Cameroon’s government ordered thousands of villagers to leave their homes in the Anglophone Southwest region as it deploys troops to root out armed separatists vowing to loosen President Paul Biya’s long grip on power.
The deployment marks an escalation of Biya’s year-long crackdown on peaceful protests in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions that has killed dozens of civilians and forced thousands to flee in fear of reprisals.
Now, government is using force to confront an insurgency that has sprung up alongside the civil unrest.
The separatists killed at least eight soldiers and policemen over the past month as part of their campaign to break from Yaounde in Francophone Cameroon and form a separate state Ambazonia.
Authorities of the Manyu Division in the Southwest on December 1 gave the order to evacuate 16 villages across the region. They warned anyone deciding to stay “will be treated as accomplices or perpetrators of ongoing criminal occurrences.”
Motorbikes, a preferred mode of transport for separatist attackers, were ordered off the roads between 7 pm and 6 am.
“People ran helter skelter when they saw the statement,” said Agbor Valery, a lawyer in Mamfe, near some evacuated villages. He said people were afraid of being rounded up and jailed, as happened since September in other areas of English-speaking parts of the country.
“If you go to the villages, everyone has fled. Only the old people stayed. The streets are quiet. It is highly militarised. At night, you hear gunfire.”
Valery saw hundreds of troops and truck loads of military equipment arrive in Mamfe and then deployed to surrounding villages.
Reuters was unable to independently verify his account but two military sources in Bamenda in Northwest region confirmed additional security forces have been deployed in English-speaking regions.
PROBLEMS FOR BIYA
The separatist movement compounds problems for 84-year-old Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982 and plans to stand for another term next year. The economy has slowed sharply since 2014, while attacks in Far North region by Islamist militant group Boko Haram have strained the military.
The fall last month of Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe after decades in power highlights the potential vulnerability of Africa’s long serving rulers amid a growing grassroots push for strict term limits for presidents.
Last week Biya vowed to flush out secessionists, who he called “criminals”. Defence minister Joseph Beti Assomo said the new deployment would “prevent terrorists from harming others”.
Violence has spiralled since last year when government forces crushed peaceful protests by Anglophone teachers and lawyers protesting their perceived marginalisation by the French-speaking majority.
The heavy-handed government response fuelled support for the separatist movement which has existed on the fringes of Cameroonian politics for decades.
The response has forced thousands out of their homes. More than 5,000 have fled Anglophone Cameroon across the border to Nigeria since October, the United Nations said.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said it is making preparations for up to 40,000 refugees.
“GO HOME TO WHERE?”
Refugees’ stories are slow to emerge because of government-imposed internet outages blocking messaging and social media sites like Facebook and Whatsapp. They are beginning to shed light on what new refugees will likely face.
Abia David told Reuters he left Bamenda in Northwest Cameroon on October 27 amid widespread arrests in the town. He heard from friends police were coming to arrest him because he is a member of an opposition political group.
To escape Bamenda and avoid its increasingly crowded jail, he cycled 16 km into the countryside. From there he walked some 100 km alone north through a series of remote villages towards Nigeria.
“There was no time to carry food. I had one change of clothes but I lost that.”
He slept on strangers’ floors and arrived in Nigeria a week later, where he fell ill with malaria. He said NGOs on the border estimated a 1,000-odd people arrived since the weekend.
The UNHCR is offering provisions including mosquito nets and is helping refugees find housing. So far there is no central camp for refugees and they rely on the hospitality of Nigerians.
For David, it beats going home. Asked if he planned to return, he said: “Go home to where? Go home to be killed? To go to jail without trial? I can only go back once this is resolved.”