Cameroon: How COVID-19 is impacting peace and conflict

October 14, 2020

 

 

On June 26, 2020, the Global Campaign for Peace and Justice in Cameroon endorsed the UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s call for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a letter signed by 20+ civil organizations, former Ambassadors, and Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the group issued the “COVID-19 Ceasefire Challenge” to the Republic of Cameroon and all non-state armed groups (NSAGs) to call a ceasefire in order to “protect human life, health workers, patients, health facilities, and ambulances" and "allow unfettered access of humanitarian aid to the Northwest and Southwest regions.”

 

The western regions of Cameroon are hot spots of conflict since the Anglophone crisis was ignited in 2017 after English speakers protested government requirements for French-language procedures in courts and schools. Since then, 3,000 people have been killed and over 500,000 displaced.


At the time of the letter, only the Southern Cameroons Defense Force (Socadef) had announced a temporary ceasefire for COVID-19 on March 25. Soon after the challenge was publicized, government representatives and leaders of an Anglophone separatist group initiated negotiations for a ceasefire, although the letter’s influence on these events is unclear. Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, the self-proclaimed president of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia, confirmed the meeting and qualified it, saying “Be reassured that we remain committed to the restoration of the independence of the homeland.” The government has denied that talks are underway. Other separatist groups have denounced these talks, arguing that Ayuk Tabe does not represent all Ambazonians.


Although COVID-19 has led to the first negotiations of the Anglophone crisis since its start, the pandemic has created another crisis of mistrust and misinformation. Although the government and Cameroonian NGOs have taken steps to protect public health through mask requirements, providing protective equipment, and educating the public on hand-washing and the dangers of the coronavirus, false information on the virus has taken root.


In some Cameroonian churches, such as the Tabernacles of Freedoms Ministries in the capital, Yaoundé, pastors are preaching that the pandemic is a hoax. Some churchgoers, though a minority, have defied government orders, worshipping in closed churches. The government has highlighted the spread of false information as a factor in the 19,000 coronavirus cases in Cameroon.


The need for accurate information, particularly in rural Cameroon, has become the responsibility of Cameroonian civil society. Groups such as the Network of Actors for Sustainable Development (RADD), led by Marie-Crescence Ngobo, switched from documenting local struggles against land grabs by palm oil and rubber companies to distributing protective kits at the start of the pandemic. Indigenous people also took on the responsibility of educating their communities, arguing that they have been ignored in the government’s response to COVID-19.


Not only are Cameroonian NGOs stepping up to spread information, humanitarian organizations are also providing public health services in the northwest and southwest. 34% of healthcare centers in these regions are non-functional or only partly functional.


Despite the challenges Cameroon faces in handling a pandemic, the cases and deaths have remained relatively low. The economic shutdowns have further threatened the vulnerable population, which makes up 7% of Cameroon’s population, however, threat of the pandemic may help accelerate negotiations for a ceasefire over the Anglophone conflict.
 

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