5 things you should know about the crises in Cameroon

Cameroon is a bilingual country in central Africa with a population of 24 million. It is a country of great natural beauty and cultural diversity, but these assets are being undermined by a number of different humanitarian crises.

According to the UN, 3.9 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and eight out of the country’s ten regions are affected. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Cameroon is currently providing a humanitarian response to three different emergencies within the country’s borders.

Here are five things you should know about Cameroon’s three crises:

1. Trouble in the Far North

The havoc wreaked as a result of the armed conflict between non-state armed groups and security forces in the north of Nigeria has not been contained within that country’s borders. Incursions, cross-border raids and attacks within the neighbouring countries of Niger, Chad and Cameroon have been frequent.

The conflict and resulting violence in these four countries has been referred to as the Lake Chad Basin Crisis. Of the four countries affected, Cameroon is the second hardest hit after Nigeria.

The insecurity in the Far North region of Cameroon has to date displaced over 490,000 people and left over a million people in need of urgent assistance. As the country struggles to deal with this unprecedented number of displaced citizens within its borders, it is simultaneously hosting over 111,000 Nigerian refugees who fled to Cameroon as a result of the same conflict.

2. Civil unrest to the west

As Cameroon grapples with the situation in the Far North region, a brutal conflict is unfolding in a different part of the country. In the North-West and South-West regions, armed groups are fighting for the independence of the country’s two English-speaking regions.

Alliance's son, Brandon, 9 years old. 

“When I first came here, I considered myself a dead person. I could not contribute. I had to ask people for help all the time. I felt that was the end of my life. I asked God – How could you give me twins in these times of conflict? I did not know I could live like this, even for a week! But I adapted. I have accepted my situation. I have to”, Alliance, a displaced in Bamenda tells us.  

“When the crisis started I was pregnant with twins, close to giving birth. My husband ran for safety into the bush, and I went to the hospital. I had to stay there for three weeks after my C-section. No cars were moving because of the fighting and prices were high. There were gunshots everywhere! I had to breastfeed at night in complete darkness because it was too dangerous to turn the lights on. After a week like this, my husband wanted us to flee to Bamenda”, she recalls. 

Alliance, her brother and sister, her mother, grandmother and her husband, and their 6 children, arrived to Bamenda one and a half years ago. Since then, they have moved around and tried to find a place that could fit them all. After some time, her mother and grandmother chose to return to the village despite the dangers. Two of her kids lives with her husband’s brother so they can go to school, and the oldest one lives in Yaoundé. The family had to split, like so many others. 

Back in Belo, she used to work as a hairdresser. She had loyal customers, and a good income. 
“When we fled I managed to bring with me some mesh and hair extensions. I thought it would be useful so I could work in Bamenda as well. But, when we arrived here we had nothing to protect us from the cold concrete floors, so I had to use them for my twins to sleep on. They were damaged by baby pee. Now I know that my salon is burned down, so I cannot go back and get more. I lost it all. Here in Bamenda I struggle to find customers. Nobody knows me and I don’t think people want to come to this room to get their hair done, but I don’t have money to pay rent for a salon as well”, she sighs. 

The biggest struggle is to find enough money to buy food for the family. Her husband is working on a minibus and is now temporarily back in Belo to try to find some food. “Some days we have food, some days not. For tomorrow, don’t know what will happen. Maybe some rice. I don’t know. If we have just a little, only the small children eat. I have lost a lot of weight”, Alliance says. 

From NRC, the family has received a NFI kit, with mats, blanket, mosquito net, ropes, tarpaulin, jerry cans, soaps, torch, umbrella, pots, kitchen utensils and a menstrual hygiene kit. 

Two times Alliance has been back in Belo; for her father-in-law’s funeral and one time when they were desperate for something to eat. Since men are more often the target of killings in this conflict, she took her twins since she was breastfeeding and started the risky journey. First with taxi and then on foot. “I hiked for four hours with my young twins through the bush and along the road. It was very unsafe, but we desperately needed something to eat. It was gunshots all the time”. 
The road has many checkpoints and the separatists have been digging trenches in the road to block cars from travelling. Bribes are often demanded to pass. Back in the village, Alliance found some crops that were not stolen and returned to Bamenda with food. 

The scars of war are sitting deep in her young children. “When my children hear gunshots, they start to cry and run inside the house. They pee on themselves. I carry them, I tell them it will be over soon.”

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC
Read caption Brandon, 9, and his family were forced to flee their home in the North-West region of Cameroon two years ago. He and his siblings are still scarred by the experience. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

The Cameroonian military has led a fierce crackdown against this secession movement. As is usually the case, civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict and are fleeing their villages to escape the violence and widespread human rights violations being perpetrated by both sides.

Around 680,000 people have been displaced by this unrest. An additional 58,000 Cameroonians have sought refuge across the border in neighbouring Nigeria. The vast scale of this crisis and the lack of international attention to it are disheartening.

3. School’s out

Hundreds of schools in crisis-affected areas have either been shut down or abandoned because of insecurity. In the Far North region, about 400,000 school-age children need assistance with their education. Meanwhile, the instability in the North-West and South-West regions has forced 850,000 school-aged children out of school – more than the entire school population of Norway.

"My father tells me I have to go to school,"  Lawan says shyly.  His father is a teacher in another village but Lawan has four siblings in the same school, and has safety in them. He is in class five now, listening carefully to his teacher Adamou. He likes the French classes the best. With his birth certificate he can stay in school, unlike some of his close classmates who can only attend one more year before they lose their right. 

Just a few days earlier Boko Haram attacked the village at night, looting the villagers, but not killing anyone this time. Most of  Lawan's classmates are internally displaced already, and come with their own memories and scars. When the conflict follows them to where they fled to safety,  life can feel pretty fragile. 

This Wednesday, 42 students are absent from class. They should have been 95 in total. This is far above the average national level of 60 students per class. Adamou, the teacher, knows that several families fled the village after the attack and some have yet to return, while others stay at home in fear. 

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC
Read caption "My father tells me I have to go to school," says Lawan, a student in the Far North region of Cameroon. Many students are absent from class due to the unrest. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

The schools that are still open must accommodate displaced children alongside children from host communities. This leads to overcrowded classrooms and places a huge strain on the already fragile education system.

Threats against teachers have led to teachers fleeing without returning, and most schools lack the basic equipment needed to provide students with an adequate education.

4. Trouble to the east

Cameroon is currently gripped by a third humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict in its neighbour to the east – the Central African Republic (CAR).

In December 2012, civil war broke out in CAR. The armed groups involved agreed to a ceasefire in 2014; however, the scale of the humanitarian situation today is still staggering.

There are over 270,000 refugees from CAR currently living in Cameroon.

5. How we assist those affected

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is responding to each of these three crises in different ways.

In the Far North region of Cameroon, we are renovating classrooms so that children of both displaced and host communities can once again receive an education. In 2019 we rehabilitated eight classrooms in the Far North region and provided learning materials for 13,500 children around the country.

Information, counselling and legal assistance is also being provided to affected populations in the Far North region. We help displaced families to obtain important documents such as birth certificates and marriage certificates. Last year, we provided birth certificates for 6,704 children.

We also work to resolve any land and housing disputes that may arise between displaced and host communities, and advise displaced people on how to ensure their rights are respected as they reside in host communities.

In Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions, we’re providing displaced communities with urgent assistance in the form of household items and shelter kits. These kits contain essential items for families that have fled with nothing but the shirts on their backs.

The standard NFI kit that is distributed to internally displaced  and vulnerable host community members in the North West province. 

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC
Read caption A standard "non-food items" kit that NRC distributes to displaced and vulnerable families in the North-West region. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

Last year we reached 56,238 people through the distribution of 9,037 shelter and household items in these regions. We were also involved in hygiene activities through the construction of emergency latrines, hygiene promotion and the distribution of dignity kits to women and girls, directly impacting a total of 82,937 people.

In response to the crisis in the east of Cameroon, we are focusing on providing information, counselling and legal assistance to affected communities. This takes the form of civil documentation, land access, and conflict resolution for refugees from CAR in both Cameroon and CAR itself.

Finally as Cameroon faces the challenge of coronavirus along with the rest of the world, our teams have stepped up to deliver hygiene kits and conduct awareness-raising sessions on the importance of social distancing and handwashing to curb the spread of the virus.

Read more about our work in Cameroon