Cameroonian separatist leaders fighting for the independent state of Ambazonia face trial next week on terrorism charges that could lead to the death penalty as the re-elected government of President Paul Biya attempts to assert its seventh consecutive mandate.
"Ten charges have been brought against them, including terrorism, advocating terrorism, secession, civil war and revolution," lawyer Christopher Ndong told Reuters after the charges were read out at the Cameroon capital Yaounde’s military court.
The 10 accused, who had been extradited from Nigeria earlier this year, include Julius Ayuk Tabe, the Nigeria-based chairman of the Governing Council of Ambazonia separatist movement whom the group says was seized from a hotel by Cameroonian gunmen in an “illegal abduction” with six others in January.
Tabe and his fellow defendants were among 47 English-speaking Cameroonians arrested in Nigeria and deported to Cameroon last January. The remaining 37 suspects have not been charged but remain detained by authorities. For those facing charges, the trial is expected to start Dec. 6.
This comes just two months after the Cameroonian presidential election, which was rife with violence from state forces and insurgents in the lead up to the vote. Separatists attempted to force a boycott in the proclaimed Ambazonia region, blocking roads with felled trees and cutting off three bridges, while state forces attempted to suppress the militants’ efforts with indiscriminant force that threatened ordinary citizens in the region.
Due to insecurity, only half of the Cameroonian voters were able to cast ballots, while tens of thousands of people did not participate. The incumbent President Paul Biya, 85, won his seventh consecutive term after ruling for 35 years thus far. In his inaugural speech in earlier this month, Biya warned the separatists to lay down arms.
“These war-mongers who are jeopardizing our national unity and preaching secession should know that they will face not only the full force of the law but also the determination of our defense and security forces,” Biya warned.
What’s Behind the Separatist Movement
Cameroon is divided by Anglophone (English-speaking) and Francophone (French-speaking) regions. The English-speaking minority, who make up 20 percent of the population, are based largely in the southwest. Many English speakers accuse the predominantly French-speaking government of discrimination.
English-speaking regions in the Southwest, where separatists are fighting to secure territory for the independent state of Ambazonia, have been in a crisis for two years. In 2016, lawyers and teachers took to the streets to protest for more English language representation in courts and schools, respectively. The government cracked down on those protests, prompting insurgents to react in an uprising. They clashed violently with government forces since.
Last year, the group took up arms on Sept. 26 and again on Oct. 1 when they declared a symbolic independence from Cameroon. Security forces killed 40 people in September during a crackdown on protests. In November that same year, separatists killed at least six security officers.
The U.N. Human Rights Council reports at least 160,000 people have been internally displaced since May of this year. 21,000 more have been registered as refugees in Nigeria, which neighbors the western English-speaking region.