Kidnapping, a daily nightmare in Cameroon’s English-speaking region

“About a third of abductions are the work of opportunistic armed bandits”
Women pass by the edge of the abandoned market into the majority anglophone South West province in Buea, on October 3, 2018 next the wreckage of a car burned allegedly by separatists fighter in a recent attack. – The southwest, along with the northwest, has been torn by two-years of clashes between English-speaking fighters, who want to break away from majority francophone Cameroon, and government forces. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

Journalist Macmillan Ambe Awa was covering the unrest in western Cameroon when he became part of the story.

He was kidnapped by armed men and held for 24 terrifying hours before being released, physically unhurt but shaken.

“They accused me of making programmes that say children should go back to school,” Ambe Awa told AFP by telephone, referring to an educational boycott by the region’s anglophone separatist movement.

Traumatic as the ordeal was, such experiences are almost routine in Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions.

Insurgents have staged hundreds of kidnappings, both for ransom and as a political message — alongside ambushes targeting soldiers and police, and arson attacks on buildings symbolising the central government, including schools and hospitals.

Their armed uprising began in October 2017 following years of simmering anger at perceived discrimination by the country’s French-speaking majority.

Since then, at least 500 civilians and more than 200 members of the security forces have died in clashes, attacks and a government crackdown, the International Crisis Group (ICG) says.

‘Scared to go out’

Earlier this month, almost 170 pupils were abducted from Kumbo in the Northwest and freed after a day in captivity. The kidnappers demanded the closure of the high school, which has not opened its doors since.

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And in November, another 90 students were kidnapped and held for five days, again on grounds that their school be closed.

“It’s shameful that the separatists should have adopted this strategy,” said a resident of Buea, capital of the Southwest region.

The separatists justify their boycott on grounds that the French system discriminates against anglophone pupils.

Witnesses said the army raided searched dozens of homes in and around Kumbo after the latest mass kidnapping, with soldiers torching several of them in retaliation.

The ministry of communication denied such reports when they appeared in the press, but it was not the first time the security forces had come under fire for such actions in anglophone areas.

‘Opportunistic’ kidnappings

The violence and abductions have created a real climate of fear.

Earlier this month, Buea hosted the annual “Race of Hope” to the summit of Mount Cameroon, an active volcano which rises 4,040 metres (13,250 feet) and is the highest peak in the country.

But this time, Sports Minister Narcisse Mouelle Kombi turned up in a bullet-proof vest and a helmet, and dozens of armed men were deployed at Buea stadium.

In both regions, the insecurity caused by frequent clashes between troops and the separatists has also led to a steady increase in activity by criminal gangs.

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And such gangs have realised that kidnapping is lucrative.

“About a third of abductions are the work of opportunistic armed bandits,” said Hans de Marie Heungoup, a Cameroon researcher for the ICG.

And efforts to differentiate between separatist attacks and those motivated by criminal interests has become ever harder due to the splintering of separatist groups.

But in the eyes of Yaounde, there is no difference. Agitators are all “terrorists”.

Burden of history

Divisions between the anglophone regions and Cameroon’s authorities date back a century to when Britain and France occupied Cameroon, taking over Germany’s principal colony in West Africa.

France was given the greater part of the territory, which became independent in 1960.

A year later, the British colony also gained independence, with some of the English-speaking areas choosing to join newly-formed Nigeria, while others opted to become part of the federation of Cameroon.

In the following decades, Cameroon’s anglophone minority routinely complained about unequal treatment in areas like education, the law and the economy.

But demands for greater autonomy were repeatedly rebuffed by President Paul Biya, and eventually the campaign became radicalised.

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On October 1 2017, an anglophone group symbolically declared the independence of the “Republic of Ambazonia” in the two regions, triggering a crackdown that saw the separatists responding with violence.

Since then, at least 437,000 people have fled their homes, according to UN estimates, with another 32,000 fleeing across the border to Nigeria.

“We’re trapped,” a Buea resident said.

“We’re scared to go out, we’re scared to take the bus,” he told AFP.

“For a long time, I thought things would calm down so we stayed, but I’ve started to call the family in Douala to tell them we’ll be coming,” he said of Cameroon’s economic capital, which lies on the coast.

“There’s nothing more for us here.”

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