Yaoundé Felix Agbor Nkongho looked over his shoulder at a secluded Yaounde cafe. As a leader of Cameroon’s growing anglophone rights movement, he had reason to be on his guard. A month previously he had been in prison in the capital, waiting to be tried under the country’s new anti-terrorism laws.
A prominent lawyer and activist, if convicted Agbor Nkongho would have faced the death penalty for his part in organising peaceful protests. The arrest of anglophone activists was part of the Cameroonian government’s attempt to quash discontent emanating from its English-speaking regions.
What began as a simple request for English to be used in the courtrooms and public schools of the country’s two anglophone regions has escalated into a crisis in which dozens of people have died, hundreds have been imprisoned and thousands have escaped across the border to Nigeria.
If the situation is not defused through dialogue, the entire country could be destabilised ahead of elections in the autumn, according to the International Crisis Group .
A number of anglophone activists are calling for secession and the creation of a new country, which they want to call Ambazonia.
“The anglophone crisis is the biggest timebomb in Cameroon,” said Nkongho, who was released by presidential decree seven months after his arrest. “If it’s not addressed, it could break the country.”
A year ago, after French-speaking staff were appointed to anglophone courts, lawyers in Bamenda, the capital of one of the anglophone regions, took to the streets in protest. They were soon joined by teachers, who said francophones with little English were being hired in their public schools.
The protests started peacefully but turned violent when the state met them with force, according to Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, the director of Redhac, a coalition of human rights defenders across central Africa.
“As usual our government, which has no idea how to resolve conflict, turned to repression,” said Ngo Mbe.
After months of bellicose rhetoric, Cameroon’s long-time president, Paul Biya, appeared to hold out something of an olive branch to the anglophone regions in his new year’s address, saying dialogue was the best way of resolving the crisis and promising to decentralise power so that people could manage their own affairs.
However, he added: “All those who have taken up arms, who perpetrate or encourage violence should be fought relentlessly and held accountable for their crimes,” before congratulating the security forces for their “bravery, determination, restraint and professionalism.”
He made no mention of the 40 people killed and 100 injured surrounding the peaceful protests of October 1, when activists from the Southern Cameroonian United Front symbolically declared the two anglophone regions the independent republic of Ambazonia. The government closed borders to the anglophone regions before deploying the army’s Rapid Intervention Brigade, a unit that is normally found fighting Boko Haram in another of the country’s crises, that of the northern Lake Chad region.
The October crackdown in towns and villages along Cameroon’s border with Nigeria caused at least 7,000 people and possibly as many as 20,000 to flee into Nigeria’s Cross Rivers state, where the UN refugee agency is bracing itself for the arrival of 40,000 more.
“Our fear, however, is that 40,000 people might actually be a conservative figure in a situation where the conflict might continue,” said the agency’s Babar Baloch in a recent briefing.
Activists estimate that 1,000 people are in detention and up to 100 have been killed, figures that are far higher than the official toll. According to Amnesty International, some protesters were shot in the back of the head and the legs while running away.
The latest high-profile figure to be detained, the writer, poet and professor Patrice Nganang, was released last week and repatriated to the US after three weeks behind bars. Police had arrested him at Douala airport shortly after he published an article criticising the government’s handling of the crisis.
Accused of posting a death threat against Biya, Nganang was told he would not get another visa for Cameroon, in effect meaning he would not be allowed to return.
Cameroonian authorities said 10 security officials were killed in November, and announced that four more were killed last week by separatists “using perfidy”.
The UN’s secretary general has called for a halt to the violence and for dialogue, but the opposition accuses 83-year-old Biya, who has been in power since 1982, of not being interested.
In some ways, however, international pressure seems to have had an effect. Two weeks ago Ahmed Abba, a journalist who had been jailed for 10 years for terrorism, had part of his sentence quashed, just as the Commonwealth’s secretary-general, Patricia Scotland, met opposition politicians and representatives of civil society to discuss “moving forward”.
Cameroon has a long history of conquest and subjugation. When the colonial scramble for Africa began, Germany managed to grab what it named Kamerun, but after the First World War the territory was confiscated and the French and British carved it up between them, the French taking the larger part.
At independence in 1961, the UN held a referendum giving anglophone Cameroonians the choice of joining either Nigeria or francophone Cameroon. With no option to become an independent state, they chose their francophone neighbours and together became a federal republic. But the anglophones soon found it was not a marriage of equals.
Talk of an independent Ambazonia has been around since the 1980s but has gained traction in the past few months.
When Agbor Nkongho was released, he found that while he had been in jail the “murderous repression” had led to some anglophone activists on the outside becoming more radical.
Demands for decentralisation of power have been quickly followed by demands for a return to a federal republic, and calls to split from Cameroon.
Agbor Nkongho does not think this is a good idea. “We can still live as one; unity in diversity,” he said.