Deadly Violence Continues in English-speaking Cameroon Amid Independence Calls

Cameroon's President Paul Biya has vowed to end attacks by separatists in the English-speaking regions, in a rare address on the ongoing crisis.

The 84-year-old leader condemned the killing of four soldiers and two policemen in November by what he described as "a band of terrorists".

"I think that things are now clear to everyone. Cameroon is the victim of repeated attacks by a band of terrorists claiming to be part of a secessionist movement," Biya said during a national radio broadcast on November 30, according to AFP.

The violence occurred against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Northwest and Southwest Provinces, Cameroon's only anglophone regions. Groups have taken to the streets demanding a return to a federal state system, the breakaway of the two provinces and the restoration of Southern Cameroons, also known as the Republic of Ambazonia, which was the southern part of the British Mandate territory of Cameroons during colonization.

Two secessionist leaders confirmed to Reuters that their movement, the Ambazonian Governing Council (AGC), looted weapons and carried out the first raid near the Nigerian border, in which the four soldiers were killed. They explained they wanted to clear checkpoints and military outposts in the area, which they say are "symbols of occupation".

The Southern Cameroon Defence Force, the armed wing of the Southern Cameroons Youth League (SCYL) group, confirmed the attack in a statement seen by Newsweek. The group, which said it carried out the attack in conjunction with AGC, blamed the Cameroonian military for the murder of "innocent civilians".

"We did not choose this fight. It came to our homeland and started with an illegal and forceful unification and culminated into the incessant slaughtering of our people," read the statement.

How has the crisis unfolded?

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French and English are the official languages of Cameroon. Lawyers, teachers and students in the English-speaking areas have been striking since October 2016 against perceived marginalization, the use of French in courts and schools in the provinces, and the lack of English versions of some legal acts and codes.

Strikes and demonstrations were initially peaceful. However, the prolonged demonstrations have resulted in mass-arrests, clashes with security forces and a crackdown on protesters.

Rights group Amnesty International said in October that more than 500 people had been detained in overcrowded prisons, with witnesses claiming wounded protesters fled hospitals to avoid capture. The organization also claimed at least 20 people were "unlawfully shot dead by security forces" during demonstrations on October 1. The government has denied allegations of excessive force.

The government stirred criticism after it implemented an internet ban, later lifted, in its English speaking zones, forcing people to travel to French-speaking regions where they can use the internet. The blockade was detrimental to local businesses.

The move prompted the UN and rights groups to call on the governement to restore internet service.

"The Cameroon government is playing with fire over the 'anglophone crisis,'" security analyst David Otto told Newsweek.

He believes that both parties must engage in a dialogue to address long-standing grievances in the region.

"The situation has deteriorated to one of an underground insurgency, where security personnel are targeted by the 'Ambazonia Forces' at an incremental rate," said Otto.

"The government must address this decade-long crisis with a sense of delicacy, responsibility and determination. Any escalation of the crisis through military retaliation will only make the situation dire."

Why are people calling for independence?

In 1961, people of Southern Cameroons voted whether to join Nigeria or the Republic of Cameroon, which had already obtained independence from Britain and France one year earlier. The vote resulted in Southern Cameroons becoming part of the French speaking Republic of Cameroon.

In 1972, a new constitution was adopted in Cameroon, replacing the federal state with a unitary state.

"This is fake and failed union that was imposed upon our people," Ebenezer Akwanga, former political prisoner and SCYL founder, told Newsweek.

"We came to the conclusion that the only way a legal settlement can be reached, is when we have the capacity to defend our homeland and force the annexationists to sit on the table with us. Until that is done, they will never sit on the table with us," he said.

What is the government's position?

The government has denied allegations of excessive force. It also rejected calls for a referendum on federalism.

Earlier this year, Biya ordered the release of dozens of activists and instructed a military court to drop charges against those arrested during protests.

However, other activists, including radio broadcaster Mancho Bibixy, remain in jail.