History & Context

The Ambazonia Crisis and Africa’s Unending Nightmare of Francafrique

Since September 22, 2016, the French neocolonial regime in Cameroon has been carrying out a systematic and ruthless military campaign against the people of the English-speaking communities in Ambazonia, also known as “Anglophone Cameroon” or the former UN Trust Territory of Southern Cameroons. Initiated in 2016 to suppress peaceful demonstrations for the rights of the populations in the regions, the campaign has violated numerous provisions of international human rights law and has forced more than 30,000 people to seek refuge in Nigeria and more than 437,000 to become internally displaced persons (IDPs)[1], as reported to the UN Security Council by Ms. Reena Ghelani on December 13, 2018. The urgency of this situation cannot be understated — there has been close to a 40% jump in IDPs between June and December 2018, leading Ms. Ghelani to warn that Cameroon is now “one of the fastest growing displacement crises in Africa.”[2]

In this article, we will summarize the origin and details of the current crisis; then discuss the historical and political-economic context of French neocolonialism and how it relates to Ambazonia; and finally turn to the problem of lobbyists, media distortion and the obstruction of global action.

I. The Current Crisis in Brief

Ambazonia is a territory located between Cameroon and Nigeria in West Africa. Since 1961, it has been under military occupation by Cameroon and most people consider it to be a part of Cameroon. But an extreme majority of Ambazonians reject the legitimacy of the Cameroon regime and its military control. This dissent is often rendered in terms of the different in language: In Ambazonia, the dominant colonial language currently spoken is English, because just prior to the current regime it was administered by the United Kingdom. This region is often referred to as Anglophone Cameroon. During the same period, the rest of what is commonly known as Cameroon was under French control, and because of this the dominant colonial language spoken there is French. This region is often referred to as Francophone Cameroon.

When Ambazonians consented to merge in a UN-administered plebiscite in 1961, the specific understanding was that each territory would keep its constitution, laws, and public institutions as well as its ability to conduct business in French and English, respectively. But this understanding was not honored, and instead the French-Cameroon regime has since moved in direct and underhanded ways to dismantle and defund “Anglophone” institutions and replace them with centrally controlled institutions.

As a result, a situation has developed of social stratification, where those who don’t have access to “Francophone” culture are treated as second class citizens.

For decades there have been waves of protest over this “stepchild” status that is forced on the people of Ambazonia. Most of these protests have been led by students and teachers, in response to efforts by the Cameroonian regime to dismantle Ambazonia’s effective and popular network of parent-teacher associations, and to require testing in French. Until very recently, this movement has been entirely nonviolent, with one of its dominant slogans being “The Force of Argument, not the Argument of Force.”

The most recent wave of protests, which began in September 2016, was initiated in large part by lawyers, who were responding to an attempt to dismantle the Ambazonian common law–based judicial system and replace it with the French colonial civil law system, as well as to force trials to be conducted in French.

In a December 13, 2016, report, the Hon. Commissioner Reine Alapini-Gansou, Country Rapporteur for Cameroon and Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, wrote the following about the conflict:

"The Special Rapporteur has received information that the strikes and protests are allegedly provoked by what has been dubbed, “the Anglophone problem,” due to discontented Anglophone Lawyers, Teachers and Civil Society in English-speaking Cameroon legitimately and peacefully seeking a halt to: the gradual, but systematic destruction and obliteration of the Common Law Legal System and the Anglosaxon System of Education; the marginalisation and neglect by the administration of Cameroon of the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon; and the return to Federal system of governance."[3]

The French Cameroon military responded to these peaceful protests with lethal force and human rights abuses, as detailed in this report. In addition to expressing concern for nine peaceful protesters murdered across the regions in a September 22, 2016, protest, Commissioner Alapini-Gansou also expressed deep concerns over human rights violations that included:

"killings of civilians; the deployment of armed military personnel, special security forces (BIR) and war machines to these two regions; the disproportionate and deathly use of force and violence to dispel peaceful and unarmed Lawyers, Teachers, Students, civilians and protesters in Bamenda, Buea and Kumba; the raping of students in Buea; the arbitrary arrests, detention and merciless beatings orchestrated by the police, gendarmerie, military and the BIR following strikes and protests that have been going on since October 2016."[3]

In the months that followed, both nonviolent protests and government persecution of nonviolent protesters escalated. To prevent the people from reporting these abuses to the outside world, the Cameroon government cut internet access to the English speaking North West and South West regions for six months in the first half of 2017[4], and have since returned it only intermittently and at their arbitrary discretion.

During an October 1, 2017, protest in particular, Amnesty International reported more than 20 peaceful protesters were shot dead, several severely injured and more than 700 arbitrary arrests by Cameroon forces.[5]

In response to these atrocities, and for the first time in four decades–long history of dissent, some within Ambazonia have resorted to defend their communities with force. Also at this time, a coalition of organizations issued a “declaration of independence” — which Ambazonians understand to be a restoration of the independence they had prior to the union with Cameroon — and set up an Interim Government in exile.[6]

On November 29, 2017, in response to attacks on a military convoy and a police post by armed assailants, President Paul Biya of Cameroon declared “war” on those the state radio called “terrorists who seek secession”.[7] These attacks have since been used as justification for a full out scorched-earth policy against the communities of Ambazonia, including systematic rape and other mass atrocities against women, men, and children, and the burning of villages as reported by BBC.[8] Some 106 villages have been burnt per the last count in August 2018 by the Centre for Human Rights & Democracy in Africa (CHRDA).[9]

On January 5, 2018, Julius AyukTabe, known for championing a nonviolent approach to Ambazonian resistance, and his senior aides were illegal abducted by the Nigerian secret service at the Nera Hotel in Nigeria. These activists, who became known as the “Nera 10”, were subsequently handed over to Cameroon, along with 37 other asylum-seekers in violation of non-refoulement, a fundamental principle of international law which forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in likely danger of persecution. The 37 asylum-seekers are still being held incommunicado as at the time of writing, while the Nera 10 were only allowed limited access to lawyers and family visits after nine months of incommunicado detention and a grueling international campaign. Condemnations and calls by the UNHCR[10], the US State Department[11], Amnesty Nigeria[12], and others for the respect of the rights of the 47 forcibly returned from Nigerian custody to the Cameroonian authorities have been ignored by Cameroon officials.

At least 1,300 activists and journalists[13] have been imprisoned, according to Barrister Nsoh Fru, the lead lawyer for the Nera 10. Some are being tried in military courts which is a violation of international law, and some have been sentenced for terrorism and other unjustifiable charges.

In May, 17, 2018, the US Ambassador to Cameroon stated publicly that the Cameroon government is guilty of “targeted killings, detention without access to legal support, family, or the Red Cross, and burning and looting of villages.”[14]

Since March 2018 the Cameroon government has refused the requests from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to access the affected communities to investigate reports of international crimes.[15,16] The government has also blocked access to these communities for the press, human rights organizations as well as humanitarian organizations.[17,18]

Calls for an end to the violence and for dialogue by the UN, the UK, Germany, Sweden[18], the Netherlands, the US Ambassador[14], the US Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, the U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations[17], a US Congressional hearing[19], multiple letters from US Congressional representatives and senators[20], as well as representatives from other countries, human rights organizations, and Cameroon civil society organizations and leading political figures have simply been ignored by the Cameroon government.

Alarmingly, a recent report by the International Crisis Group[21] indicates that the Cameroon regime is utilizing both military units and paramilitary militias in its war against the Ambanzonian people. This report substantiates numerous grassroots reports and footage. As reported in the International Crisis Group’s 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019 report[21], and confirmed by the Cameroon president in his 2018 end of year speech[22], the Cameroon government is determined to crush what it considers “an Anglophone insurgency rather than tackle the grievances fueling” the so-called Anglophone crisis.

II. The historical and political-economic context of French neocolonialism (la Françafrique)

As pan-African activists, we are all too aware of the narrative of Africa as the “Dark Continent,” peopled by an uncivilized people, doomed to repeat spirals of “tribal conflict” as is inevitable for such allegedly non-rational peoples. Versions of this lie continue to occupy an outsized role in framing mainstream discourse and policy on Africa and people of African descent. Accordingly, it is important for us to take a moment to clarify that none of these words should be misunderstood to be encouraging the “Dark Continent” narrative in anyway, shape or form. Far from being the “Dark Continent”, Africa:

  • has produced 23 Nobel prize winners
  • has 6 of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies in the world, including the #1 fastest growing: Ghana[23]
  • has 3 countries in the top 5th of the 2017 Democracy Index, including Mauritius at number 16, Cape Verde at 23 and Botswana at 28. By contrast, the United States and Italy are at number 21, while France occupies position 29, Belgium position 32 and other so-called western democracies are further down the ranking[24]

Yet there is a serious problem going on now in Africa, which we call neocolonialism.

Most of us are made to believe that colonialism is a system that ended several decades ago, and that all colonized lands in Africa and the rest of the Global South are now independent. But this is a simplification. Neocolonialism is not an epitaph or a metaphor, it is a real political economic system that is wreaking havoc in many parts of the world.

In particular, Africa is under the thumb of a particularly vile form of neocolonialism that has become known amongst activists and scholars as “Françafrique,” and was propelled into popular awareness by French activist and economist François-Xavier Verschave in his 1999 bestseller La Françafrique, le plus long scandale de la République.[25]

Françafrique was tellingly rendered in a discussion between Bill Sutherland (African American civil rights icon and unofficial ambassador of Nkrumah’s pan-African movement between the peoples of Africa and the Americas) and Kenneth Kaunda (prominent Gandhian activist and the first president of Zambia):

Sutherland wondered: “if, given Africa’s continuous crisis and malaise despite their best efforts for more than half a century, there might be a devil in Africa?”
To which Kaunda replied: “There is a devil in Africa! That devil is called France.”[26]

For Africans in Former British colonies, as well as for most activists and allies in non-French speaking countries across the globe, Kaunda’s statement does not compute. We are too used to focusing on the “big bad guy” and France doesn’t seem like him. But for Africans who have experienced life within the skeleton of France’s colonial legacy, these words ring true without explanation. Starting with what some scholars now describe as the Genocide of the Bamileke in Cameroon[27] in the 1950s, followed by the systematic assassination of pro-independence leaders (including Ruben Um Nyobe and Felix Moumie of Cameroon, Barthelemy Boganda of Central African Republic, Outel Bono of Chad, Sylvanus Olympio in Togo[28] and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso[25]) and accompanied by other forms of coercion and threats, France managed to maintain the essential components of its colonial infrastructure intact while appearing to comply with the shifting international consensus reflected in the 1960 UN resolution calling for an end to colonialism.[29] Whereas many pro-independence leaders in former British colonies went on to lead their countries after independence (for example, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Milton Obote in Uganda, and Kenneth Kuanda in Zambia), France handed control to their former colonial staff and called it “independence”. These former colonial staff were then made to sign bilateral agreements with France which amongst other things granted France:

  • the right to permanently station troops in these countries,
  • the right to control the economies of these countries starting with monetary policy — for which France has maintained its colonial currency, the Colonies Françaises d'Afrique (CFA) Franc, which is still used as legal tender to this day, albeit with cleaned up names, the Central African Franc and the West African CFA
  • the right to keep 100% of the foreign reserves of these countries in the French treasury,
  • the right to determine education policy at all levels,
  • access to no-bid public contracts,
  • the right of first refusal for mineral and natural resources exploitation,
  • the obligation to intervene militarily in these countries if invited by those nominally in charge of the new countries — or in the event that such a so-called-leader is incapacitated, the resident French ambassador can make such a request,
  • and much more... [30,31]

In the cases where their brutal suppression of all inklings toward self-government failed, they behaved punitively toward the new regimes. The most famous example of this is in Haiti, where they imposed a crippling debt on the new government that they said was owed to them to cover the loss of their slaves, and pressured the international community to demand that they pay. In Guinea Conakry, when it became clear that they had lost the war with the independence movement, the French took everything they could on their way out of the country. French military commanders systematically oversaw the complete evisceration of assets they couldn’t take with them — like public infrastructure, down to burning all books and medication, destroying public buildings — including nursery schools, primary schools and research centers, unstringing electric wires, uprooting railroad tracks, shooting dead all farm animals, food reserves were burnt or poisoned, and tearing up pavement and throwing the asphalt into the sea.[31]

France has since maneuvered to extended Francafrique to the former Portugeese, Spanish and Belgian colonies in Central and West Africa as those countries retreated following the end of colonialism.

  • Guinea-Bissau (a former Portuguese colony), and Equatorial Guinea (a former Spanish colony) now also use the CFA franc as their legal tender.
  • In the former Belgian colony the DRC Congo, French troops twice overran popular uprisings seeking to unseat the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko, first in 1977 with 1500 troops from Morocco, and again in 1978 with a battation of French special forces.[32,33]
  • In the former Spanish colony Angola, the largest state-sponsored bribery scandal in African history unfolded in the 1990s when, just after the country had emerged scathed from a brutal 8-year civil war, 42 top French officials conspired to defraud the African country to the tune of US$790 million. The horrifying spectacle, which became known as the Angolagate Scandal, involved senior French cabinet members, the minister of interior, and President François Mitterrand himself.[34,25]
  • In the former Belgian Rwanda, France trained, funded, and supported a Hutu militia to defend the dictator Habyarimana against the pro-democracy movement in 1994. The militia went on to perpetuate the fastest-paced genocide in recorded history.[35,25]

While Former British colonies have been less affected by French interference, they are by no means untouched. France has had to use more underhanded methods of control. For example:

  • In Sudan, activists who had taken too seriously French rhetoric on the need for democracy were stunned in 2014 when the US imposed a record $9 billion fine on the French bank BNP Paribas for violating international sanctions designed to stop genocidal and anti-democratic behavior.[36]
  • In Egypt, France — in violation of international law — has supplied the El-Sisi regime with deadly weapons for use in crackdowns.[37]
  • In Nigeria, France was the international champion for the Biafra War, not the Biafran people. France was the main supplier of weapons to the Biafran Army — including Panchard armored vehicles, two B-26s bombers, Alouette helicopters, and pilots as well as mercenary fighters. At the same time as stoking the flames of war in Nigeria, declaring “Biafra Week” on March 11-17, 1969, France declined to formally recognize Biafra — which was the one thing that Biafrans needed the most in their struggle.[38] Then, having blackmailed their way into huge oil concessions from the Northern-dominated federal government with their support for Biafra, France switched sides and betrayed the Biafrans to the government — in exchange for increased access to Nigerian oil.[39] Two years after the end of war, with the country still recovering from the devastation, in a move reminiscent of economic hitmen, France makes its biggest investment yet in Africa by opening the first ever Peugeot Automobile plant in Africa, in Kaduna, the capital of the former Northern region. While Kaduna had neither a trained workforce, market or raw materials for car production like iron, copper or aluminum, it had access to the northern elite that overwhelmingly dominate the Nigerian political class.[40] Four years later French oil company Elf emerged as the biggest winner in the 1974 issuing of new oil leases by the Nigerian government.[39]

As a result of these policies and practices, France has emerged as the overwhelming dominant power in “post-colonial” Africa.

The oppressive effects of these policies and practices are stark. Despite having 6 of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies, with huge reserves of natural and mineral resources, as well as dramatic advances in democracy since the end of the cold war, the economic and political conditions in the 23 Francafrique countries remain exceedingly bleak:

  • Per that 2017 Democracy index, 5 of the world’s 10 most authoritarian regimes are in Africa and all 5 are Francafrique countries. Additionally, 19 of the 23 Francafrique countries — i.e. more than 70% — dominate the bottom ranking of the index as the worst dictatorships.[23]
  • Per data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), 8 of the 25 conflicts around the world that caused between 100 and 999 deaths in 2018, were in Francafrique countries.[41] In other words, less than 5% of the world’s population that makes up the Francafrique territories accounted for more than 30% of the world’s conflicts.

III. Ambazonia and Francafrique

The crisis in Ambazonia is one of these conflicts. In fact, Ambazonia is uniquely positioned with reference to this neocolonial apparatus because it is the only country to have experienced life in a former British colony and life in a former French colony. For this reason, the uprising currently unfolding in Ambazonia is best understood as a popular movement against French neocolonialism.

For those who lack an awareness of Francafrique, the conflict in Ambazonia seems to be “between Anglophones and Francophones,” and is often narrated as a clinging to colonial era identities. Why do Ambazonians defend their infrastructure and insist on their right to conduct business in English? Why don’t they want to join with their “brothers” in Francophone Cameroon? This is the question that the power-holders in Cameroon ask, and it is a question that many observers in the international community wonder about as well. “Why can’t those Africans just get along with each other?” asks the media.

But to those who understand the severity of Francafrique, it is clear that colonialism has never ended, but only changed form.

To understand this perspective fully, it is necessary to examine the full colonial history:

  • in 1858, Ambazonia was colonized by the British, led by Alfred Saker, and named Victoria Colony.[42]
  • in 1887 it was given to the Germans as a way to assuage relations between the two European countries.
  • in 1917 it was taken from the Germans after they lost World War I, and returned to the British as the “League of Nations Trust Territory of the Southern Cameroons”
  • in 1945, when the United Nations was created, it became a UN Trust Territory, still under British administration.

The plan at this stage was that the Trust Territory phase would end with independence. Yet there were competing agendas at play that ultimately would derail this intention.

Following the end of each World War, the international moral consensus against colonialism grew, a reality reflected in the name “Trust Territory.” Many administrators of the colonies during this time took seriously the task of “preparing the colonies for independence.” In Ambazonia, they worked in cooperation with the indigenous community to build hundreds of effective public institutions, such as parent-teacher unions and farmers cooperatives. These institutions went a long way toward dismantling the unilateral control implemented during the previous stage of colonialism, and returned a great deal of power and resources to the people.

One fruit of this empowerment work was that in 1954, Ambazonia experienced a peaceful transfer of power from one elected prime minister (albeit with limited authority) to another. In fact, this was the first such peaceful transfer of power in post-colonial West Africa. The memory of that experience of effective democracy is still strong within Ambazonian society.

Yet during this time Britain was still benefiting economically from their colonies. Neither Britain nor France wanted to lose the economic benefit they got from these colonial relationships. So during this time, efforts were also made behind the scenes to identify ways to keep enough political control over the region so as to be able to continue to extract the resources they wanted at minimal cost.

It was based on this logic that the power-players in London determined that full independence was not an option for Ambazonia. Also driven by fear of the influence of communist organizing in Ambazonia, they decided that an independent nation in this location would be too difficult to control. The latter motive is documented in a declassified cable sent by the then US Consul General in Nigeria on May 11, 1959.[43]

In 1961, the UN gave the Ambazonian people the choice between joining Nigeria as a state or joining Cameroon as a partner in a two-state confederation.

Faced with this choice, the Ambazonian people opted for Cameroon in a UN-administered plebiscite. The specific proposal that the people approved was for the creation of a confederacy between the two countries, in which each region would retain its Constitutions, language, and autonomous public institutions like Parliament, Judiciary, and others — all of which would be legalized at a Treaties Conference that was to include both UN administering authorities, Britain and France.

But this vision would never be realized. Almost immediately, the Cameroon regime began to violate the Ambazonian constitution and behave toward the Ambazonian people like a colonizer, not like a partner or a “brother.” In specific:

  • It acted to undermine parliamentary process and eventually unilaterally disbanded the Ambazonian Parliament.
  • It orchestrated the deposing of the pro-independence Ambazonian Prime Minister Augustine Ngom Jua, and eventually assassinated him.
  • It disbanded the local police units, replacing them with French Cameroon military forces.
  • It gutted and eventually closed down the Public Works Department, and commandeered its heavy duty civil construction machinery which has previously been used cooperatively by local councils for road maintenance and repairs.
  • It shut down the network of farming cooperatives, as well as a range of other cooperatively run training and financial management organs which saw to the health, empowerment and economic effectiveness of the farming communities.
  • It began a decades long effort to undermine the power of the widely popular parent-teacher association network, which has been resisted every step of the way by movements of teachers and students.
  • It undermined and closed down almost every single industrial infrastructure that had fueled economic growth and employment opportunities in Ambazonia, including two naturally deep seaports, four airports, all railway lines, the public airline company Cameroon Air Transport which had been the fastest growing airline in West Africa at that time, the public electricity corporation Powercam which at the time was a pillar of economic growth and energy self-reliance, the national bank and a cooperative credit union league, and many others.
  • It has since located all new economic projects in French Cameroon, including even building an oil refinery (Sonara) that pipes oil out of Ambazonia and into Francophone controlled zones where all economic transactions are managed.
  • It has assimilated or impeded the celebration of almost every indigenous festival and local cultural tradition.

This pattern of development — and intentional underdevelopment — can only be described as colonial, and it has led to a massive gulf in economic activity between Ambazonia and Cameroon. The goal of all this behavior is clearly to make the indigenous populations of the colonial territories into completely helpless subjects, robbed of all forms of power and human dignity.

Horrible as all this is, most Ambazonians do not understand this as primarily a betrayal by Cameroonians. Most Ambazonians understand the current regime in Cameroon to be effectively under French control.

Like most former French colonies, Cameroon does not print its own money, but rather uses the Paris-controlled Central African Franc.

Paul Biya, who has controlled Cameroon since 1975, marched in the streets of Paris AGAINST the independence of his country when he was a student. He then went home and worked his way up within the ranks of the French colonial government, eventually earning the top position there, and was finally handed the reigns from his former colonizers. Considering these two roles in succession, he is arguably the longest reigning dictator in the world.

By his own words, Biya is an unapologetic puppet of neocolonialism — as he declared to the local press in La Baule, France, in June 20, 1990: “I cannot disagree with the opinion of President Mitterand that I am the best student of France.”[44]

To critics of Francafrique, these words speak volumes.

From the evisceration of Ambazonian infrastructure, to the shooting of unarmed protesters, to the disappearance and incommunicado imprisonment of movement leaders, to the burning of villages, French Cameroon under Biya’s leadership appears to be continuing in the Francafrique tradition.

For this reason, we refer to the regime as “the French neocolonial regime in Cameroon.”

IV. Lobbyists and the Obstruction of Global Action

How does a situation like this persist in today’s world? How does the Cameroon regime escape international consequences for its atrocities?

One of the main reasons is the impact of lobbying and media manipulation. The Cameroon government is paying large PR firms (including Mercury LLC, Goodworks International LLC, Squire Patton & Boggs[45,46,47]) to influence media coverage and lobby against policy actions that would hold the regime accountable for their systematic abuses.

They are planting stories, editorials and letters to the editor that polish the image of the government and portray the Ambazonian movement as dominated by violent terrorists. Influenced by these reports, much coverage of the conflict ignores or simplifies the complex political-economic history and the decades of nonviolent organizing. Most coverage accepts the government’s way of referring to the resistance rather than calling the movement groups by the names they use for themselves. Until very recently[21] all reporting has completely ignored the streams of grassroots reports of rogue paramilitary forces acting with impunity.

Unfortunately, many sympathetic politicians and even some international human rights groups have been upholding these narratives. In addition to economic interests, the pressure to support Cameroon’s position is high due to the investment that the international community has in it’s partnership in the war against Boko Haram.

But these distortions and lies are clear to those with firsthand experience. The Ambazonian diaspora is working hard to counter these lies, and to expose the political context that gives them traction. You can help with this by following APOCS on twitter and re-tweeting messages that directly counter misinformation and call out ill-informed reporting.

We are in the process of amalgamating suggestions on specific calls for action. Please check our TAKE ACTION tab for more information on this soon.

Thank you for helping to uphold the rights and dignity of Ambazonians, and of all people!

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This article was written by Eben Egbe and Amy Dalton in consultation with the APOCS Net Team.

Last Updated:

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 - 06:38