Cameroon has long been viewed as a model of stability in a region fraught with conflict. Under the surface, however, tensions between its Anglophone and Francophone populations have simmered for decades. The Anglophone minority, mostly concentrated in the North-West and South-West regions (NWSW), has been marginalized, discriminated against, and economically disenfranchised since a referendum ended federalism and joined the two populations in a full political union in 1972.

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In late 2016, instability gave way to violence when protests against the government’s imposition of Francophone teachers and lawyers in Anglophone schools and courts were met with military action.(1) The government’s reaction to the protests resulted in the formation of several non-state armed groups and fueled existing separatist sentiment. Armed groups enforced school boycotts,(2) and the subsequent violent confrontations have forced more than half a million people to flee their homes. According to the UN, the conflict has left 1.3 million people in need of assistance.

Cameroonian authorities deny the severity of the displacement and humanitarian need. Making matters worse, both Cameroonian forces and non-state armed groups severely restrict freedom of movement, preventing local populations from accessing their land and basic services. Both also have taken steps to limit the access of humanitarian workers to populations affected by the conflict. However, through sustained engagement with local officials, communities, and armed groups, relief groups have been able to build trust and expand their reach into areas hit hard by the violence. Most of these groups have relied on their own internal funding, not specifically designated for the NWSW, to assess and serve the affected populations because international donors have yet to step up and engage in a meaningful way.

Instead, foreign donor governments and other international stakeholders have focused on supporting a peace process, which clearly deserves international engagement. However, it is unlikely to bear fruit in the near term because the parties involved refuse to engage in meaningful dialogue. This fact raises the question of why donors so far have refused to expand their engagement beyond the peace process to address the humanitarian consequences of the fighting.The humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly as aid organizations burn through the last of their resources.

To better understand the issues humanitarian actors face in the NWSW, a team from Refugees International traveled to Cameroon in March and April 2019. Refugees International found that access to affected communities remains a challenge for these organizations. Although aid groups can make changes to improve the effectiveness of their response, increased funding―and specifically, a more cooperative response from the national government―would change the humanitarian landscape most dramatically.Most important, international donor involvement would increase global attention to the crisis and allow UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to overcome obstacles to the humanitarian response and better protect the NWSW’s civilian population.