Tensions can be traced back to events a century ago, when Britain and France occupied Cameroon, taking over Germany’s major colony in West Africa.
– World War I split –
Cameroon was a Germany colony until 1916, when British and French troops forced the Germans out.
The two countries divided it into separate spheres of influence that were later formalised by the League of Nations, the forerunner to the UN.
The much larger French colony gained independence in 1960.
A year later, the British colony also gained independence. Some of the English-speaking areas choose to join newly-formed Nigeria, others to become part of the federation of Cameroon.
– English-speaking regions –
The two mainly English-speaking southern provinces are home to around a fifth of Cameroon’s 23 million population.
Named the Northwest Region and Southwest Region, they jut into southeastern Nigeria.
The English-speaking areas were allowed some self-governance.
But many English-speakers complained of discrimination at the hands of the francophone majority in areas such as education and the justice system, and alleged national wealth was not shared fairly.
– Disputed ‘unity’ –
In 1972, the original federal structure was scrapped in a national referendum that approved the creation of one state.
Calls for a breakaway English-speaking state mounted in the 1990s, with demands for a referendum on independence accompanied by low-level unrest.
In 2001 banned protest rallies turned violent. Several people were killed when security forces moved in and secessionist leaders were arrested.
The separatist Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) set up a “government” in Britain and leaders moved into exile.
– 2016 flare-up –
Lawyers in the English-speaking regions, which are also strongholds for the political opposition, went on strike in late 2016 to demand the right to use Anglo-Saxon common law.
Teachers followed, protesting at the appointment of francophones in the region’s education system.
Tensions rose in December, when the national flag was torched at protests and a separatist version hoisted. Clashes in some areas left several people reported dead.
Prime Minister Philemon Yang, himself an anglophone, ruled out secession — “Unity is the bedrock of our country.”
– ‘Independence’ declared –
In January 2017 senior secessionist activists were arrested and charged with terrorism and rebellion.
New protests brought several cities to a standstill, but the government hit back by cutting off internet access to flashpoint areas for several weeks, alleging the spread of “fake news”.
In an apparent effort to calm the situation, President Paul Biya halted the secessionists’ trials in August and some were later freed.
In October, several thousand defied a ban on protests to mark the anniversary of the country’s October 1961 unification.
Separatist leaders issued a symbolic declaration of independence. “We are no longer slaves of Cameroon,” said Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, the self-declared “president” of a new republic called “Ambazonia”.
Biya, in power since 1982 and standing for reelection in 2018, branded the secessionists “a band of terrorists” and ordered a crackdown with curfews, raids and other restrictions. Dozens of people — members of the security forces as well as civilians — have died.
– Nigeria role –
Since January 2018, much of the focus has shifted to Nigeria, which the Cameroon authorities suspected was being used as a safe haven for separatists.
The two neighbours have experienced tensions in the past over various issues, but forged cooperation on fighting the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency.
On January 29, Nigeria extradited 47 anglophone separatists, including Tabe, which was followed by fresh violence in English-speaking regions of Cameroon.
Cameroon security forces, according to local sources, have also been seen among the estimated 30,000 people who have fled the violence to southeast Nigeria.