General strikes and dreams of independence: for months, the Anglophone part of Cameroon has been in revolt.
Army against barricades: Ghost town of Bamenda, Dec. 8, 2016 Photo: reuters
"It’s a state of war!" reports James breathlessly. The student actually runs a visual art studio in Bamenda, capital of Cameroon’s Northwest Province. Now he is in hiding in the border region with Nigeria.
All the people are afraid to leave their houses, he reports about the situation in his hometown. Police, gendarmerie and military patrol sometimes on foot, sometimes on trucks. Since the wave of arrests began in December, a good 250 mostly young people have disappeared in prisons in Buea or the capital Yaounde.
The uprising in Cameroon’s Anglo West against the French-speaking government began in October as a protest by teachers and lawyers against the hiring of francophone colleagues in the Anglo structures. Discontent with President Paul Biya, in office since 1982, has long simmered beneath the surface.
The Anglo part of Cameroon complains of neglect, discrimination and police surveillance. At first Biya ignored the protests, then he sent in police and military.
Cameroon, a divided country
Cameroon came into being in 1960 with the independence of the once German French Cameroon and the annexation of the previously British "Southern Cameroons" by referendum the following year. To this day, the 20 percent of the population in the western part of the republic has its own English-language schools and courts and its own legal system based on British common law.
But Cameroon’s central government speaks mostly French; instead, the critical opposition is predominantly English-speaking.
In 1999, the non-violent secessionist Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) proclaimed the independence of the formerly British territory under the name Ambazonia. When protests began last year, the imaginary state quickly made the rounds on Facebook and Whatsapp.
"There’s even a flag and an embassy in Germany!" young designer Marie told neighboring Nigeria enthusiastically in October.
At the same time, the SCNC began collecting signatures for an independence referendum. As a result, the entire protest came under fire for wanting to divide Cameroon. "Independence is a taboo subject," student James explains by phone from his hiding place. Since the SCNC has been banned, any reference to the topic is also persecuted.
Shots are fired against "Ambazonia
Ambazonia is a dream of Cameroonians abroad, but everyone in the region wants independence, say members of the Anglo-Cameroonian diaspora.
In Cameroon itself, however, there is no talk of this, say Anglofons in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde. Francophone media reported only strikes, that negotiations were underway and that there would be a solution.
But in December, police fired live rounds for the first time, killing four protesters. Videos of security forces abusing young men in student dormitories have circulated on the Internet since then. "They are killing our people," the web says. Mothers sent their sons to Nigeria demanding negotiations.
The government’s interlocutor is the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC). It is not calling for independence, but for a return to the federal system in Cameroon, which was abolished in 1974.
CACSC swears in its supporters to non-violent resistance and "Operation Ghost Town" – a general strike every week on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Civil society is persecuted
On January 17, enough was enough for the government. The Internet in the region was shut down. Felix Agbor Nkongho and Fontem Neba, president and vice president of CACSC, were arrested and charged with terrorism. This is punishable by death. Since then, Cameroonians in exile have been directing the actions via Facebook. Independence is now again the central demand.
Operation Ghost Town" continues, also this week. Staying at home is the motto. Pictures of empty streets and markets are circulating.
"Our independence fighters are making sure that no one goes to school and no one opens their store," they say from Bamenda. Even traders from Nigeria stay away on spirit days.