Paul Biya isn’t a monarch, but he sure acts like one. The second-longest-ruling head of state in the world, 85-year-old Biya just won a seventh term as President of Cameroon after a campaign rife with controversy. The election results didn’t come as a surprise to the people of Cameroon, although for many citizens, the president’s win destroyed the last vestiges of a silver lining of hope.
My country stands on the brink of civil war. Still reeling from its colonial past involving Germany, Britain, and France, Cameroon consists of ten regions—eight of which contain the Francophone majority supported by Biya, while only two regions hold the oppressed Anglophone minority.
The people in the Anglophone regions have fought for their rights since 2016, when the minority started protesting the imposition of French systems in the educational and legal systems of Cameroon. Teachers and lawyers went on strike, and an ultimatum to the government was made calling for independence for the two Anglophone regions, which separatists called The Federal Republic of Ambazonia.
Biya cracked down hard on the newly formed Ambazonian government. Protestors, lawyers, teachers, and the developing Ambazonia Defence Forces were tortured, arrested, or killed simply because they were fed up with unfair treatment by the government. Houses were burned, and journalists were denied access. Most schools in the Anglophone regions were closed for over a year, which meant my schoolmates and were forced to stay at home to avoid the violence on the streets or—particularly if our families didn’t have much money—were encouraged to work for a pittance in markets.
Read a special report by Advice Project Media journalist Nji Remi Adams about why schools in Cameroon were closed for a year.
Late 2017, Biya declared war on the Anglophone secessionists. My schoolmates and I grew accustomed to hearing gunshots. We learned what it was like to live in fear for our lives.
Boy in Bali, Cameroon (Northwest region); photo by Melissa Banigan
Throughout Anglophone Cameroon, there is a growing wave of people who believe and accept the new Ambazonian government, even if they are scared to declare it openly. To speak up means being forced to go into hiding in camps in rural and densely forested areas. When they lift their voices, they risk being killed or arrested. Despite the pretense that Cameroon is a democracy, under Biya’s rule, Cameroonians are not allowed free speech.
Biya has dispatched the Cameroon military to find Ambazonians who have gone into hiding. These soldiers also torment citizens who haven’t publicly declared that they side with the oppressive majority government or the secessionists. The Cameroonian government says Ambazonians are terrorists, yet every single person living in an Anglophone region knows the stories of men and women and even young children who have been murdered and women and girls who have been raped by Cameroonian soldiers.
I recently spoke with Jane*, a mother who fled from her home in Fundong, a town in the Northwest Anglophone Region. She said: “I thought we would die if we stayed. My children and I were on the floor of our home for over a week because we were afraid of getting hit by stray bullets from all the shooting. There are gunshots everywhere.”
Jane and her family took a bus, but a roadblock forced them to walk for over five hours before boarding another bus. It was a harrowing journey, and the family passed through checkpoints that were alternately manned by local village police, Cameroonian militia, or Ambazonian soliders. At the last checkpoint—in the center of an Ambazonian stronghold—Jane and her family were forced off the bus. Her husband, the soldiers learned, had facilitated the writing of the General Certificate of Education in Fundong and was a teacher by profession. They wanted to hold Jane for questioning: "I was so scared and tears kept pouring down my cheeks I went down on my knees to plead with them to let me go."
Eventually, the soldiers told Jane that because of her children, she would be allowed to proceed. Her story shows the confusion the crisis has brought on all sides. In a country at the edge of a major war, even a mother trying to flee violence can be suspected of choosing the “wrong” side.
Women in market in Bali, Cameroon (in the Northwest region); photo by Melissa Banigan
Make no mistake: the Cameroonian election on October 7th was a farce. In the Anglophone regions, the Cameroonian government closed many polling centers, citing “secessionist violence.” Polling centers that were open were manned by Cameroonian soldiers who intimidated voters. Also, violence between the state and the separatists has left fewer people to vote. At least 160,000 people have been displaced in Cameroon and tens of thousands have crossed the northern border into Nigeria.
Many people in Anglophone regions believe that the Ambazonians are fighting a just fight. The roads in the non-francophone regions are barely passable, young people don’t have job opportunities, and poverty and political unrest have caused a land rife with bribery and corruption. Professional schools formed by the francophone majority are closed to most English speakers—they may pass the entrance exams, but don’t have enough money to pay the officials who say they must pay extra to be admitted. Youth fortunate enough to have gained their university and master’s degree can’t find employment, and are therefore forced to become motorcycle taxi drivers or work menial jobs. Biya’s government turned its back on the English-speaking minority decades ago. Is it any wonder the minority is rising up against him now?
Ambazonian secessionists won’t stop fighting until all people living in Cameroon have equal rights or when Ambazonia is recognized as a country. Biya’s presidential win means he’s set to lead the country again until 2025. How many more people will be killed under his leadership?
Cameroonians in the Anglophone regions often are forced to stay at home because of mandatory city-wide shutdowns. When they do leave, they aren’t sure they’ll return home safely. They can’t turn to the Cameroonian government, and despite the Ambazonians fighting for the rights of all people, they also can’t rely on Ambazonia Defence Forces for safety. People are starving, and as women like Jane flee from violence, they pass dead bodies that litter the side of the roads.
There are whispers throughout English-speaking communities asking when the U.N. will step in to prevent killings of innocent people, although many people have given up hope. Nina*, a resident in the Northwest Anglophone region, speaks for many people when she says: "We all knew this was going to happen. Results have been rigged before. What was stopping them from doing it this time? We had hope it wouldn’t happen, but the worst is yet to come.”
*Surnames have been omitted to protect citizens.
Gaelle is a Cameroonian youth journalist with Advice Project Media. She studies sciences and just wrote the General Certificate of Education - Advanced Level. She's going to university to study Civil Engineering to become an Architect. She likes reading books, watching movies, and listening to music. She writes articles about gender equality, the environment, and issues in Cameroon problems going on around her. She believes in fighting for gender equality all over the world.