The French-English Divide Can Be Lethal in This African Nation

(Bloomberg) -- Cyprain fled his home when separatist fighters in Cameroon’s Northwest region threatened to kill him after he served government soldiers at his roadside bar.

He’s one of a growing number of civilians trapped between the army and roaming gangs of English-speaking insurgents fighting to break away from the majority-Francophone nation. The conflict has decimated the local economy in the conflict zone, and according to the United Nations, left hundreds of people dead and displaced about 437,000 people.

The French-English Divide Can Be Lethal in This African Nation

“The military burn houses, destroys, loots property and kills citizens,” Cyprain, 41, said on condition that his surname not be used out fear for his safety during an interview in the port city of Douala, where he now stays with relatives. “Separatist fighters attack, kidnap and even kill people they suspect are their enemies.”

There’s no end in sight to a conflict that started in late 2016 with peaceful protests against the dominance of the French language in schools and courtrooms of the Northwest and Southwest regions, where most people speak English. President Paul Biya, 85, said on Twitter last week he’ll order the defense forces to “neutralize” all fighters who don’t lay down their weapons, a warning he first gave in his traditional year-end speech.

Africa’s second-longest serving head of state, Biya extended his more than three-decade rule in the central African nation by winning disputed presidential elections in October.

Gruesome Images

While the government has blocked journalists from visiting the regions independently, gruesome images appear almost daily on social media. In a recent incident, a photo emerged of the head of a decapitated soldier that was left in the middle of a road in the Northwest’s regional capital, Bamenda, by suspected insurgents.

“The army hasn’t been able to take back control of rural areas, and there’s an increasing rivalry between separatist militia that fight each other over leadership and territory,” said Hans De Marie Heungoup, an analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “The roads are either controlled by separatists or by defense forces. The population is suffering harassment from both sides.”

That’s isolated the area from the rest of oil-dependent Cameroon, which is a key regional hub, with roads and ports that are vital for landlocked neighbors including Chad and Central African Republic.

Agricultural Crisis

Cameroon’s top state-owned agribusiness said this week it has lost 35 billion CFA francs ($61 million) as a result of the crisis and more than half of its 22,000 employees are unable to work. The Cameroon Development Corp.’s three main crops -- palm oil, rubber and bananas -- have dropped significantly and large swathes of its farmland in the two Anglophone regions have been completely destroyed, General Manager Franklin Njie said.

The roots of the crisis date to the decision by the colonial powers to split the nation after World War I into a French-run zone and a smaller, British-controlled area. Since they were unified in 1961, the English-speaking minority, about a fifth of the population, has complained they don’t have equal job and educational opportunities as the French speaking majority.

Cameroon’s military has been accused of abuses including summary executions and raiding villages by advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Separatists have killed more than 160 police and military officials, according to the government, and have filmed themselves on mobile phones torturing village chiefs they accuse of collaborating with the authorities.

Army Abuses

The head of communication of the defense ministry, Didier Badjeck, rejected allegations from residents that the army was responsible for abuses and has dismissed reports that the military has set houses ablaze in the two restive regions as untrue.

“There is a lot of fake news on social media on this crisis,” he said by phone.

While Biya initially ignored the crisis, he has pledged to create a committee to disarm and reintegrate fighters. The decision triggered a spike in violence in the two regions, fueling clashes between separatists and defense forces.

The French-English Divide Can Be Lethal in This African Nation

“The government in Yaounde has taken a few measures but it hasn’t fundamentally addressed the root causes of the crisis and remains opposed to an inclusive dialog,” Heungoup said.

The unrest also risks spilling further into Cameroon’s eight French-speaking regions.

About 300 armed men swarmed into the town of Bangourain on Dec. 23 and set houses ablaze in what was the biggest attack in French-speaking territory since the conflict began.

The incident triggered such angry reactions on social media from Cameroonians that the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa issued a statement urging Francophones and Anglophones to “exercise restraint and refrain from hate speech and retaliation against one another.”

Among the thousands of people who’ve recently fled to French-speaking areas is Killian, a 41-year-old carpenter who asked not to be identified by his surname for fear of reprisals. He said he escaped as the military burned down his home and dozens of others in the town of Kumbo in the Northwest.

“I barely escaped with my dear life,” he said. “I hope my wife and my two children are alive.”

(A previous version of this story was corrected to say the conflict has displaced 437,000 people.)

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.