Monday, August 22, 2022

Life is a lottery in Cameroon

 Cameroon has been ripped apart by the five-year war between English-speaking secessionists and the mainly French-speaking government. Only the coffin trade is booming.

In just five years, that conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives, while forcing more than one million to flee to French-speaking areas and a further 80,000 to take refuge in next-door Nigeria.

The war has its roots in grievances that date back to the end of colonialism, when British-controlled territory was unified with French areas to create what is now Cameroon. Many English-speaking Cameroonians have felt marginalised ever since and have opposed what they see as attempts by the government - dominated by the French-speaking majority - to force them to give up their way of life, including their language, history and education and legal systems.

Tensions boiled over in 2016 when tens of thousands of people in English-speaking areas embarked on a series of protests against the use of French in their schools and courts, as well as the failure to publish government documents in English, even though it is an official language. With the government ordering the security forces to crackdown on the protests rather than entering into talks to resolve their grievances, young men took up arms the following year to demand the independent state of Ambazonia, as they call the two English-speaking regions.

Government soldiers raid homes, make arrests, burn markets and even display the bodies of their victims, including commanders of militias, at major intersections to warn residents against joining the separatist fighters. Government forces have also suffered heavy losses in the conflict, with the bodies of fallen soldiers removed from the military's mortuary in the capital, Yaoundé, every Thursday and Friday. Widows wail in front of the long lines of coffins draped in the Cameroonian flag, before the soldiers are buried amid the pomp and ceremony that mark military funerals. The military enforces a curfew virtually every night in the city, resulting in many of its restaurants, bars and clubs - once reputed to be the best in Cameroon - going out of business, not helped by the now-erratic electricity supply.

Separatist fighters have also gained notoriety for atrocities against civilians, including beheadings and the torturing of women whom they denounce for "betraying the struggle", calling them "black legs" - a term regularly bandied about now. They circulate videos of these atrocities to warn people of the punishment they face if they are suspected of colluding with the security forces.

On Mondays,  roads empty and markets closed - part of a civil economic disobedience campaign dating back to before the armed struggle. These days, residents who dare ignore the lockdown order are either shot dead or see their shops go up in flames. The military and police also disappear from the streets, so that they do not become soft targets for separatist fighters. The separatists even ordered the closure of all schools four years ago as part of their campaign. A few have bravely remain open, but children do not dare wear uniforms.

The conflict has prevented those who live abroad from coming home. Known as "bushfallers" - a Pidgin term for hunters (in this case seeking greener pastures) - those in the diaspora were responsible for Cameroon's economic boom, sending back money to invest in the once-mushrooming building trade and return visits to share their largesse. Visiting returnees found themselves arrested - some are now in the maximum security prisons of Yaoundé or Douala - while others simply disappeared accused of bankrolling the Anglophone rebellion. Bushfallers' money has dried up and none of them now visit.

The war has seen an explosion in unwanted teenage pregnancies with girls who have been forced to flee their homes becoming victims of sexual violence and exploitation by both sides.

Cameroon's Bamenda, where only the coffin trade is booming - BBC News

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