Cameroon: Separatist Abuses in Anglophone Regions

Armed separatist fighters have killed at least seven people, injured six others, raped a girl, and committed other grave human rights abuses across Cameroon’s Anglophone regions since January 2022, Human Rights Watch said today.

In an uptick of violence, the separatists have also burned at least 2 schools, attacked a university, kidnapped up to 82 people, including 33 students and 5 teachers, and threatened and beat 11 students.

“Armed separatist groups are kidnapping, terrorizing, and killing civilians across the English-speaking regions with no apparent fear of being held to account by either their own leaders or Cameroonian law enforcement” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior central Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Leaders of separatist groups should immediately instruct their fighters to stop abusing civilians and hand over abusive fighters for prosecution.”

Between April 1 and June 15, Human Rights Watch interviewed 38 people by telephone, including 27 victims and witnesses to separatist abuses, 3 relatives of victims, 4 Cameroonian journalists, and 4 members of Cameroonian human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch also reviewed medical records, 13 videos, and 56 photographs shared directly with Human Rights Watch researchers or posted on social media showing evidence of separatist abuses.

Between May 1 and 10, Human Rights Watch shared its findings with representatives of three major separatist groups: the spokesperson as well as the vice-president of the Ambazonia Interim Government (Sako), Christopher Anu and Dabney Yerima; the defense chief of the Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF), Capo Daniel; and the chairman of the African People’s Liberation Movement (APLM), Ebenezer Derek Mbongo Akwanga. Only Daniel responded.

On April 5, separatists stormed the campus of the Bamenda university, in Bambili, North-West region, shooting in the air, causing panic among students and teachers, and leading to a stampede that injured at least five people. The fighters attacked the university for not observing a “lockdown,” or stay-at-home order, that they had declared across the area. Fighting to create an independent Anglophone state of “Ambazonia” since 2016, separatists target civilians who do not observe their calls for school boycotts or general lockdowns. These abusive calls trample the basic rights of an already terrorized civilian population, and separatist fighters and their leaders should be held accountable and punished for their violent enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch spoke to five witnesses of the attack against the Bamenda university, consulted local media reports on the incident, and reviewed a 15-second video filmed at the campus on the day of the attack that showed students fleeing after hearing gunshots.

“I saw three separatist fighters shooting from the campus football field,” a 28-year-old student told Human Rights Watch. “I was less than 50 meters from them. They kept firing for 20 minutes.”

Witnesses said that there was sustained gunfire for about 25 minutes as gendarmes responded. Residents of Bambili said fighters belonging to the separatist group Restoration Forces have their camp in Fonyah, less than 6 kilometers away from the campus.

It is not the first time that separatist fighters attack the Bamenda university. Human Rights Watch documented separatists storming a campus dormitory on May 20, 2020, kidnapping nine students. The separatists took the students to their camp, beat them, and held them for five days, until a ransom was paid.

On February 26, at about 3 p.m., separatist fighters stopped two vehicles from the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services (CBCHS), a nonprofit medical organization, at a checkpoint in Mile 90, North-West region. They fired at one vehicle, killing Jenette Sweyah Shey, a 46-year-old female nurse, and injuring another female nurse and a male doctor. The medical workers were returning from Ashong and Nyonga, two localities where CBCHS had provided health assistance to people in need.

Human Rights Watch spoke to four people, including two CBCHS staff, a female nurse who witnessed the killing, and a man who saw Shey’s body. “They [separatist fighters] shot at the windscreen of the first vehicle,” the nurse said. “The bullet went through and hit Jenette in the forehead. She died as we rushed her to the hospital.”

Daniel, the deputy defense chief of the ADF, said that ADF fighters and fighters from another group, The Buffaloes of Bali, were at the checkpoint at the time, that “it was a case of mistaken identity,” and that “we have apologized with CBCHS” for the incident.

On February 28, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Cameroon released a statement which condemned the killing of the nurse and called on the killers “to refrain from hindering access to medical services.” In a March 18 statement, the CBCHS provided information on the incident and said that “Shey lost her life in the process of saving lives.”

Security forces and armed separatists have both attacked hospitals and medical staff across the Anglophone regions since 2017. On July 6, 2020, separatists killed a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors without Borders) community health worker in the South-West region, after accusing him of collaborating with the military. On June 10, suspected separatist fighters burned down the district hospital in Mamfe, South-West region, depriving 85,000 people of access to health care, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Cameroon reported.

During an attack on May 16 on a residential area in Idenau, North-West region, where workers of the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC), a public agribusiness company, live, separatist fighters abducted 30 people, and one fighter raped a girl in her early teens.

On April 7, armed separatists kidnapped 33 seminary students for ransom in Bachuo-Ntai, South-West region. Catholic church authorities told the media that the students were released the following day. It is unclear whether a ransom was paid.

On May 30, local media reported that the body of Lukong Francis, a retired teacher at the government high school in Jakiri, North-West region, and a member of the ruling party, was found on May 23 on the road between Mantum and Jakiri with signs of torture. Local teachers and Francis’s former colleagues confirmed to Human Rights Watch that Francis had been kidnapped by suspected separatist fighters in retaliation for participating in the May 20 public celebrations for Cameroon’s Unity Day, which separatist groups oppose.

Since 2017, armed separatists have kidnapped hundreds of people, including students, teachers, medical staff, humanitarian workers, clergy, and government officials. They have also killed and tortured civilians, and carried out widespread attacks on education. They have also intimidated human rights defenders , including Akem Kelvin Nkwain, member of prominent human rights group Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa.

Government troops have also committed human rights violations, including extensive burning of villages, homes, and shops, killings, torture, mistreatment, incommunicado detention , and rape of civilians.

“Cameroon’s regional and international partners should intensify calls on the Cameroonian government for accountability, and better protection of civilians,” Allegrozzi said. “They should also impose targeted sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes, on separatist leaders who bear responsibility for committing abuses.”