UNITED NATIONS — Humanitarian conditions for the English-speaking regions of Cameroon have worsened dramatically in just one year, said UN officials, who called for greater aid and international intervention to resolve what started as a political conflict but escalated into spasms of violence that have increased in number and intensity over the past three years.
“The level of the crisis today is more alarming than ever,” said Mark Lowcock, the UN’s head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, speaking in Manhattan at a special session of the UN Security Council that was hosted by the United States. He recommended the international community step up its contributions to fund humanitarian relief in Cameroon and added that the crisis “runs the risk of spiraling out of control.”
Lowcock said that as many as 4.3 million people in the nation of 24 million are “in need of humanitarian assistance,” 30 percent more than last year. But in the Northwest and Southwest regions, which are in the grip of a conflict that began over how English-speaking residents there were marginalized by their French-speaking government, 1.3 million people are in need of assistance. That is about eight times as many more as there were last year, when 160,000 people from the two areas were in need of the help.
The debate, among the first for the Security Council since violence resulted after protests in the regions, comes nearly 17 months since Stony Brook University Professor Patrice Nganang, a Cameroonian national and U.S. citizen, was released by Cameroon’s military after three weeks of detention. He was detained because he had written articles and social media postings that were critical of Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s handling of a crisis that stems from the English-speaking regions’ longstanding feelings of political and economic marginalization.
“Our desired outcomes for this meeting are an increased awareness and visibility of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Cameroon, plus the immediate opening of humanitarian space and the provision of unhindered access for humanitarian personnel by parties to the conflict,” said Cherith N. Chalet, U.S. ambassador for UN Management and Reform, who chaired the meeting called for by the United States, Germany, the Dominican Republic and the United Kingdom.
She added: “Since 2018, the U.S. government has contributed more than $87 million in Cameroon to provide humanitarian assistance to host communities, (internally displaced persons), and refugees. This aid is critical for saving lives, but it can only be effective when we have access to vulnerable populations.”
Lowcock noted that the crisis began after a government crackdown on protests to the imposition in November 2016 of a mainly French policy in schools and courts and has led to a near civil war, with an armed separatist group clashing with government troops as the country’s civil society crumbled. Hospitals have been attacked and schools have been shuttered, with only about 20 percent of children attending schools amid the turmoil.
“Thousands of homes and entire villages have been destroyed,” Lowcock said, noting the use of arbitrary detention and arrests. “Ordinary people are the direct targets of violence.”
Esther Omam Njomo, executive director of Reach Out Cameroon in the Southwest region, said she was both a victim and witness to the violence, being detained twice in her own home at gunpoint.
“We think that it is time for us to start silencing the guns,” she said. “We think that it is time for us to start talking. Let us start talking genuinely. Let us have inclusive dialogue. We want to regain the peace which we formerly enjoyed before the crisis.”
The Rev. Paul Fru Njokikang, a priest and director of Caritas for the Archdiocese of Bamenda in the Northwest region, said people come to him desperately seeking help. He recalled one woman whose husband was shot in front of her and their family and then torched as they watched.
“The UN and other international organizations should scale up their humanitarian activities in Cameroon to meet the high demand,” he said.
Cameroon’s ambassador to the UN, Michel Tommo Monthe, said the country was battling three crises at once — a stubborn terrorism from Boko Haram, a refugee crisis stemming from unrest in Nigeria and the separatists in the Southwest and Northwest regions.
“The government of Cameroon is fully, fully aware of the cause of this situation,” he said, adding that Cameroon has implemented a plan to address them all, while respecting international humanitarian law. “Such a situation has increased the demand for humanitarian assistance.”