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Ambazonia: Africa's Hidden Crisis

Editor in Chief



The scars of European colonialism remain present across Africa as post-colonial driven territorial, ethnic and geopolitical conflicts rage throughout the continent. No recent conflict bears its colonial legacy as prominently as the scarcely-covered Ambazonian War - a crisis nestled deep in Cameroon’s linguistically divided regions previously belonging to the British Southern Cameroons, now referred to by its separatist name “Ambazonia”. Since 2016, this conflict has resulted in the deaths of more than 6,000 and displaced over 500,000. With Ambazonian separatists defiantly launching attacks against the Cameroonian government despite brutal repercussions there seems to be no immediate end in sight. Failures from both sides to provide diplomatic mediation have allowed violent measures to become normality, This year alone has seen Ambazonian separatists claim responsibility for the killings of four Cameroonian government workers, representing a new wave of attacks in a crisis that Yaoundé can no longer ignore.  


The genesis of this conflict can be found in the colonial carving up of Cameroon between the British and French empires, resulting in a nation stricken by linguistic division. Despite Anglophone speakers representing 20% of the population, President Paul Biya’s authoritarian attempts to centralise the nation have resulted in perceived marginalisation across the Southern Cameroons. Despite starting as a low-scale insurgency in 2016 following Biya’s use of the Cameroonian Armed Forces against largely peaceful Anglophone protests, the Federal Republic of Ambazonia’s independence was declared in 2017 by Southern Cameroon separatists initiating a wide-reaching insurgency aimed at expelling Yaoundé’s tight grip from Anglophone regions. 


What began as a collective cry for linguistic equality has transformed into nationwide strife; for non-Cameroonian observers to understand how such a dramatic escalation into violence could take place, we must first analyse the historical dynamics that have shaped Cameroon as a society and state. By shedding light on this overlooked crisis, new audiences may hopefully understand a decades-long conflict obstructed from public view by the surrounding chaos in neighbouring Nigeria, Central Africa and the Sahel.


One People, Two Masters


The Anglophone crisis finds its origin within Cameroon’s colonial history, at first Cameroonians found themselves under the grip of the German Empire, existing as a colonial protectorate from 1884 until the First World War. Amidst the chaos in Europe, British troops invaded and occupied southern parts of German Kamerun, further aided by French colonial troops resulting in Germany’s complete loss of the region. The 1919 Versailles Treaty officially seceded the colony to the Allied victors, 80% of the territory was transferred to the French colonial empire, with the remaining 20% of Southern Cameron going to the British. Despite a later UN Charter - sponsored by both Britain and France - recognising the interests of the native inhabitants of these territories, decades of colonial intervention resulted in distinctly British and French legal and educational systems, dividing the Cameroonian peoples into new colonially manufactured identities. Colonial control took form not just through physicality, but also through linguistic influence, using the power of language to instill a constructed identity that remains deeply present to this day. 


Amongst the pressure of decolonisation, French-administrated Cameroon gained independence in 1960, and a year later British-administrated Cameroon was faced with a decisive referendum. Fearing a potential economic burden if the Southern Cameroons gained full independence, Britain instead wished for the region to merge with either Nigeria or French Cameroon in an attempt to shift the economic responsibilities of financing the underdeveloped region. Due to heightened ethnic tension between the majority Igbo population of Nigeria and the British Cameroon population, the vote resulted in the colony merging with French Cameroon, under the guarantee of autonomy. Once again the people of Cameroon were stripped of their ability to independently decide their fate, forced into the confines of colonial decision-making. Yet hope remained as the newly formed federation promised a partnership of equals 


Broken Promises


Despite Cameroon’s newly found independence, France still held considerable sway over the nation, establishing what would come to be its infamous currency control manipulation tactic, relying on the CFA Franc to maintain a tight economic grip over its former colonies. Inspired by neighbouring Marxist and nationalist movements, many in Cameroon had taken up arms against the French, and later following independence continued armed resistance against the French-backed newly independent government to demand complete sovereignty. In response, President Ahmadou Ahidjo, with the economic and security backing of France, established a highly authoritarian regime, centralising political control from Yaoundé and buying loyalty from local leaders - referred to as “ethnic barons”. Ahidjo established a structured patronage political system reliant on French as an enforced lingua franca to create a unifying culture.  


The predictable outcome of this enforced centralism was the side-lining of anglophone culture. Yaoundé used monetary control, by enforcing the CFA franc over pound sterling in Southern Cameroons, whilst introducing French-influenced terminology into local administrative and educational institutions. Despite President Ahidjo’s 1972 proclamation declaring his intention to preserve Cameroon’s existence as a “bilingual multicultural state”, that same year the federal system was abolished in favour of a unitary state following a controversial referendum. Fifty years later the founding promise of a truly multicultural and multilingual state is long since forgotten, political pluralism was abandoned in favour of “stable authoritarianism” which has seen only two presidents commanding a highly restrictive regime that violently targets minority communities deemed a threat to Yaoundé’s vision of a unitary culture - all with the backing of Western states


From Peaceful Protest to Armed Resistance 


Decades of tension between anglophone citizens in the Southern Cameroons, and the francophone regime under President Paul Biya reached a breaking point in 2016. In response to increasing pressure from Yaoundé on Southern Cameroonian schools, local government institutions and businesses to solely use French, an alliance of teachers and lawyers formed the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACS). The CACS called for teachers to strike in opposition to perceived linguistic and cultural discrimination, furthermore demanding a return to the federal system. It is important to note that by this point secession from Cameroon was a fringe idea held by a minority of anglophones, the vast majority instead wishing for greater civil rights and political autonomy. 


As CACS strikes grew, incorporating larger political rallies across Southern Cameroon cities, Yaoundé responded with a heavy-handed military crackdown. Under anti-terror laws, the CACS was banned with hundreds arrested and tens killed by Cameroonian military forces. By banning peaceful protest and taking decisive military action against the anglophone community, Yaoundé pushed peaceful activists into the arms of a rapidly growing violent faction of fighters referred to as the “Amba Boys”.These armed militants rallied around the name “Ambazonia”, rejecting association with the colonial-created Cameroonian identity and instead taking inspiration from the Amba Bay, a geographic location associated with freed slaves. Consisting of a loose network of armed groups and political movements, the Amba Boys rallied around separatist political leader, Sisiku Julius Ayuke Tabe, declaring the “Federal Republic of Ambazonia” as an independent state on October 1, 2017.  



Eight years later, Cameroon has yet to resolve this escalating conflict as the decentralised nature of the Amazonian movement has resulted in intense fractioning. Whilst the political leadership is mostly composed of the diaspora, the military leadership is spread across roughly twenty different domestic militias. This defused nature was made evident when the Ambazonian Governing Council officially split in 2019; a lack of an organised direction has resulted in Amabazonian militias reacting in vastly disproportional ways through “revenge attacks” against government forces. For years Human Rights Watch have reported on the Cameroonian military’s use of extrajudicial killings against both militants and civilians and in response Ambazonian militants have increasingly launched violent revenge attacks against civilians, including teachers and politicians. Whilst journalists have reported the Cameroonian military as engaging in such barbarity as burning unarmed civilians alive, equally brutal atrocities have been reportedly committed by separatist forces.


Conflict continues with a wave of killings and abductions being committed by separatist forces whilst pressure is mounting against President Biya to decisively resolve the conflict. As of 2024, the conflict has claimed over 6,000 lives and internally displaced around 630,000 people. A staggering level of destruction has taken place, only made worse by encroaching Islamic extremist attacks. The only hope moving forward seems to be potential concessions made by both sides for a renewed federal restructuring of Cameroon, supported by external powers such as Canada. Yet such hopes remain dimmed as Yaoundé remains reluctant to consider political concessions of autonomy whilst Ambazonian forces are bitterly divided over how peace can be achieved - made worse by high-ranking separatists such as Sisiku confided to life sentences under the charge of terrorism. 


Centralisation and Strife


Cameroon’s unitary state project is hardly surprising in both its justification and consequences, the result of colonial border line-drawing has been wide-ranging post-colonial ethnic conflict as diverse ethnic communities find themselves confided to artificially manufactured states. Trapped by Western-enforced expectations of nation-state building, alien to African political culture prior to the establishment of European colonial empires, for developing African states burdened by the pressure of rapidly developing to compete in the international arena the enforcement of a singular culture is a crucial defence against inter-state conflict. Surrounded by historic ethnic separatist conflict, such as the neighbouring Biafran War which ravaged Nigeria and continues to influence Cameroonian political conflict, Cameroonian policy-making has been directed by an understandable paranoia of separatist insurgency. Yet heavy-handed attempts to break anglophone influence have instead resulted in the violent radicalisation of anglophone politics, thus spawning the very thing Biya’s regime had hoped to prevent.


The emergence of the Federal Republic of Amabazonia and an armed separatist movement is the natural response to decades of violent suppression. President Biya’s power bargain is rapidly unravelling as his age and declining ability to suppress dissidence threaten his regime’s public image of stable authoritarianism. Furthermore, Yaoundé’s traditional relationship with Western states may increasingly be put into question as France’s influence wanes over its former colonies, successive anti-French coups from the Sahel to Gabon represent the domineering influence of postcolonialist politics shaping Africa as an emerging independent power. Amabazonia’s revolt fits into this narrative as the historic colonial legacies of artificial borders and states are called into question. 


Conclusion


Thus unfortunately for President Biya, the Ambazonia movement is not going away. The only solution moving forward is for Yaoundé to re-assess its decades-long unitary state project and cease its violent repression against anglophone culture. The abhorrent violence committed by Ambazonian separatists against francophone citizens and political actors must also cease for the independence movement to be taken seriously by both the international community and Cameroon’s majority francophone society. However, such violence is the result of a political galvanisation created by the harsh actions of the Cameroonian military. Without a peaceful outlet to vent decades of built-up tension, it is no surprise that violence has become the tool of political revolt.  Whilst attempts between moderate separatist groups and the Cameroonian government to hold peace talks represent positive action, Yaoundé’s refusal to release political prisoners only serves to reward more radical groups taking advantage of the political chaos.


Through this historical analysis of Cameroon’s multilingual society, one thing is evident: continued use of violence by both sides achieves nothing but further destruction. If either a federal republic or a two-state solution is to be achieved there must emerge a truly diplomatic cultural understanding that respects the rights of minority communities within a majoritarian culture. As the conflict enters its ninth year, the Ambazonian War serves as a stark reminder of the impact colonialism continues to maintain over the continent, as two sides viciously battle to both defend and impose their colonially manufactured cultures, exposing the complexities of post-colonial state-building in Africa.


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