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29 March 2018
The Southern Cameroon crisis has escalated in the last few months since October 1, 2017 when the leadership of the Southern Cameroon separatist group declared independence from Cameroon. They called the new state the Republic of Ambazonia. The declaration has led to further intensification of repression. Activists estimate that about 100 people have been killed and 1, 000 are in detention.
The background to the conflict is the division of Cameroon into an English-speaking part comprising the North West and South West regions which accounts for 20% of the population and the Francophone areas which accounts for a majority of the population. This situation of things has its root in the colonial history of the country which in the period after the First World War was partitioned between France and England after the initial Colonial power, Germany, was defeated. Southern Cameroon was under the British mandate and ruled with British Nigeria for administrative convenience while the rest of Cameroon was under French rule.
Unification was achieved in 1961 through a United Nations referendum that presented only two options to Southern Cameroonians: union with Nigeria or Union with Cameroon. This resulted in the largely Muslim northern part of Southern Cameroon joining Nigeria, while mainly Christian areas voted to become the "Western State" of the new Federal Republic of Cameroon. This federal structure remained until 1972.
But instead of disappearing after over five decades of independence, the colonial fault lines have been further reinforced by the Paul Biya dictatorship which marginalizes and discriminates against the English-speaking region as part of an overall capitalist agenda of exploitation. This has included imposition of anti-poor policies that have rendered mass majority poor, unemployed and without access to quality education, health care and basic infrastructural provisions both in Southern Cameroon and the rest of the country.
For the Southern Cameroonians in particular, discrimination means they have special difficulty in getting employment in the civil service where French language is given prominence over the English language. The Southern Cameroon problem is another example of how the legacy of colonialism mixed with capitalism and dictatorship have created knotty national questions in several countries that tends to ignite violence.
The movement started since October 2016 when anger over discrimination and need for reforms exploded. The immediate spark of crisis was the imposition of the French language in schools and courts of the Anglophone region. Lawyers, teachers and civil society groups embarked on strikes and demonstrations. The repression that this movement met hardened it and leading to more voices demanding secession and a separate state. The strike of doctors and lawyers lasted about six months with a whole school year lost. Also sporadic violence has occurred as the Paul Biya regime sought to put down the protest with force. For over three months, an internet ban was imposed on Southern Cameroon in order to disrupt communications among activists and prevent news of the arrest, torture and killing from spreading.
The worsening situation has left many people homeless and hundreds of people have died as a result of attacks on protesters and military occupation of the Anglophone region. About twenty thousand people have reportedly sought refuge in Ikom village, a border town in Rivers state, Nigeria. Southern Cameroon shares border with Etung and Ikom Local Government Areas in Cross River State, Nigeria. To curb the escalating influx of refugees, the Nigeria/Cameroon border post in Mfum in Etung Local Council on September, 2017 was shut by Cameroon authorities.
On January 5 this year, Nigeria's Department of State Security (DSS) arrested ten members of the separatist leadership who had sought refuge in Nigeria to escape attacks from the brutal Paul Biya dictatorship. Nothing more has been heard about their whereabouts since January. The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) in Nigeria condemns this attack on the separatist group and the people of Southern Cameroon. We call for an end to the attacks on civilians and immediate release of all political prisoners including those arrested in Nigeria. We also warn the Nigerian governments not to repatriate them back to Cameroonian authority where they most certainly will undergo torture.
That the Nigerian government would aid the Paul Biya dictatorship to suppress the Ambazonian movement is not surprising. Just like Paul Biya, the President Muhammadu Buhari led regime in Nigeria is known for brutal attacks on dissenters' views. No Nigerian government has supported peoples' right to self-determination. This is why the people of Bakassi were denied any right to self-determination when their peninsula was given to Cameroon in 2008 simply because of the border drawn by the former colonial powers, the British and German Empires, and an agreement in a 1913 treaty between them. The Obasanjo government probably accepted this handover as part of the 2005 Paris Club deal to cut Nigeria's foreign debt by $18billion and subsequent governments have suppressed protests by former Bakassi residents.
A separatist group in the South Eastern part of Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), has also come under vicious attacks by the Nigerian government for demanding a separate state. The last attacks on the group by the Nigerian army resulted in the torture and killing of many IPOB members and the alleged disappearance of the group's leader and his parents. This shows how the capitalist regimes ruling in both Cameroon and Nigeria are currently in agreement about deploying force to resolve the national question. However, it cannot be ruled out, that in the future, the Nigerian ruling class may intervene in and exploit such border disputes to expand their own power, but not that of the oppressed populations.
Now the United Nations and foreign powers are urging for measures to diffuse tension. There are many reasons for this. One is that Southern Cameroon though with a population of just 5 million out of 24 million Cameroonians is important to the dictatorship and the capitalist class. The area plays an important role in the national economy especially its agricultural and commercial sectors. Also, "most of Cameroon's oil which accounts for one twelfth of the country's GDP is located off the coast of the Anglophone region" (Cameroon's Anglophone Crisis at the Crossroads Crisis Group Africa Report N°250, 2 August 2017).
There is also fear of the implication of the crisis continuing into general elections planned for October 2018. Paul Biya, one of Africa's longest-ruling dictators, has been in power since 1982. Cameroon is equally contending with Boko Haram insurgency in the far North and militia from Central African Republic in the East. Maintaining a new flank of armed conflict is therefore something it would try to avoid. This explains some of the measures presently being taken in order to woo the Southern Cameroonians. For instance, the government has taken "several measures since March creating a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism; creating new benches for Common Law at the Supreme Court and new departments at the National School of Administration and Magistracy; recruiting Anglophone magistrates and 1,000 bilingual teachers; and turning the internet back on after a 92-day cut" (Cameroon's Anglophone Crisis at the Crossroads Crisis Group Africa Report N°250, 2 August 2017).
But none of this will fully satisfy the aspirations of Southern Cameroonians especially in the context of capitalism and a dictatorship that has stolen much of the country's wealth leaving little or nothing left to provide public education, infrastructures and ensure employment generation. Also many have been displaced, losing their home, means of livelihood, parents, children and relatives. Some are in jail or in exile. This means even if some relative calm is restored, the crisis can again resurge at any point in time.
Socialists recognize the right of Southern Cameroonians to self-determination. Given the colonial legacy of the creation of modern African states, no serious Marxists can find a way to a people under the yoke of national oppression without recognizing this right unconditionally. But how this right is exercised in practice is based on the concrete circumstances in each country. In the context of Cameroon, this can mean either a greater autonomy within Cameroon on the basis of self-rule and mutual respect for the rights of national minorities or the creation of a separate state.
However Socialists must warn that separation is not an automatic solution. For instance, the experience of Southern Cameroonians show that the biggest obstacle to a successful union is capitalism and the Paul Biya dictatorship which uses discrimination as a tool to hold-on to power. If the Paul Biya dictatorship and capitalism are overthrown and replaced by a workers and poor people's government armed with socialist policies of collective ownership and equal distribution of wealth, a voluntary union of Cameroon under which the rights (culture, language, economic rights etc.) of all national minorities including Southern Cameroonians are respected can be easily achieved.
In the same token, the creation of a separate state of Ambazonia will not automatically resolve anything from the point of view of the working class and poor of Southern Cameroon if capitalism is not defeated and a workers and poor people's government established which would ensure the collective ownership of the wealth, a socialist plan and respect for the right of national minorities in the new state. A Republic of Ambazonia which implements anti-poor policies of privatization and deregulation and which enriches a few at the expense of the majority will not lead to any improvement in the lot of the working masses. Only the Southern Cameroonian capitalist elite, and possibly Nigerian based capitalists, stand to benefit from such an outcome.
Therefore, a real and satisfactory solution to the "Southern Cameroon problem" can only be achieved by the independent struggle of the workers, youth and poor of Southern Cameroon in alliance with the working class in the rest of the country to fight for respect of national rights, self-determination and an end to dictatorship and capitalism.