On November 24, 2021, unidentified gunmen stormed a state-run secondary school in Ekondo Titi, Ndian Division of South West Cameroon, killing four students and a female teacher. Seven other students were wounded. The South West Region of Cameroon is one of the two English-speaking regions of the country where separatists have been fighting to form a breakaway state which they call “Ambazonia” since late 2016. A similar attack happened in the same region on October 24, 2020, when gunmen opened fire in a school killing seven children and wounding 13 others. Both the Cameroon military and the leaders of the Ambazonia secessionist movements blame each other for the separate attacks.
“A dozen secessionist assailants, deceitfully dressed in military gear and equipped with automatic weapons, stormed the premises of [the school] and started firing indiscriminately in the direction of the classrooms where students and teachers were already in class, before activating an improvised explosive device,” Atongfack Guemo Cyrille Serge, the spokesman of the Cameroonian army said in a statement.
“The assailants belong to a terrorist group headed by the so-called general “ten kobo,” who is equally responsible for the kidnapping and incommunicado holding of [six] divisional delegates [in the same locality] on June 15, and the murder of [one of the] divisional delegates,” he said.
But speaking to The Epoch Times in a text, Chris Anu, the communications secretary of the United States’ of America-based Interim Government of Ambazonia pushed back, insisting “Ambazonia restoration forces did not carry out the attack.”
“They [Cameroon military] carried out the killing of these school children in Ekondo Titi hoping that Ambazonia restoration forces will be held responsible,” he told The Epoch Times.
“Cameroon soldiers have a pedigree for killings like these ones and they must be held accountable. They went to Kumba and killed students. They killed a child going to school in Buea. They killed another child coming back from school in Bamenda. French Cameroon soldiers are known to attack even sick people in hospitals as was the case in Shisong and Kumba. French Cameroon has been carrying out these dastard acts hoping that the international community will place the responsibility over Ambazonian restoration forces.”
President Paul Biya has described the attack as “cowardly and heinous,” promising it “will not go unpunished.”
“Be assured of my steadfast determination to fight relentlessly these criminals and terrorists. The government pays the utmost attention to issues of security and population mobility, especially in regions affected by violence,” he said in an official telegram addressed to the families of the victims.
Experts attribute the ongoing blame game to the challenging nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare – where the innocent and vulnerable groups suffer the most from its impact without recourse to justice.
“In the absence of ownership, the real actor and motive behind the Ekondo Titi incident can only be analyzed from the angle of which actor stands to benefit or lose the most from such a grave incident –especially in this case where both Ambazonia separatist and government forces accuse the other of masterminding the attack,” said David Otto, a native Cameroonian and the director of counterterrorism for the Geneva Centre of African Security and Strategic Studies.
“Attacks of this nature almost certainly form the core of propaganda to be exploited by all parties,” he told The Epoch Times in an email.
“The Cameroon government will use the incident to paint the separatist as evil and further cement the terrorist label at all levels. For Ambazonia separatists, they’ll paint the incident as a state-sponsored strategy to use pseudo-groups or military men dressed in civilian attire to launch these attacks as a sabotage strategy to Ambazonia independent goals. It’s a combination of both sides exploiting the core elements of attention; fear and propaganda in counter insurgency to make progress by any means.”
The conflict in Cameroon stems from the country’s past, first as a German colony that was later split between France and Britain. In 2016, violent separatist groups launched a full blown war against government forces after they accused the state of further deploying intimidation and repressive tactics against civil protest organized by teachers and lawyers.
“The only two English-speaking regions which make up about 20% of the total population are fighting for a change of a centralized governance system either through full independence or a return to a federal system of governance with equal status as was the case before the 1972 referendum,” Otto told The Epoch Times. “Over the years, persistent civil society calls and protest against the majority 80 percent French centralized government to stop all forms of marginalization, were either ignored or met with repressive measures from state security forces.”
But apologists of the Biya regime insist the purpose of the conflict has been defeated.
“The Anglophone crisis is the first of its kind in the world to be a self-inflictive war given [that] it stemmed from peaceful corporatists demands of teachers and lawyers which was later hijacked by separatists who deliberately turned these genuine demands into the madness of the so-called struggle of independence,” Elvis Mbwoge, Political Scientist, Security Counterterrorism Expert and Assistant Lecturer in the University of Buea in South West Cameroon, told The Epoch Times in a text.
“Cameroonians have enjoyed relative peace than most countries in the world to the extent that they do not understand fully the concepts and the consequences of secession and war,” he said.
“I believe the government of Cameroon is aware of this reality – the reason [it is] reluctant to declare a full-scale war against armed secessionists. The government still believes these are misguided youths who deserve a second chance.”
But the Cameroon military has recently suffered huge casualties from the hands of the Ambazonian fighters; a situation Otto says is partly fueled by the region’s topography.
“The complex, hilly and deep forest topography of the south west and north west regions play a very significant role in how Ambazonia separatist groups plan, attack and retreat using guerrilla style multiple-tactics on unsuspecting government forces,” he told The Epoch Times.
“These armed groups consist of locals who have a mastery of the local terrain and enjoy protection, trust and support from the local communities – these factors render military strategies ineffective and often counter-productive – leading to multiple casualties.”
Anu explained: “[Cameroon] never for once believed [that] we were going to resist – not only resist, but to fight this war for five years.”
“We started this war using cutlasses, sticks, Dane guns and rubber guns. But we have now graduated from using these [rudimentary weapons] to the AK47s and we are also now using Improvised Explosive Devises not bought from anywhere out of Ambazonia, but manufactured in Ambazonia.”
“The use of these weapons is pushing Cameroon to the wall,” he said.
Mbwoge disagrees, and rather sees “a reluctant and ill-equipped state army trying to disarm determined armed separatists within the problematic regions where such casualties have become inevitable.”
“Sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation are paramount elements for statehood. No state in the world will happily hand over part of its territory to a disunited, disorganized group of armed secessionists,” he said.
Opinions are deeply polarized among Cameroonians regarding how to get out of the current political stalemate. While leaders of the secessionist movements maintain their quest for autonomy is unstoppable, many pro-government lobbyists insist the form of state is non-negotiable. The European Parliament has urged both sides to “immediately re-initiate peace talks.”
“At the interim government of Ambazonia, we are only ready to initiate an internationally recognized mediation/negotiation with Cameroon,” Anu told The Epoch Times.
“We will not go in for anything so-called two-state federation. We want a free and independent Ambazonia and French Cameroon isn’t going to give it to us; the international community/the United Nations will give it to us. But if they do not give it to us, we will fight with everything that is within us to take that country and rule it like the Somaliland did even without the recognition of the United Nations,” he said.
Mbogwe said such stance smacks of “sheer recklessness.”
“Real rebels throughout history understood the dynamics of power which the leaders of Ambazonia are yet to understand,” he told The Epoch Times.
“Their insistence of ‘no turning back’ is at the expense of the people they are claiming to liberate. How true is their ‘no turning back policy’ when the average man is fed up with the war? How true is that policy when they have adopted a policy to keep their children out of school and their people out of work? How true is that policy when they are disunited, disorganized and lack the ability to compromise? How true will their policy of ‘no turning back’ work when they continue to order killings, kidnappings and maiming of their own people.”
Otto thinks a compromise can eventually be reached all the same.
“This is the fifth year of the conflict and no side can claim on the balance of capacity, that it can defeat the other anytime soon,” he told The Epoch Times.
“The earlier both sides review the existing options for a peaceful settlement, the better for the stability of all stakeholders. Right now, both parties are unable to back the current hardline stands of winning in the battlefield. The form of the state is non-negotiable and independence is a no turning back is a respectable starting position. In the phase of negotiations, positions are likely to shift depending on what is at stake for each party.”