The killing this week of a prominent senator from Cameroon’s anglophone western region, while the country hosts the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations, has put a spotlight on a conflict the government has tried to paper over. While President Paul Biya hails the tournament as a symbol of unity, his government’s policies have exacerbated deadly divides.
On Wednesday night, hours before the coastal city of Limbé hosted its first match of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON, or CAN as it is called in French), Senator Henry Kemende left his house in Bamenda, a city further inland in the troubled English-speaking region in the country’s west.
He never returned home.
Hours later, the opposition politician’s body was found in his native Bamenda, capital of Cameroon’s war-torn Northwest Province, his chest riddled with bullets.
Kemende, a lawyer and lawmaker for the Social Democratic Front (SDF) party, one of Cameroon’s main opposition parties, was an outspoken human rights defender. He was also a leading representative of the country’s marignalised anglophone minority, who constitute around 20 percent of the country’s 28 million population.
His killing came as international sports journalists were making their way to Limbé for Thursday’s match between Tunisia and Mali at the Omnisport stadium. The AFCON has seen the usual displays of national pride accompanied by choruses of buzzing vuvuzelas.The tournament kicked off on Sunday with the hosts beating Burkina Faso, setting of a burst of rapturous joy among Cameroonian football fans, many emblazoned in the green, red and yellow colours of the national flag.
But Africa’s premier football tournament this year has been overshadowed by serious security concerns.
Militants from a motley mix of armed groups fighting for a separate state – called “Ambazonia” – in the anglophone west have threatened to disrupt the games. Confronting a separatist insurgency in the west, a jihadist threat in the north and a pandemic across the world, the government nevertheless responded with a confident motto: “Safety will be guaranteed”.
But the Cameroonian state – led by 88-year-old President Paul Biya, who has been in power for four decades – has not been able to guarantee the security of its citizens in the western provinces over the past few years. The anglophone insurgency has claimed more than 3,000 lives and displaced nearly a million people over the past five years, with both sides accused of committing atrocities and abuses.
No one has claimed responsibility for Kemende’s killing so far. The Ambazonian Defence Force (ADF), one of the main anglophone separatist groups, has denied responsibility for the killing.
The group did however claim an attack on Wednesday, which killed a Cameroonian soldier in Buéa, a western city around 20 kilometres north of Limbé, where four Group F national teams – Mali, Gambia, Tunisia and Mauritania – are based.
The slaying of a prominent parliamentarian in the Northwest Region followed by a deadly attack in the Southwest Region has put a spotlight on a conflict the Cameroonian government has attempted to shield from the international community.
The hosting of the AFCON – which was postponed from 2021 due to the pandemic – has also raised questions over the use of major sports events by authoritarian leaders to project national unity while their policies exacerbate divisions – with deadly consequences.
A new killing, an old colonial problem
Kemende’s killing has exposed the intractable nature of a crisis amid fears that the moderate anglophone politician could have been assassinated by extremist Ambazonia militants, locally known as “Amba boys”.
With his legal background defending the rights of his constituents and his ability to speak truth to power, Kemende was a firebrand parliamentarian and a familiar figure on Cameroon’s English language TV stations.
For the many people who knew the SDF senator and worked with him, Kemende killing is both unfathomable and tragic.
“It’s a huge loss,” mourned Christopher Fomunyoh, senior associate for Africa at the Washington DC-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), in an interview with FRANCE 24.
“It’s a huge loss for his family of course. It’s a huge loss for the legal profession, given the role lawyers played in the beginning of this crisis and the role they stand to play in resolving the crisis. Nationally, it’s an enormous loss: A member of the Senate, a constitutional body, has been assassinated. And it’s a huge loss as the conflict continues and the gap between the anglophone population and the state widens.”
The crisis in Cameroon’s anglophone western region was sparked in October 2016, when lawyers took to the streets in Bamenda to protest the exclusive use of French in court and other state institutions.
The roots of the problem date back to the colonial era, when the central African region once colonised by Germany was split between Britain and France after World War I. With the withdrawal of the colonial powers, Cameroon was declared a “decentralised unitary state” under a 1961 constitution, with English and French designated official languages. Buéa became the capital of West Cameroom while Yaounde doubled as the federal capital as well as the capital of francophone East Cameroon.
But English-speaking Cameroonians have long complained of discrimination, noting that the country’s top positions in government, as well as in the oil sector, have always been held by French speakers. Anglophone Cameroonians also complained that government documents were published only in French, enabling their exclusion from top civil service jobs.
The grievances were familiar and the protests peaceful – until a ferocious security crackdown fuelled support for separatism and the emergence of several separatist militias calling for a new state of Ambazonia.
The emergence of militias has plunged the already marginalised western region in a cycle of violence with dismaying familiarity. A militarised state response has seen hundreds of opposition party members and activists jailed and a populace living in fear of arbitrary arrests and crackdowns.
Meanwhile Ambazonia militants routinely target civilians accused of “collaborating” with the government in Yaounde and have enforced a school boycott, depriving hundreds of thousands of children of their education.
“It’s always the civilians, the ordinary people caught in the middle, who suffer,” said Rebecca Tinsley, a London-based activist with The Global Campaign for Peace and Justice in Cameroon. “The violence is just getting worse. In 2021, there were more than 80 IED [improvised explosive device] attacks in the anglophone region alone. Because of the violence, nearly a million children are not able to go to school and there’s very little security, making the lives of ordinary people very difficult.”
‘Just five days’ for talks
Two years after militants declared an independent Ambazonia in 2017, Swiss negotiators agreed to mediate talks between Cameroonian authorities and separatists in a bid to end the escalating violence.
The Swiss peace proposals however received no follow-up and the Cameroonian government instead launched a National Dialogue from September 30 to October 4, 2019, with much fanfare.
Following the talks in Yaounde, the government announced new measures, including the release of some political prisoners, the creation of regional assemblies and councils, as well as a $163 million special fund for the reconstruction of the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions.
But a year later, the western regions were still ungovernable and the violence had increased. While the special fund had received 10 percent of the promised $163 million, fighting had slowed the first phase of the reconstruction exercise.
“The National Dialogue was a piece of theatre for the benefit of the international community,” dismissed Tinsley. “It had no credibility because most of the anglophones were either not invited or afraid to go [to Yaounde] in case they got arrested.”
Most analysts agree the talks, which brought together representatives from Cameroon’s 10 provinces instead of concentrating on the aggrieved region, were a failure. “The National Dialogue was held for just five days – you can’t deal with grievances of over 50 years, diagnose the problems, find solutions, seek consensus and address implementation in five days,” said Fomunyoh. “They continue to insist this is an internal problem. They think they can just shoot their way out of the conflict or the crisis will burn itself out,” he dismissed.
Tournament will end, but ‘problems remain’
The hosting of the Africa Cup of Nations could have provided an opportunity to either reinvigorate a moribund peace process or better, evaluate failures and start afresh.
Football is politics in Cameroon, with the sport playing an important role in public life. Domestically, the sport “serves as a diversionary element in the country’s tightly controlled political system, whilst internationally, successful sports performance compensates for the country’s weak influence on other aspects of continental and global politics,” noted Joanne Clarke and John Sunday Ojo in their report, “Sport Policy in Cameroon”.
The Cameroonian president – with his advanced age, health problems and protracted stays in his Swiss luxury getaway – is the subject of private jokes and speculations about his mental agility. But even at 88, Biya has proved he instinctively understands the power of the game in his football-mad nation when he declared AFCON “a great moment of brotherhood” that would provide Cameroonians an opportunity to display “the rich cultural diversity that has earned our country the nickname, ‘Africa in miniature’”.
But aside from the spectacle of declarations, the Biya administration missed the moment to include all Cameroonians in a brotherhood that enables the inclusion of the country’s diversity in all political and economic sectors.
Fomunyoh lists four conditions for the resumption of an anglophone peace process based on established negotiation norms. These include the declaration of an immediate ceasefire to stop the cycle of violence, the release of political prisoners, the use of non-Cameroonian negotiators to facilitate dialogue between opposing sides, and finally, to “accept that the mediations should be held in another country outside Cameroon”.
None of the proposals were heeded, leaving Fomunyoh to view the current football circus as a metaphor for the country’s leadership style. “I feel this tournament and the debate around it captures how this government tackles issues. They’re so focused on the here and now, they don’t seem to be able to project into the middle or long term,” he noted. “In a few weeks, the tournament will be over, but the problems remain.”
The anglophone crisis, experts agree, requires a political – not military – solution. But for Cameroonians invested in a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Kemende’s killing leaves a deep vacuum. “He was one of the few anglophone elites who spoke out and who could talk to both sides,” mourned Fomunyoh. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any confidence that there will be a thorough investigation, that the perpetrators are found and put to trial, and that justice will be served.”