The European Union has warned of an unfolding catastrophe in the conflict-hit English speaking regions of Cameroon where the state and separatist militia are engaged in blatant atrocities.
In a resolution on Thursday the EU Parliament said the security and political situation in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon were deteriorating and called on President Paul Biya's government to immediately take all steps to bring an end to the violence and impunity in the country.
In its resolution No 2019/2691(RSP) of April 18 the European Parliament deplored the growing violence and discrimination facing the Anglophone community in the country; expressing particular concern over allegations that government forces are responsible for killings, excessive use of force, and torture of civilians.
“Regrettably, unlawful killings and atrocities continue to be reported regularly (in the regions) allegedly involving both the security and defence forces and separatist groups,” Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy told the EU parliament.
She said the 28-member states EU has consistently called for dialogue between the government and armed separatists as the only way to achieve a sustainable solution to the crisis, “in a non-violent and inclusive manner, respecting fundamental rights and the rule of law.”
In the resolution, the legislative body asked the government to lift the ban on the activities of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium and to ensure an open space in which civil society can operate.
In her statement to Parliament Ms Mogherini said there was repression of demonstrations and narrowing of political space in Anglophone regions. She said 47 key opposition figures are under arrest awaiting military trials while more than a hundred protesters are in detention. Lawyers said Cameroon laws were not being respected.
"We have asked for the release of detainees against whom hard evidence cannot be produced and we asked for an immediate halt to violence, to human rights violations and hate speech. Regarding the situation in the English speaking regions of the Northwest and Southwest, we have consistently called for dialogue as the only way to achieve a sustainable solution, in a non-violent and inclusive manner, respecting fundamental rights and the rule of law," Ms Mogherini said.
However, she lamented unlawful killings and atrocities continue to be reported regularly, allegedly involving both the security and defence forces and separatist groups
About 500,000 people are now displaced, including 32,000 refugees from Cameroon registered in Nigeria. Cameroon is also grappling with continued attacks by Boko Haram in the far North as well as in Chad, Niger and Nigeria.
"We know that Boko Haram is not invincible, and has suffered major setbacks. Yet we are seeing civilian deaths and losses by the security forces in Cameroon," she told Parliament. There have been various accounts, supported by unverified gory images, describing what is going on in Cameroon as genocide but the government says the accounts are exaggerated by civil society looking for sponsors.
"We need to continue our humanitarian support as part of the international humanitarian response on the various fronts. If we consider both the Internally Displaced People and the refugees coming from Nigeria and the Central African Republic, there is about one million people in need of help," she said.
Violence erupted in the Cameroon’s two English speaking regions when an industrial strike by aggrieved lawyers and teachers in 2016 over perceived marginalization turned into a clamour by armed separatists for outright independence of the region. Ambazonia, as the separatists identify the region, was administered as part of Nigeria as a UN trust territory under British control prior to reunification.
In November last year, the International Crisis Group (ICG) reported that the fighting had already killed between 450 to 500 civilians, 185 members of the security forces and hundreds of armed separatists. No official casualty figures have been reported since then but the toll has certainly risen as there has been several attacks since then.
ICG estimated that around 10 armed separatist groups had gained control of “large rural areas and a number of main roads” in the two English speaking regions.
Besides killings, the groups have been blamed for the repeated kidnappings of school children, staff and other officials in the regions. Trips to various localities of the regions even for burials are near impossible as the armed groups have mounted road blocks and kidnap travellers for ransoms.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a recent report said government forces killed at least 170 civilians in the last six months while civilians in the Anglophone regions were also attacked by armed separatists during the same period, with at least two men being executed.
The report said soldiers, special army units and gendarmes used indiscriminate force and torched hundreds of homes and public buildings in the Northwest and Southwest regions between October and March.
The government however dismissed the report saying it lacks seriousness and objectivity.
Communication Minister, Rene Emmanuel Sadi said troops deployed to the regions work perfectly within their sovereign role of ensuring the protection of the nation and the populations, in keeping with republican values, against outlaws who mercilessly kill and sow terror and despair.
“Human Rights Watch has betrayed an obvious bias in favour of armed gangs,” Mr Sadi said. HRW called for "immediate measures by the government of Cameroon and the international community to protect the security, safety and unhindered access to healthcare and education for children.”
Cameroon Minister of Territorial Administration, Paul Atanga Nji who is also National Coordinator of an Emergency Humanitarian Assistance Plan; a government initiative to assist victims of the conflict said the humanitarian situation in the regions is “under control.”
Contrary to the half a million Internally Displaced Persons by the crisis figure by civil society organisations, he said, official data indicated that only 152,000 persons have been displaced by the crisis.
In June last year, the government unveiled a FCFA 12.7 billion ($21.8 million) relief plan for the reintegration of the affected populations; reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure, housing, food, healthcare and education. CFCA stands for the Central Africa Franc, the single currency for the six states forming the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa States.
Relations between the minority Anglophone Cameroonians and the country’s dominant Francophone elite have long been fraught. Cameroon’s Anglophones often complain of being treated as second-class citizens since the reunification.
These grievances led to peaceful protests in 2017 which government forces violently repulsed after separatists load on the protests to declare independence for the state of Ambazonia.
President Biya, 86, who has ruled Cameroon for 36 years, has relied on military force to keep the country united.
On his re-election in November last year, President Biya vowed to pursue policies of decentralisation to address "frustrations and aspirations" in English-speaking regions hit by separatist unrest. He asked the rebels to drop their arms or face the determination of the military.
It was the first time in 13 months of pro-independence violence that Biya had clearly acknowledged the struggles of those living in anglophone areas.
The United States, however, has suspended military aid to Cameroon over the suppression of human rights.
In November last year, President Biya's government refused to authorise the Anglophone General Conference which was to kick-start dialogue on improving security in the regions.
Organisers are still hopeful the conference will be allowed this year.