Courtesy Channel TV
Violence in English-speaking areas of Cameroon over the last year is having a knock-on effect in neighbouring Nigeria, where thousands of refugees are seeking sanctuary.
Some are fleeing the unrest while others are suspected to be secessionists in favour of armed struggle, who could use the Nigerian side of the border as a base.
John Inaku, head of the Cross River state emergency management agency, said over 28,000 people have arrived from western Cameroon since October.
“But many of them have not been registered yet and people are still coming in,” he told AFP.
Most have fled across the border on foot through the bush since the start of an increased crackdown by authorities in Yaounde.
Cameroon was divided between French and British colonial rulers before independence in 1960 and English-speakers account for some 20 percent of the population of 23 million.
They have long protested against what they perceive to be a bias towards their French-speaking compatriots.
In recent weeks, growing numbers have joined the ranks of the secessionists, some of whom are openly advocating armed struggle for an independent state.
The security situation has worsened significantly since the authorities have cracked down on pro-independence demonstrations.
Ten soldiers and police officers, as well as several civilians, have been killed since October 1, when separatists symbolically declared an independent state of “Ambazonia”.
The recent violence blamed on small, well-organised groups has been concentrated in forested and mountainous border areas. Only two roads link Cameroon and Nigeria.
Cameroon’s government now suspects some separatists of using Nigeria as a support base and to obtain weapons, given the difficulty in policing the porous border.
“One thing is sure, the most radical elements are in the process of recruiting with the aim of starting guerilla warfare,” said Cameroon army spokesman Colonel Didier Badjeck.
Eleven people suspected of planning to going to Nigeria for training were arrested last week in the Mamfe area of Cameroon, where four soldiers were killed at a checkpoint.
Nna-Emeka Okereke, a political analyst in Abuja, warned that Nigeria’s authorities had to be “very careful” about the violence across the border.
“For now, this is spontaneous violence — mainly reprisal attacks (against the security forces) — but by the time they are well-coordinated, it will be a big problem that will transcend Cameroon’s boundaries,” he said.
Okereke said there was a risk the separatists in Cameroon could look to “create synergies” with Nigerian groups, even if there was no concrete evidence of links just yet.
Cross River is not far from the badlands of the Niger Delta, where armed rebels have repeatedly hit oil and gas infrastructure to secure more revenue from the lucrative sector.
Nigeria’s southeast is also the heartland of pro-Biafran separatists. Fifty years ago, their unilateral declaration of independence sparked a bloody civil war.
Okereke said groups such as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) — which the government in Abuja considers a terrorist organisation — share “the same ideology”.
They also have the same sense of “exclusion” from the centre as the anglophone minorities in Cameroon, he added.
The Nigerian government has not yet commented officially on the crisis on its doorstep.
But a high-ranking Cameroon official said “presidents (Muhammadu) Buhari and (Paul) Biya have broached the subject and telephones work very well between Yaounde and Abuja”.
Nigeria and Cameroon have had strained relations in the past, in large part because of their rival claims on the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula in the southeast.
A UN-brokered agreement signed in 2008 handed the territory to Yaounde and led to improved ties.
In the last two years, the two countries’ armies have also worked together in the fight against Boko Haram jihadists in the Lake Chad region.
For now, many fear that increased tensions in anglophone Cameroon could spark a new wave of migration into Nigeria.
Cameroon’s normally reserved President Paul Biya last weekend met his senior military commanders to discuss the situation, after condemning the “repeated attacks of a gang of terrorists”.
A security source confirmed to AFP that “massive army operations were being prepared” in the English-speaking region.
Colonel Badjeck denied claims that military reinforcements had been sent.
But he added: “We have been patient, the orders have become a lot stronger. We are going to find the terrorists wherever they may be to neutralise them.”
Meanwhile, Nigeria called for an end to violence in neighbouring Cameroon, where a crisis sparked by a separatist drive in English-speaking areas has forced thousands of people to seek sanctuary across the border.
“The Nigerian state by no means supports the secessionists,” Nigerian ambassador Lawan Abba Gashagar said Thursday, after a meeting with Cameroon’s President Paul Biya.
“The Nigerian government supports a swift return to peace in Cameroon and the preservation of its territorial integrity,” said the ambassador, who is also a special envoy of President Muhammadu Buhari.
The meeting came as thousands of Cameroonians fled across the border into English-speaking Nigeria.
While some are fleeing the unrest, others are suspected to be secessionists in favour of armed struggle, who could use the Nigerian side of the border as a base.
“There are agreements that indicate that a Cameroonian can go to Nigeria for three months without a visa, just as a Nigerian can come to Cameroon and stay here for three months without a visa,” Gashagar told Cameroonian state radio.
“Citizens can stay in either country, so long as they respect the law and they do not engage in activities aimed at destroying their own country,” he added.
Mounting violence in the English-speaking west of mainly francophone Cameroon claimed the lives of dozens of people, including five police officers and five soldiers in November, according to an official tally.
Resentment over perceived discrimination and a tough crackdown on separatist political forces has provoked secessionist demands in anglophone regions, which account for about a fifth of Cameroon’s population of 23 million.
The Cameroonian authorities have already imposed night-time curfews, restrictions on movement, raids and body searches.
The government in Yaounde has also reached out to the anglophone community for political dialogue.
Courtesy Channel TV