Up to 40,000 refugees from the English-speaking regions in Cameroon could soon be arriving in Nigeria as the majority French-speaking government turns up the heat on the minority’s north- and southwest regions, installing a heavy military presence that some fear could lead to open war.
What began last year as peaceful protests by Anglophone activists against perceived discrimination by Cameroon’s French-speaking elite has become the gravest challenge yet to President Paul Biya, who is expected to seek to renew his 35-years in power in an election next year.
The government of President Biya says it is only taking defensive action against Anglophone separatists who reportedly killed four security forces early last month.
Meanwhile, thousands of villagers in the Anglophone southwest are heading for the Nigerian border, having been told to leave their homes – driving support for a once-fringe secessionist movement and stoking a lethal cycle of violence.
The roots of the language split date back to the end of World War I, when Germany’s colony of Kamerun was carved up between allied French and British forces. English speakers make up less than a fifth of the population of Cameroon. French speakers have dominated the country’s politics ever since.
Last month, the noted New York State University Cameroonian-American professor and writer Patrice Nganang was detained in Cameroon and held incommunicado until international pressure forced the government to declare its charges against him. He was released after almost a month in an overcrowded maximum security prison and charges of insulting the President were dropped.
This week, a separatist leader, Julius Ayuk Tabe, was abducted along with six others at a hotel in Abuja.
“The Anglophone crisis is the biggest time bomb in Cameroon,” said human rights lawyer Agbor Nkongho, who was released by presidential decree seven months after his arrest. “If it’s not addressed, it could break apart the country.”