Tenuous Security Situation and Need for Funds Fuel Abductions in Cameroon

Supporters of Cameroonian President Paul Biya celebrate his re-election in Yaoundé on November 6, 2018. Biya has vowed to pursue policies that address the "frustrations and aspirations" in English-speaking regions following the abduction of 78 school children. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In an incident more commonly associated with its eastern neighbor, Nigeria, a group of masked assailants kidnapped as many as 78 teenage students from a school in Nkwen in northwest Cameroon, in the evening of November 4. The school’s principal and a teacher were also abducted from the academic facility located in an area which has served as one of the epicenters of a secessionist insurgency in Cameroon’s Anglophone region. Late in the evening of November 6, the student hostages were returned unharmed to the school campus. The circumstances surrounding their initial abduction and subsequent release remain unclear and are even being disputed; local reports claim that the students were not released by their captors but rather abandoned in the nearby locality of Baftu amid the approach of Cameroonian security forces. Nonetheless, the whereabouts of two students and the two abducted educators remain unclear.

Although there have been no claims of responsibility for the mass kidnapping—or the subsequent release—responsibility has been attributed to one of the several militant groups who have taken up arms to vie for the secession of Cameroon’s Anglophone west from its Francophone government. Such groups are pushing for secession due to claims that Cameroon’s English-speaking regions have been socially, politically, and economically marginalized by the administration of President Paul Biya, despite the country’s constitution mandating that the country’s two linguistic centers of power—encompassed by the 1961 unification of Southern and French Cameroon into the modern-day Republic of Cameroon—are provided equal status. Indeed, the Biya administration’s harsh crackdown on an initial protest movement by Anglophone civic groups protesting the deployment of French-speaking teachers to English-dominant secondary and tertiary academic facilities has been cited by secessionist militants as the reason they have taken up arms against the state.

In pursuit of their aims, militant groups have used a number of varying vectors of violence against the Cameroonian state and its perceived allies who, in turn, have employed strategies such as incommunicado detentions, extrajudicial killings, and even scorched earth policies against the secessionists. Militants have generally leveraged the use of armed ambushes  and even the limited use of improvised explosive devices against Cameroonian forces. However, a tactic which is increasingly being employed by the militants is that of kidnapping, which has been used to target government officials, soldiers, tribal and religious leaders, and—as highlighted in Nkwen—students and teachers. In terms of soldiers and state officials, abductions have generally been perpetrated as a punitive measure and perhaps as a direct response to the actions of the Biya administration. In this regard, the Cameroonian state had initially been accused of abducting—and often executing—civic activists who spearheaded the initial wave of protest calling for enhanced political and economic representation for citizens of Anglophone Cameroon.

In the case of tribal elders, religious leaders, and members of the region’s education sector, abductions by secessionist militants have focused on individuals who have either opposed the hardline rhetoric of secessionist militants or who have actively disobeyed calls by the armed dissidents to suspend all public services—particularly that of education. In these instances, hostages have generally been released unharmed after a brief period of captivity.

However, while such forms of abductions continue to predominate in the country’s northwest and southwest regions—which has been coined the state of Ambazonia by Anglophone separatists—kidnapping for the purpose of ransom and extortion is on the increase and forms part of a wider illegal economy which has evolved in tandem with the regional insurgency. Highlighting the phenomenon, a group of around 40 people were kidnapped while traveling by bus to the settlement of Lebialem in the southwest region on March 18. Although most hostages were released soon after, a prominent university professor was held captive for several days and was only freed after the purported payment of a $40,000 ransom to his captors.

Another prominent incident of extortive kidnapping in Anglophone Cameroon occurred when the separatist armed group that calls itself the Ambazonian Tigers abducted four construction workers, including two Tunisian nationals, from a project site in the area around Kumba and Isangele in southwest Cameroon. One of the expatriate hostages was killed in a security operation launched on March 20, while the remainder of the group were released after a reported $90,000 ransom payment was made to the militant group. Separately, there were claims by the Cameroonian government that Anglophone dissidents had kidnapped a group of 12 European tourists near Mount Manengouba National Park, located 300 kilometers northwest of the capital, Yaoundé, in early April. However, the tour operator denied that the group had been abducted and stated that they were merely stopped by Anglophone separatists at an informal roadblock and were allowed onward passage after their identification as a tour group was verified.

Despite the relatively positive conclusion to the latest group abduction in Nkwen, the incident is nonetheless indicative of the tenuous security environment prevailing in northwest and southwest Cameroon, where civilian communities increasingly find themselves victimized by both separatist militants and security forces deployed to the region to counter the threat they pose. It is also a strategic trend which is anticipated to increase, rather than lessen, amid resistance by both the Cameroonian state and armed anti-state dissidents to a negotiated settlement. In fact, voices calling for a peaceful resolution to the crisis are more than likely to be targeted for abduction by separatist militants who deem their conciliatory disposition as being incongruent with their ambitions of independence for Anglophone Cameroon.

From a government perspective, the ongoing abductions and subsequent disappearances of separatist militants and Anglophone activists will only continue to incite retaliatory abductions by non-state actors. Finally, with both sides resorting to armed violence as a means of resolving the Anglophone crisis, secessionists may continue to use extortive kidnapping, associated acts of criminality as a means of financing armed campaigns against a significantly more well-armed Cameroonian military.