It is virtually a “blackout”: there is only social media to transmit images of burnt houses, bloody corpses and fleeing populations in English-speaking Cameroon.
Apart from these photos impossible to verify, no information, or almost, circulates on the low-intensity conflict that has been going on for two months between the army and the separatists.
“It’s so hard to work,” an anglophone journalist from Bamenda, the capital of the North West region told AFP. “The soldiers do not want us, they do not want us to take stock of their actions, especially if there is a violation of human rights.”
For more than a year, the Cameroonian regions of north-west and south-west, bordering Nigeria and home to the country’s English-speaking minority (20% of the population), have been shaken by a deep socio-political crisis fueled by separatist virtues. Over the months, and in reaction to Yaoundé’s strong deployment of troops, the independence cause has gained weight, and the crisis has gradually turned into a low-intensity armed conflict with isolated attacks against the symbols of the State.
Fighting between the Cameroonian security forces and the separatists, we only know the official military losses: 22, according to a count of AFP established on the basis of declarations of Yaounde. But no figures from the authorities on separatist or civilian losses.
In the Anglophone crisis, “the option taken (by Yaoundé) is not to communicate on the losses we inflict on the enemy, we did it in the context of the war against Boko Haram and that has earned us a lot critics, “said a security official in Yaoundé, on condition of anonymity.
‘hidden in the bush’
Only the testimonies of inhabitants shed light on the “events”: “the men in uniform arrived and began to break everything in the houses,” reported Sunday to AFP a resident of Belo, in the north West, after the death of a young man, shot dead Friday by security forces.
In the south-west, in Nsanakang, “the soldiers arrived in the village on December 3 and gave 24 hours to leave the place. If the inhabitants remained, they were considered accomplices ,” still tells to AFP John Ebam Oke, village chief of Nsanakang, met in Agbokim, Nigeria, where he fled.
Many testimonies of Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria report dozens of dead and cohorts of villagers hidden in the bush, after the army came to hunt down separatists.
“At the end of January, three young people who had fled came out of the bush to check if the soldiers were still present in the village and were shot dead,” said the same village chief.
On the Internet, separatists relay dozens of photos and videos around the conflict. On one of them, we see a Cameroonian tank positioned around the locality of Mamfe; on another, a dead child lying on the ground. None of these images could be officially authenticated. No testimony can quantify an exact or even approximate number of civilian deaths in this war that does not say its name.
“While traveling inside the area, I saw a lot of burnt houses, people complain that when you kill a Bamenda child, it’s like killing a terrorist, but when it is a policeman, everyone is moved, “says Joshua Osih, first vice-president of the English Social Democratic Front (SDF), the first opposition political party in Cameroon.
Warning to the media
In Yaoundé, few media evoke these testimonies of exactions or civil deaths, and the little reports in English-speaking regions are often done alongside the Cameroonian army.
In early 2017, the National Communication Council (NCC) had threatened “sanctions ranging from temporary suspension to permanent prohibition of activity” media that would give the floor to supporters of federalism or secession, citing in passing several television channels and newspapers deemed subversive.
Yaoundé also cut the Internet for three months – the longest cut on the continent – in English-speaking regions to quell the dispute in early 2017, and various testimonials have reported since sporadic cuts in the network.
“Given the high degree of military blunders and violations of the rights of civilian populations, it is not surprising that the Cameroonian government has opted to deny access to independent journalists and human rights organizations in the quarreled zone,” said a Cameroonian political scientist.
On Wednesday, a new video, still unverifiable, circulating on the Internet: we see a military slaughter an alleged separatist accused of the murder of a gendarme, according to the secessionist spheres.