By Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
This opinion piece was previously published by Thomson Reuters.
Mary hands me two tattered photos. In the first, family members stand proudly outside their modest home in Buea, South-West Cameroon. In the second, an empty plot remains, their wooden hut burned to the ground. Mary and the 14 family members who lived in the house fled to the bush last December. They are still waiting for help to rebuild their home and their lives.
Conflict has uprooted half a million people in South-West and North-West Cameroon. Hundreds of villages like Mary’s have been razed. Hospitals have been attacked. Health workers fear being abducted or killed. Over 780,000 children are out of school, and their teachers are attacked and abused if they try to restart classes.
When brutal fighting displaces hundreds of thousands of civilians, it usually sets international alarm bells ringing. But Cameroon’s fast-deteriorating crisis has resulted in no mediation efforts, no large relief programme, little media interest and too little pressure on the parties to stop attacking civilians.
The silence is chilling.
This is why Cameroon tops this year’s global list of the most neglected displacement crises, according to NRC’s annual tracking system.
Old colonial scars
Cameroon’s crisis has roots in the country’s troubled colonial history. After World War One, the former German colony was split between a French and British mandate. When the French part became independent in 1960, people in the English speaking regions had to merge with either Nigeria or French-speaking Cameroon. What was then known as Southern Cameroons ended up with the latter, creating a country with French and English as official languages. However, communities in the English-speaking part of the country have felt increasingly marginalized since.
In 2016, people took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations. A heavy crackdown by security forces ensued, leading to widespread violence and the formation of armed opposition groups.
A year later, non-state armed groups in the region officially declared a symbolic independence from Cameroon, followed by clashes between the national army and secessionist groups. Both sides have been accused of horrific human rights violations. The UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, described the situation as spiralling completely out of control, after visiting in May.
The long wait for help
Unbiased information is scarce. Social media is swamped by photos of apparent atrocities. But independent journalists are absent or restricted, and the crisis rarely makes international headlines.
The lack of public attention to the crisis is followed closely by a lack of financial support. Despite being one of the smallest UN’s aid appeals, Cameroon is among the least funded. The consequences of this can been seen immediately.
When I visited Cameroon in April, only a splattering of poorly-resourced international relief organisations were visible on the ground. Too few reach beyond the provincial capitals, so many families receive no assistance, even though it is possible to negotiate access with the parties on the ground. Communities ration and share the little assistance they receive, often travelling long distances themselves to deliver aid to those still hiding in the bush.
The women I spoke with in Buea said they feel abandoned by the international community. They asked me, ‘where is the international solidarity? Where is Europe?’
Europe is dragging its heels. Cameroon’s colonial history should be an argument for positive engagement today, and not disengagement. Furthermore, Cameroon is seen as an important ally for many countries in the fight against Boko Haram in the country’s north. The attention to problems there is no excuse for political inaction.
Countries with influence in the region must demand conflict parties stop attacks on civilians and allow schools to reopen.
When I addressed an informal session of the United Nations Security Council in May, my message on Cameroon was clear. More aid is needed, but it is only a temporary solution. Coherent conflict resolution efforts towards a political solution are the only thing that will end the violence and the suffering. Regional and international bodies, like the African Union, the European Union and the UN Security Council can and should play a more important role. There is still time to avert a full-blown war.