Separatist rebels in Cameroon are attacking humanitarian aid convoys and destroying what they describe as “poisoned” supplies, causing aid workers to become increasingly nervous about entering the conflict zones, Voice of America (VOA) reported Friday.
The United Nations considers Cameroon to be a humanitarian crisis zone due to an insurrection in the southern part of the country. The U.N. describes the conflict as “rebel groups seeking an end to what they consider domination of the anglophone south by the francophone north have taken up weapons against the government’s security forces, causing hundreds to die while tens of thousands are forced from their homes.”
Factories have been shuttered, roads have become impassable, warehouses have been destroyed, and truck drivers are routinely kidnapped for ransom.
The current crisis heated up in 2016 when activists in Cameroon’s western provinces protested the official use of the French language in these predominantly anglophone regions.
In the past two years, those protests have turned deadly.
A prominent Cameroonian scholar and professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, Achille Mbembe, observes that Anglophone Cameroonians complain about being marginalized because the administration doesn’t speak their language, adding that the controversy over language is an expression of deeper, long-held grievances around good governance and equitable political and social representation.
The results of this conflict have been unsurprisingly horrific for the estimated 437,000 Cameroonians displaced from their homes and driven into the wilderness. Disruption of Cameroon’s oil, cocoa, and coffee trade have cost the country about $470 million in lost revenue and wiped out thousands of jobs.
In May, the United Nations labeled Cameroon one of the fastest-growing displacement crises in Africa, estimating at least 1.3 million people need food and medical assistance. Relief agencies say they have been able to raise less than a fifth of the money they need.
The fact that so many of the refugees fled into inaccessible rural areas makes transporting food and medicine to them extremely difficult. The French-speaking northern government takes great umbrage at public discussion of the humanitarian crisis, viewing it as an effort to slander Cameroon as “a hellish country of unspeakable ills,” in the words of U.N. Ambassador Michel Tommo Monthe. The rebels think the humanitarian aid shipments are an attempt to subvert their cause or even kill their people by slipping toxins into the food.
Rebel paranoia has been fueled by the military escorts provided by the Cameroonian government for some of the aid convoys, as VOA reported on Friday:
Christian Eselekwe Tanyi, who is with the Martin Luther Jr. King Memorial Foundation-Cameroon, one of the aid groups whose shipments were destroyed, said, “More and more, we see humanitarian actors being attacked or being threatened, or misrepresented as either working against the state or working with the state. They work to relieve the suffering of the population. They do not side with any party to the conflict. They respect at all times the principles of neutrality and impartiality.”
Nfor Peter Shey of Cameroon Rights Watch said the attacks on aid workers increased after April 14, when the government sent 55 truckloads of assistance with a military escort and troops to distribute it.
“When you look at the atrocities that are being meted out to the population in these areas, the military is the prime suspect,” Shey said. “The burning of the houses, they say, is the handiwork of the military. Many people in these areas believe the government is not doing enough to call for dialogue, which people think can be a headway to solving this problem.”
The rebels have also attacked convoys without military escort, killing four police officers in one such attack last week. Aid workers say the amount of valuable food and medicine destroyed in these raids was “huge.” With funding already stretched thin, the losses will be difficult to replace.
Switzerland is attempting to serve as a mediator between the government and rebel forces, with an emphasis on addressing the plight of civilians caught in the conflict.
“Switzerland has long been committed, both at the bilateral and multilateral level, to finding a peaceful solution to the crisis and to promoting respect for human rights in Cameroon. Switzerland is also committed to providing humanitarian aid to the affected local population and has supported Cameroon in dealing with multilingualism,” the Swiss Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday after concluding a three-day meeting with opposition groups.
These efforts were complicated by an attack on a Swiss journalist on Wednesday who was allegedly manhandled by bodyguards for Cameroon’s President Paul Biya during a demonstration outside the hotel in Geneva where Biya was staying.
The Cameroonian ambassador to Switzerland was summoned after the incident and told “such incidents are unacceptable, and that freedom of the press is protected and must be respected.”