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In Cameroon, football serves as a “diversion” to the deadly conflict in the English-speaking west

The assassination of an influential senator on Tuesday in Cameroon, host country of CAN-2022, highlights the conflict which is bogged down in the English-speaking area and which the government is trying to conceal. President Paul Biya presents the tournament as a symbol of unity but his government policies are exacerbating divisions.

In the midst of the African Cup of Nations (CAN) and contrary to what the authorities say, security is struggling to be ensured in English-speaking Cameroon, plagued since 2017 by a conflict between the army and the separatists, in the North-West regions. and South West. Several hours before the first CAN match played in Limbe on Tuesday evening, Senator Henry Kemende left his home in his hometown of Bamenda, capital of the war-torn North West region. He never returned home.

A few hours later, the political opponent was found, his chest riddled with bullets. Henry Kemende, a lawyer and senator for one of Cameroon’s main opposition parties, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), was a staunch defender of human rights. He was also an important representative of the English-speaking minority, which represents about 20% of the country’s 28 million inhabitants.

Faced with a separatist insurgency in the West, a jihadist threat in the North and a global pandemic, the government however assured him: “Security will be guaranteed”. Yet militants from a heterogeneous mix of armed groups fighting for an independent state in the west, dubbed ‘Ambazonia’, have threatened to disrupt matches.

For the time being, no one has claimed responsibility for the murder of Henry Kemende. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), one of the main Anglophone separatist groups, has denied any responsibility.

>> See also: Cameroon: “Ambazonia”, 1,000 days later

The group, however, claimed responsibility for an attack on Wednesday that killed a Cameroonian soldier in Buéa, a western town located about 20 kilometers north of Limbé, and where the four teams of group F, engaged in the CAN (Mali) are based. , Gambia, Tunisia, Mauritania).

Specialized in the defense of the rights of his constituents and endowed with an unfailing truth-speak with regard to power, Henry Kemende was a familiar personality on English-speaking television channels in Cameroon.

“It’s a huge loss,” laments to France 24 Christopher Fomunyoh, Africa director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), based in Washington. “It’s a huge loss for his family obviously. It’s a huge loss for the legal profession, given the role lawyers have played in starting this crisis and the role they have to play in resolving it. Nationally, it is a huge loss, the assassination of a member of the Senate, a constitutional institution. And it is a huge loss as the conflict continues and the gap between the English-speaking population and the ‘State is hollow’.

The Buea attack and the murder of Henry Kemende highlight a conflict that the Cameroonian government is trying to hide from the international community.

A new murder, an old colonial problem

The Cameroonian state, led by President Paul Biya, 88 years old and in power for 40 years, has failed to guarantee the security of its citizens in the western provinces. The English-speaking insurgency has left more than 3,000 dead and nearly a thousand displaced in the past five years and both sides are accused of committing atrocities and violence.

The crisis in North West Cameroon began in October 2016, when lawyers took to the streets of Bamenda to protest against the exclusive use of French in courts and other state institutions.

The roots of the problem go back to colonial times, when the area of ​​central Africa that had been colonized by Germany was partitioned between the United Kingdom and France after the First World War. With the end of colonial powers, Cameroon became a federation under the 1961 Constitution. English and French were designated as official languages.

The North West and South West regions of Cameroon are former British colonies. The rest of the country was colonized by France. © Graphic Studio France Media World

Anglophone Cameroonians have long complained of being discriminated against, especially since the highest positions in government, just like in the oil sector, have always been held by Francophones. English-speaking Cameroonians also complain that government documents are published only in French, thus excluding them from the best public service jobs.

The demonstrations were peaceful, until the outbreak of a fierce repression: hundreds of members of opposition parties and activists were imprisoned, plunging the population into fear of arbitrary arrests. This repression has reinforced the emergence of several separatist militias demanding a new state, “Ambazonia”. They regularly target civilians accused of “collaborating” with the government and have declared a boycott of schools, depriving hundreds of thousands of children of education.

“It’s always the civilians, the ordinary people caught in the crossfire, who suffer,” says Rebecca Tinsley, an activist with the London-based Global Campaign for Peace and Justice in Cameroon. “The violence is getting worse. In 2021, there were more than 80 attacks caused by improvised explosive devices, in the English-speaking region alone. Because of this violence, almost a million children cannot go to school and there is very little security, which makes the daily life of the population very difficult”.

Deadlocked peace talks

Two years after armed groups declared independence for Ambazonia, in 2017 Swiss negotiators agreed to mediate talks between Cameroonian authorities and separatists in a bid to end escalating violence.

However, the Swiss peace proposals did not see any follow-up and the Cameroonian government instead launched a national dialogue from September 30 to October 4, 2019, with great fanfare.

But a year later, the West was still ungovernable and the violence escalated. While only 10% of the 163 million dollars promised for the two regions have been paid, the fighting has slowed the progress of reconstruction operations.

“The national dialogue was a play for the benefit of the international community,” says Rebecca Tinsley. “He had no credibility as most English speakers weren’t invited or were afraid to go. [à Yaoundé] and be arrested.” Most analysts agree that the talks, which brought together representatives from Cameroon’s 10 provinces instead of focusing on the aggrieved region, were a failure.

The CAN will end but “the problems will still be there”

The organization of the CAN could have been an opportunity to relaunch a moribund peace process or better still, to assess the failures and start from scratch. Football is political in Cameroon, with the sport playing an important role in public life. Domestically, the sport “serves as a diversionary element in the tightly controlled political system in the country while internationally, sporting achievements compensate for the country’s weak influence in other aspects of politics. continental and global”, note Joanne Clarke and John Sunday Ojo in their report “The Politics of Sport in Cameroon”.

The Cameroonian president – ​​with his advanced age, his health problems and his long stays in Switzerland – is the subject of mockery and speculation about his intellectual ability. But Paul Biya has shown that he is aware of the power of football in this nation passionate about this sport. He said the AFCON was “a great moment of brotherhood” that would provide Cameroonians with an opportunity to showcase “the rich cultural diversity that has earned our country the nickname ‘Africa in Miniature’.

The resumption of an Anglophone peace process is only possible on four conditions, according to Christopher Fomunyoh: the declaration of an immediate ceasefire to end the cycle of violence, the release of prisoners policies, the use of negotiators who are not Cameroonians to facilitate dialogue between the opposing camps and finally, “accepting that mediations take place in a country other than Cameroon”.

Despite the hopes aroused by the organization of the CAN in Cameroon, Christopher Fomunyo has few illusions. “In a few weeks the tournament will be over but the problems will still be there,” he said.

The death of Henry Kemende leaves a deep sense of emptiness for all Cameroonians involved in the resolution of the conflict. “He was one of the few English-speaking figures to speak frankly and to be able to speak to both parties,” laments Christopher Fomunyoh. “Unfortunately, I have no confidence that there will be a thorough investigation, that the perpetrators [du meurtre d’Henry Kemende] will be found and judged, and that justice will be done,” he added.

Article translated from English by Tiffany Fillon. The original can be read here.

France 24-Trans

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