Separatist fighters in Cameroon killed six people in a raid on an army post in the troubled English-speaking Northwest province, the government said Saturday.
The dawn raid on Friday involved “armed separatist groups” and claimed the lives of four soldiers and two civilians at Matazem, said a statement from communications minister and government spokesman Rene Emmanuel Sadi.
Matazem sits on the border between the Northwest province and the predominantly French-speaking West province.
On Wednesday, in Northwest province, the government said “separatist terrorists” killed four soldiers and a civilian in an attack on an official convoy.
Anglophone separatists have been fighting for independence in Cameroon’s two mainly English-speaking provinces, Northwest and Southwest, since October 2017, launching regular attacks on the army.
Most of Cameroon, a former French colony, is French-speaking, and the separatists cite decades of grievances at perceived discrimination by the francophone majority.
But their self-proclaimed state of Ambazonia has not been recognised internationally.
International rights groups and the United Nations have denounced the toll the conflict has taken on the region’s civilian population, who they say are frequently victims of crimes and abuses on both sides.
As well as attacks targeting police officers and soldiers, the armed separatists — nicknamed “Amba Boys” — are increasingly kidnapping civilians, especially students and teachers they accuse of teaching French.
They have also murdered inhabitants who they suspect of “collaborating” with President Paul Biya’s administration.
More than 3,000 people have been killed and at least 700,000 have fled their homes since the separatists launched their armed campaign.
After being relatively spared by coronavirus (COVID-19), Africa is bracing for the pandemic’s second wave, noting how the microbe has once more cut a swathe through rich countries in Europe and North Africa.
The continent’s most-hit nations are again having to contemplate stringent public health measures as they await the arrival of the vaccine cavalry.
In South Africa, the start of summer has triggered traffic jams on roads leading to coastal resorts.
But this year, there will be no long, lazy days spent on the beach.
In popular tourist destinations, the coronavirus is spreading at an alarming speed. Authorities have ordered partial closures, limits on the size of gatherings, and an extended curfew.
As the African country worst hit in the pandemic, with almost 900,000 documented cases, South Africa is tightening up health restrictions.
But around Africa, a continent of more than 1.2 billion people, there are stark contrasts in the prevalence of the disease.
New cases are emerging in East Africa, in northern and southern Africa, but the trend in West Africa is a decline, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), an arm of the African Union.
Rising cases in the east
In Uganda, every region has been affected by the pandemic. Neighbouring Rwanda, a far smaller but densely populated country, registered almost as many new cases in December (722) as since the beginning of infection (797).
Bars and nightclubs have been shut since March. Heavily fined for breaking regulations, the owner of a Kigali bar told AFP he had lost everything. “Clients were drinking, but the police forced us to close.”
In Kenya, a second wave of the virus struck in September and led to the closure of schools and the prolongation of a curfew. Some health professionals say they are already waiting for a third wave.
For several weeks, Africa CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been pressing African governments to up their game for an inevitable second wave.
Nevertheless, the epidemic first reported in Africa nine months ago has not been as destructive as experts feared, across a poor continent severely lacking in health care structures.
Africa has reported 2.4 million cases, just 3.6 percent of the world’s total, according to a tally compiled by AFP.
The whole continent has registered more than 57,000 deaths, fewer for instance than the total for France alone (59,072).
While the low level of screening might call into question the reliability of the statistics, no African country has observed a peak in excess mortality, which would be a sign of the virus spreading under the radar.
Experts are still trying to understand why Africa, so far, has not been affected to the same extent as other continents.
Explanations include Africa’s youthful population, cross-immunity derived from previous epidemics and a still predominantly rural economy, which means less density of population.
Early and draconian measures imposed on citizens in most African countries clearly put the brakes on the spread of the disease.
But the social and economic consequences of lockdown policies have been disastrous for the weakest economies.
In nations where the stigma of Covid-19 has become less visible, daily life has rushed to resume its course, largely at the expense of social distancing and other barrier gestures.
In central Africa, Cameroon is preparing to host the 2020 African Nations Championship football tournament in January, postponed from last April because of the virus. Officials are counting on a partial reopening of stadiums.
Authorities in Senegal face calls for public protests against restrictions, while in Equatorial Guinea, nightclubs are the only places that remain closed.
“Generally speaking, the virus is continuing to progress in Africa,” warned Isabelle Defourny, operations director at Medecins sans frontieres (Doctors Without Borders, MSF).
MSF has noted a resurgence of Covid-19 both in capital cities and in rural areas, notably in Chad.
“We’re also seeing an increase in severe cases where oxygen is needed, particularly in Bamako (Mali), which was not the case during the first wave,” Defourny said.
The battle Africa must wage for access to vaccines is far from won. The likely cost will be `around 4.7 billion euros ($5.76 billion), but only a quarter of the nations on the continent can muster the required resources, according to the WHO.
A 90-year-old archbishop has been abducted with nearly a dozen other people in a western Cameroon region gripped by conflicts between anglophone separatists and security forces, the archdiocese said on Friday.
Christian Tumi, an archbishop emeritus and retired cardinal who has frequently sought to mediate in the crisis, was kidnapped on Thursday near Kumbo in Northwest Region “along with his driver and about 10 other people,” Samuel Kleda, Archbishop of the port city of Douala, said in a statement.
Anglophone militants have repeatedly carried out kidnappings, often for ransom, in the three-year-old conflict in the Northwest and neighbouring Southwest Region.
Between six and 11 teachers have been kidnapped from a school in a western Cameroon region gripped by a three-year-old armed campaign by anglophone separatists, local sources said.
The abduction comes on the heels of the killing of seven schoolchildren, which the government has blamed on militants.
The incident happened on Tuesday in Kumbo, in Cameroon’s Northwest Region.
Armed men raided the local Presbyterian primary and secondary school, taking away 11 teachers, said Reverend Samuel Fonki, head of the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon, and Stephen Afuh, head of a presbyterian teachers’ union called PEATTU.
A local official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that six teachers had been kidnapped.
There was no immediate response from the armed forces or government to a request for comment.
In October 2017, anglophone militants declared an independent state in the Northwest Region and neighbouring Southwest Region, home to most of the anglophone minority in the majority French-speaking country.
The declaration, which has not been recognised internationally, sparked a brutal conflict with the security forces.
More than 3,000 people have been killed and more than 700,000 have fled their homes. Rights groups say crimes and abuses have been committed by both sides.
Schools and other institutions deemed to be emblems of the Cameroonian state have been repeatedly targeted for attacks and kidnappings, often for ransom.
On October 24, seven children were shot dead in their classroom in Kumba, in the Southwest Region.
In that attack, the government in Yaounde described the armed men as separatists “scaring off parents from sending their children to school.”
The killings have not been claimed.
In November 2019, the UN children’s agency Unicef estimated that 855,000 children were without schooling in the two anglophone regions.
Around 90 percent of state primary schools and 77 percent of state secondary schools were either closed or non-operational at that time.
Anglophones account for about four million of Cameroon’s 23 million population.
Their presence is explained by the decolonisation process in West Africa some 60 years ago.
In 1961, a British-ruled territory, the Southern Cameroons, voted to join the newly independent former French colony of Cameroon. The Northern Cameroons joined Nigeria.
There has been decades-long resentment among anglophones in Cameroon at perceived discrimination in such areas as education, the economy, and law.
Demands by moderates for reform and greater autonomy were rejected by the central government, leading to the declaration of independence as radicals became ascendant in the anglophone movement.
Attackers armed with guns and machetes killed at least eight children Saturday in a raid on a school in southwestern Cameroon, the United Nations said.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack on the bilingual school in Kumba, but the area has been caught up in violence between Anglophone separatists and government forces for three years.
“At least eight children were killed as a result of gunshots and attack with machetes,” at the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy, a statement by the local UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.
“Another twelve were wounded and taken to local hospitals,” it added, which would make it one of the worst such attacks in the region to date.
A source close to police added that the children were killed when a “group of nine terrorist assailants” stormed the school and opened fire on pupils aged between nine and 12 years.
“There are no words for the grief nor condemnation strong enough to express my horror at the brutal attack which targeted primary school children… while they were sitting learning, in their classroom,” said President of the African Union Moussa Faki Mahamat on Twitter.
“I unreservedly condemn the acts of barbarism committed in Kumba. Murdering children… is to attack the very foundations of our nation,” said Cameroon Public Health Minister Malachie Manaouda.
Two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, Southwest and Northwest provinces, have long chaffed against perceived discrimination from the country’s French-speaking majority.
The two regions have become the centre of a conflict involving separatist militants who have targeted the army and demanded local government offices and schools close.
Fighting has claimed more than 3,000 lives and forced over 700,000 people to flee their homes since 2017.
Authorities did not blame any group for Saturday’s attack.
Chamberlin Ntou’ou Ndong, prefect of the Meme department where the Kumba school is located, vowed however that “these people will be caught whatever it takes. I repeat, whatever it takes.”
In early September, the army launched its latest operation against militants in the Northwest region.
Since it began, the movement became more radicalised, and separatists renamed the regions the Republic of Ambazonia, which has never been recognised internationally.
Their strategy included a school boycott, said Arrey Elvis Ntui, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Cameroon.
“Around 700,000 young people were excluded from the school system owing to the conflict,” he told AFP.
“The government and anglophone civil society have put a lot of pressure on separatist groups to allow their children to go back to school, and some that had closed in recent years have begun to resume classes again,” Ntui said.
Last year, two students were killed by separatists in Buea, the capital of Southwest Region in what an official described as “reprisal” for opposing the forced school closures.
In 2018, insurgents killed a principal, mutilated a teacher and attacked several high schools.
Separatists have also increasingly resorted kidnappings and extortion, along with attacks on troops and police, and arson assaults on public buildings and schools.
The government has responded with a crackdown, deploying thousands of soldiers.
Buffeted by security and political crises and embarrassed by military blunders, Cameroon’s government has been forced to give ground on human rights under intense pressure from campaigners and the UN and from allies who once chose to overlook its flaws.
NGOs have long denounced abuses in the central African country, from the detention of journalists and arrests of opponents to the killings of civilians by soldiers.
But after a massacre by security forces and the death of a detained journalist, the international outcry has been so loud that President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, has been forced to make U-turns.
Three soldiers were charged this month with murder over the February killing of 10 children and three women in western Cameroon. The UN says at least 23 civilians had died.
The military had denied the killings for two months, blaming the deaths on fuel containers that had accidentally exploded during a firefight between security forces and anglophone separatists.
The investigation and prosecution of the soldiers mark an unprecedented step by a regime deaf to such accusations for decades.
From now on, “it will be difficult for the regime to resist international pressure,” said Cameroonian political scientist Ambroise Louison Essomba.
The government “has every interest, for its own survival, to closely study this question of human rights”, said another analyst, Jacques Ebwea.
The pressure is mounting as Cameroon is battered by violence: in the north, where attacks by Boko Haram jihadists are on the rise, and in the west where a three-year separatist revolt rages on, rooted in resentment among the English-speaking minority in the francophone-majority country.
– Dismissed as fake – Violence between anglophone separatists and security forces has claimed more than 3,000 lives and at least 700,000 have fled their homes.
Although rights monitors emphasise that abuses have been committed by both sides, the armed forces have become mired in a series of high-profile atrocities.
“The use of violence has become almost commonplace,” said Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, director of the Central Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (REDHAC).
Under pressure from NGOs, the United Nations, the United States and France — the country’s former colonial ruler and a close ally — Biya announced an investigation into the February killings, which found that the “uncontrolled” soldiers had tried to hide their crime and falsified their reports.
The United Nations welcomed the “positive step”, but demanded that “all those responsible” for the killing be brought to justice.
“There are more and more convictions, but unfortunately they are slow to produce the desired result, which is to establish a true rule of law,” said Ngo Mbe.
In another high-profile case, seven soldiers are on trial for the execution-style killing of two women and their babies in the Far North, a region abutting Nigeria where Boko Haram jihadists fighters have carried out brutal attacks on civilians.
The atrocity was filmed and shared on social media.
The government had initially dismissed the images as fake before — under international pressure — changing position and arresting the seven.
– Political crisis – On top of those conflicts, Cameroon has been experiencing an unprecedented political crisis since Biya — who is 87 years old and has ruled Cameroon since 1982 — was re-elected in 2018.
His challenger and main opponent, Maurice Kamto, and hundreds of his supporters were arrested shortly after the elections.
They spent nine months in prison without trial before being released in October 2019, again after strong international mobilisation.
“The international community’s interventions inconvenience the regime… but very often only at first, and very little over the long term,” said Christophe Bobiokono, a member of the National Commission for Human Rights and Freedom, a government institute.
Local and international NGOs announced in early June that anglophone journalist Samuel Wazizi, who had been arrested ten months earlier, had died in detention at the hands of the military after being tortured.
The army finally acknowledged the death but denied the allegations of torture, claiming that he had died of severe sepsis less than two weeks after he was arrested on a terrorism charge.
Wazizi’s family said they were never informed of his death.
NGOs immediately called for an independent investigation, and hours later the French ambassador announced to the press that Biya would launch a probe after the two had met to discuss the death.
The press watchdog RSF ranks Cameroon 134th out of 180 countries and territories in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, three places lower than the previous year.
Cameroon’s government faces mounting accusations that foot-dragging and incompetence have helped coronavirus gain a deadly grip.
In less than three months, the official case tally has risen to nearly 6,600, including 200 deaths — the third-highest number of infections of any country south of the Sahara.
Compared with Europe and America, this total is low, but experts warn of COVID-19’s ability to spread like wildfire in countries where health systems are weak and testing is poor.
Despite forecasts that cases would peak in June, schools and universities were suddenly told to reopen this week, prompting teachers and parents to warn that safety preparedness was nowhere near ready.
Cameroon on March 5 became the first central African country to register a case of the virus — a 58-year-old French national who had arrived in the capital Yaounde in February.
But it was not until two weeks later that the authorities set down restrictions for the country’s 25 million people.
The opposition has repeatedly criticised what it says is the government’s failure to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously, as many other African countries imposed radical containment measures early on.
Albert Ze, an economist specialising in health issues, told AFP that management of the epidemic had been “disastrous.”
“We missed the opportunity to contain the virus at the very beginning,” he said.
President Paul Biya, who has been in power for nearly four decades, only appeared publicly on television on May 19, pressured by the opposition and the World Health Organization (WHO) after more than two months of silence.
– No lockdown –
“We are seeing a particularly significant progression of the epidemic — it’s extremely serious,” Eugene Sobngwi, vice chairman of the health ministry’s scientific council, told state television on May 24.
Cameroon could become “the laughing stock of the world,” he said.
Rebutting such worries, Health Minister Manaouda Malachie on Monday said the case figures “should not be a cause for alarm… so far the government has been in control of the situation”.
Ze accused the government of a lax response in key areas as the epidemic began to brew.
“Cameroon did not close its land, air and sea borders until March 18 — 12 days after the first ‘imported’ case, and weeks after many other African countries,” he said.
The government was also laid back in social distancing, limiting gatherings to 50 people while other countries on the continent set a maximum of 10.
No lockdown has ever been imposed in Cameroon, and restaurants, bars and nightclubs were only forced to close after 6pm.
And those restrictions, as well as rules for distancing on public transport, were not implemented until mid-March.
Despite the late response, the impact of those measures was “immediate — Cameroonians understood there was a major problem,” said Professor Yap Boum II, an epidemiologist and head of a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) research centre in Yaounde.
A month after the start of the epidemic, the authorities required wearing of facemasks, and this too helped strengthen awareness and tighten control over the virus, he said.
But on April 30 the government abruptly eased public transport restrictions and allowed bars, restaurants and nightclubs to reopen in the evenings.
In the public’s mind, the brakes were now off, said Boum.
The move “led to almost total relaxation of the population, as if this announcement sounded the end of the epidemic,” Boum said.
“We saw fewer and fewer people wearing masks, and more and more people in bars — and a month later we more than tripled” the number of cases and fatalities, he said.
– Back to school –
The reopening of schools and universities, another unexpected move, has been attacked as premature by teachers’ unions and parents, who have taken to social media to voice their fears.
The amount of equipment made available is “ridiculously small,” said Roger Kaffo, general secretary of the National Union of Secondary School Teachers, pointing out that the supply of 3,000 masks was not even one mask per teacher at secondary-school level.
Daniel Claude Abate, president of an association of small and medium-sized businesses and member of the ruling RDPC party, defended the government’s decision not to impose the toughest restrictions.
“We cannot afford to shut down our countries, with fragile economies, as others do,” he said.
Even so, “there should have been surveillance policy measures” to track the virus, he said, conceding the government had made “some mistakes.”