Cameroon: Witness testimony and satellite images reveal the scale of devastation in Anglophone regions

New research by Amnesty International has revealed the devastating scale of destruction caused by the ongoing conflict in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions.

Fighting between various armed groups and the Cameroonian armed forces has continued unabated for the past three years, with civilians bearing the brunt of unlawful killings, kidnappings, and widespread destruction of houses and villages. Government intervention has been limited, and there has been near-complete silence from the international community.

Violence between government forces and the Anglophone armed separatist groups-who are themselves divided-erupted in 2017, when protests against discrimination and marginalization were repressed by the authorities. Based on eyewitness testimonies and analysis of satellite images, Amnesty International documented how dozens of civilians have been killed and multiple villages destroyed since 2019.

“All parties to the conflict in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions have committed human rights violations and abuses, and civilians are caught in the middle. In one particularly appalling case, armed separatists shot dead two elderly women with barrage rifles; in another, Fulani vigilantes burned hundreds of houses and killed four people in a terrifying attack,” said Fabien Offner, Amnesty International’s Central Africa Researcher.

“It is difficult to obtain accurate information about the human rights crisis unfolding in these regions, which are hard to reach by road and have poor telecommunications networks. But this is no excuse to look away – without strong action by the authorities and the international community, civilians will continue to bear the brunt of the crisis.” 

The Anglophone regions of Cameroon – the South-West and North-West – make up approximately 20% of the country’s population. Violence has recently intensified in parts of the North-West.

According to the UN, at least 22 civilians were killed in Ngarbuh in the night of 13 to 14 February 2020, including 15 children and two pregnant women, following a military operation. A government inquiry found that during the same incident “the detachment commander decided to enlist 17 members of a local vigilante committee”. Several sources reported that members of that “local vigilante committee” were Fulani armed groups. The situation has heightened tensions with armed separatists who have long accused the Fulanis of cooperating with the authorities. 

Between June and July 2021, at least four policemen were killed in an ambush near the town of Bali Nyonga in the North-West region. Two gendarmes were beheaded in the town of Babadjou in the West region, bordering the North-West in an attack attributed to armed separatists by officials. Other examples include the killing by the army in Bamenda 3 subdivision of civilian man driving a car, and the kidnapping of six local officials in the town of Ekondo Titi in the South-West region.

Nwa subdivision particularly hard hit by violence

Nwa subdivision, located along Cameroon’s border with Nigeria, has been particularly hard hit by the recent violence.

Between 22 and 26 February 2021, at least 4,200 people were displaced from seven villages in Nwa, following attacks by Fulani vigilante groups in which at least eight people were killed.   According to the Centre for human rights and democracy in Africa (CHRDA), the Fulani herders “have carried out over a dozen raids against the natives in the villages of Nwa in less than a month”.

Satellite images analysed by Amnesty International show at least four villages that have been destroyed or burned down in Nwa in February 2021. It is unclear whether Fulani vigilante groups attacked the villages or whether the destruction took place during clashes with armed separatist groups, but the images suggest that the destruction was fairly recent.

For example, imagery taken from the village of Sih on 5 March 2021 shows large areas of blackened vegetation, indicating it was recently burned. The village of Ntong was also heavily impacted as shown by imagery from 11 February and 5 March 2021. Imagery from 3 April 2021 shows multiple areas where structures in the village of Ntim appear damaged or no longer existing.

 Like many areas in the North-West region, villages in Nwa subdivision are poorly mapped, meaning not all locations could be verified. 

Mbororo communities paying a heavy price

Attacks have particularly targeted Mbororo communities-a subgroup of the Fulanis. 

According to unofficial figures Amnesty International received from Mbororo groups, in the absence of official data from the authorities, since 2017, in the seven divisions of the North-West region:

  • 162 Mbororo have been killed
  • Approximately 300 homes have been burned
  • 2,500 cattle have been killed or seized
  • 102 people have been kidnapped, resulting in the payment of almost 270,000 euros in ransom.

One Mbororo traditional leader in Nwa subdivision told Amnesty International:

“Armed separatists came to attack me six times. They destroyed my compound, burned down my brother’s houses. Seven people were killed in my compound. They gathered them in a house, locked the house and burned it. “

Testimonies, documents and satellite imagery reviewed by Amnesty International showed that armed separatists attacked a Mbororo community in the town of Mbem on 16 February 2020.

Four members of one family, aged between 15 and 80, were killed, and three others were injured, including two elderly women who were shot in the forehead, legs and thighs with barrage rifles. The attackers also set fire to 30 homes, the mosque, and looted property, including motorcycles.

A victim and eyewitness whose identity has been verified by Amnesty International said:

“We were coming out of the mosque after prayer, when armed separatists came on three motorcycles and attacked us. They burned all our houses. Two hundred people could not sleep because their homes were razed.”

During the night of 30 to 31 May 2019, around a hundred armed separatist groups carrying guns and knives attacked Upkwa resettlement camp near Lake Nyos, burning down dozens of Mbororos’ homes and killing cattle.

In October 2019, Amnesty International researchers met two people, one of them who used to work as a motorbike taxi driver, said:

“The armed groups were looking for me because I was a motorcycle driver, and they think the motorcycle drivers are informants for the military. They told us to go back to where we came from.”

Leaders of separatist groups, and participants of the media networks they manage, have also targeted Mbororo communities in aggressive speeches broadcast online.

Some of these speeches could constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence, according to Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Advocacy of hatred escalated after the Ngarbuh massacre in February 2020.

On 19 February 2020, an online TV channel belonging to an Anglophone separatist group broadcast a call from a speaker who said:

“These people [Mbororos] are immigrants and it seems their time is over (…) The earlier they will leave, the better…or they will pay the price like any other ‘La République’ citizen that is in the Southern Cameroon (…) All of them if they don’t want to leave, they will die.”

‘Hundreds of houses were burnt

Fulani armed groups have also committed multiple serious human rights abuses.

Between 30 January and 7 July 2020, five people were killed, 600 houses were burned down, and at least 4,500 people were displaced from Koshin, Fangs and Bu-u villages (North-West). These violations took place during attacks perpetrated by about 200 members of Fulani vigilante groups, according to reports by OCHA.

A resident of Koshin who is now displaced told Amnesty International that the village was attacked on three occasions in February 2019, February 2020 and June 2020.

“The Fulanis came twice. In February 2019 they killed four people and in February 2020 they killed two people and burnt many houses. Then in June 2020, the state security forces also came in search of non-state armed groups and destroyed the village. They killed one civilian. Hundreds of houses were burnt. There are about 3,000 people [displaced] in the bushes now. They need food, shelter, health services, education, water,” he said.

‘Bodies spreading all over…

An estimated 350 people fled the village of Kimbi (Boyo Division), following clashes between armed separatist groups and Fulani vigilante groups on 25 and 28 January 2020.

Kimbi was also attacked on 12 December 2019 by Fulani vigilante groups, some of whom were wearing army uniforms and armed with guns, who burned houses and killed people, according to eyewitnesses.

One witness told Amnesty International:

“They went ahead burning palm plantations all over Kimbi, harassing the population, looting people’s clothes, collecting money from people…On 16 December some armed separatists came, and clashes started with Fulanis. There were bodies spreading all over here in Kimbi.”

“The Cameroonian authorities must deliver on their responsibility to protect the entire population indiscriminately, and they should accept the fact-finding mission the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has been calling since almost three years, “said Fabien Offner.

“The international community must publicly call on the Cameroonian authorities to urgently initiate thorough, independent, impartial investigations into allegations of human rights violations and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecute those suspected of criminal responsibility in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts without recourse to the death penalty. In addition, the international community must ensure that the humanitarian response aimed at addressing the needs of those affected by the violence, including refugees and internally displaced, is adequately funded.”