“You spill innocent blood. You kill me without reason…

God, I beseech you; hear my last will that this ground may never again be trodden by Germans.”

Last words of the King of Douala, Manga Bell, who was executed by the Germans in  1914.


In the former German colony of Cameroon, violent conflicts have been flaring up again and again in the two English-speaking provinces for the last seven years. What are the causes?

A Short History of Comeroon

The west coast of Africa was under the influence of Great Britain in the 19th century. The newly founded German Empire had the ambition to become a new world power alongside Great Britain and France.  The starting point was the Berlin Conference of 1884/85, when Africa was divided up among the colonial powers. Cameroon went to Germany.

Bismarck appointed the German African explorer Gustav Nachtigal as Reichskommissar for German West Africa in 1884 and instructed him to transfer the territories and trading posts recently acquired by Hanseatic merchants into German colonies. On 14 July, he placed Cameroon “under German protection”. In the following years, a plantation economy was established and the native population was often brutally abused as forced labourers.

During the First World War, the German troops were driven out of Cameroon. Great Britain took over two smaller provinces, but did little to develop them. In the rest of the country, the French built up a flourishing economy and created a good education and healthcare system. Cameroon became independent in 1960. The first government adopted the capitalist economic system of the colonial era and continued to maintain close relations with France. The discovery of oil deposits helped economic development. President Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982, turned Cameroon, which has a population of around 29 million from 20 ethnic groups, into a authoritarian state.

What triggered the Conflict?

The two English-speaking provinces of Cameroon were already at a disadvantage during the colonial era.  The tensions between the French-dominated majority state and the smaller English-dominated parts of the country intensified over several decades.

What triggered the armed resistance was a protest by teachers, judges and lawyers in 2016. They demonstrated against the introduction of French in the education and judicial systems with the aim of gradually replacing the British-dominated system with the Francophone one. The protesters also complained against the neglect of local politicians in the allocation of important posts, the lack of investment in infrastructure and the generally poor economic situation in the region.

A year later, several groups started an armed resistance. Some demanded a return to a federal state, others proclaimed the founding of an independent state called “Ambazonia”. The imprisonment of opposition leaders, the brutal suppression of any form of protest and the months-long shutdown of the internet turned the population against the government. The army has not yet succeeded in gaining control of the situation and the conflict has escalated further. The violence has already cost the lives of around 6,000 people; 765,000 have had to flee, 70,000 of them to neighbouring Nigeria. 2 million are dependent on humanitarian aid. Hundreds of thousands of children can no longer go to school. President Biya’s attempt to defuse the conflict through a “national dialogue” was also unsuccessful. The government has so far rejected offers of dialogue from the UN, the African Union and the Catholic Church. The opposition is also sceptical about new laws to promote bilingualism and federalism.

In addition to sporadic acts of terrorism, the separatists have also developed a non-violent form of protest: everyone stays at home every Monday. The cities become “ghost towns”. However, the curfew is also causing great economic damage. Another initiative, the “National Women’s Convention for Peace” received 2023 the Deutscher Afrika Preis for their work of reconciliation.

Future Perspectives     

Observers of the conflict do not believe that the rebels will be successful in the long term. There are too many different armed groups recruited from the various ethnic groups, but they do not coordinate their actions. The number of active fighters is relatively small and their financial resources, which mainly come from the Cameroonian diaspora in Europe and the USA, are limited. Nevertheless, the rebel groups remain a security risk for the state and, together with other rebel movements such as Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and resistance movements in eastern Chad, they could also destabilise the region in the long term. Perhaps non-violent forms of protest offer a better chance of lasting peace after all.

Wolfgang Schönecke

AEFJN Antenna Germany