rights of his constituents and his ability to tell the truth to the authorities, Kemende was a staunch parliamentarian and a well-known figure on Cameroon’s English-language television stations.
For the many people who knew the SDF senator and worked with him, the killing of Kemende is both unfathomable and tragic.
“It’s a huge loss,” Christopher Fomunyoh, senior associate for Africa at the Washington DC-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), mourned in an interview with FRANCE 24.
“It is a great loss for his family, of course. It is a huge loss for the legal profession, given the role lawyers played at the beginning of this crisis and the role they will play in resolving the crisis. Nationally, it is a huge loss: “A member of the Senate, a constitutional body, has been assassinated. And it is a huge loss when the conflict continues and the gap between the English-speaking population and the state widens.”
The crisis in Cameroon’s English – speaking western region was triggered in October 2016, when lawyers took to the streets of Bamenda to protest the exclusive use of French in courts and other state institutions.
The roots of the problem go back to colonial times, when the Central African region once colonized by Germany was divided between Britain and France after the First World War. With the withdrawal of the colonial powers, Cameroon was declared a “decentralized unitary state” under a 1961 constitution, with English and French as official languages. Buéa became the capital of West Cameroom while Yaounde doubled as the federal capital as well as the capital of French-speaking eastern Cameroon.
The northwestern and southwestern regions of Cameroon are formerly British colonies while the rest of the country was colonized by France. © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde
But English-speaking Cameroonians have long complained about discrimination and noted that the country’s top positions in government, as well as in the oil sector, have always been held by French-speakers. Cameroonian Anglophones also complained that government documents were published only in French, which made it possible for them to be excluded from top jobs in the public service.
The complaints were familiar and the protests peaceful – until a violent security crackdown fueled support for separatism and the emergence of several separatist militias demanding a new state of Ambazonia.
The rise of militias has thrown the already marginalized western region into a circle of violence with frightening familiarity. A militarized state response has seen hundreds of opposition party members and activists imprisoned and a population living in fear of arbitrary arrests and raids.
At the same time, Ambazonia militants routinely target civilians accused of “collaborating” with the Yaounde government and have enforced a school boycott, depriving hundreds of thousands of children of their education.
“It is always the civilians, the ordinary people who are caught in the middle, who suffer,” said Rebecca Tinsley, a London-based activist with The Global Campaign for Peace and Justice in Cameroon. – The violence is only getting worse. By 2021, there were more than 80 IEDs [improvised explosive device] attacks only in the English-speaking region. Due to the violence, almost one million children cannot go to school and there is very little security, which makes life very difficult for ordinary people. ”
“Only five days” for calls
Two years after militants declared an independent Ambazonia in 2017, Swiss negotiators agreed to mediate talks between Cameroonian authorities and separatists in an attempt to end the escalating violence.
However, the Swiss peace proposals were not followed up and the Cameroonian government instead began a national dialogue from 30 September to 4 October 2019, to great fanfare.
Following the talks in Yaounde, the government announced new measures, including the release of some political prisoners, the creation of regional assemblies and councils, and a $ 163 million special fund for the reconstruction of the English-speaking regions northwest and southwest.
But a year later, the regions in the west were still ungovernable and violence had increased. While the Special Fund had received 10 percent of the promised $ 163 million, the fighting had slowed the first phase of the reconstruction exercise.
“The National Dialogue was a play for the benefit of the international community,” Tinsley dismissed. “It had no credibility because most Anglophones were either not invited or were afraid to go [to Yaounde] in case they were arrested. “
Most analysts agree that the talks, which brought together representatives from Cameroon’s 10 provinces instead of concentrating on the affected region, were a failure. “The national dialogue lasted only five days – you can not handle complaints from over 50, diagnose the problems, find solutions, seek consensus and deal with the implementation in five days,” said Fomunyoh. “They continue to insist that this is an internal problem. They think they can just shoot themselves out of the conflict otherwise the crisis will burn out on its own,” he dismissed.
The tournament will end, but “problems remain”
Hosting the Africa Cup of Nations could have provided an opportunity to either revive a dying peace process or better, evaluate failures and start over.
Football is politics in Cameroon, where sport plays an important role in public life. Domestically, sport “acts as a diversionary element in the country’s tightly controlled political system, while successful sporting achievements internationally compensate for the country’s weak influence on other aspects of continental and global politics,” Joanne Clarke and John Sunday Ojo noted in their report, “Sports Policy in Cameroon.”
The Cameroonian president – with his advanced age, health problems and prolonged stays in his Swiss luxury trip – is the subject of private jokes and speculation about his mental agility. But even at the age of 88, Biya has proven that he instinctively understands the power of the game in his football-mad nation when he declared to AFCON “a great moment of brotherhood” that would give Cameroonians an opportunity to show “the rich cultural diversity that has earned our country the nickname, ‘Africa in Miniature’ “.
But apart from the spectacle of explanations, the Biya administration missed the moment of including all Cameroonians in a fraternity that allows for the inclusion of the country’s diversity in all political and economic sectors.
Fomunyoh lists four conditions for the resumption of an English-language peace process based on established bargaining standards. These include the announcement of an immediate ceasefire to stop the cycle of violence, the release of political prisoners, the use of non-Cameroonian negotiators to facilitate dialogue between opposing sides, and finally to “accept that mediation should be held in another country outside Cameroon”.
None of the proposals were listened to, which left Fomunyoh to see the current football circus as a metaphor for the country’s leadership style. “I feel that this tournament and the debate surrounding it capture how this government handles issues. They are so focused on the here and now that they do not seem to be able to project in the medium or long term,” he noted. to be over, but the problems remain. “
Experts agree that the English-language crisis requires a political – not a military – solution. But for Cameroonians who have invested in a peaceful solution to the conflict, Kemende’s killing leaves a deep vacuum. “He was one of the few English-speaking elites who spoke out and could talk to both sides,” Fomunyoh mourned. “Unfortunately, I have no confidence that there will be a thorough investigation, that the perpetrators will be found and brought to justice and that justice will be done.”