Cameroon’s pride at hosting Africa Cup of Nations tempered by separatist violence

Rising tension over Anglophone zones threaten to disrupt football tournament

The much-anticipated Africa Cup of Nations football tournament opens today, hosted by Cameroon for the first time for 50 years.

Yet behind the celebrations – slightly tempered by strict pandemic restrictions – are tensions from a security crisis spreading from anglophone regions, shaping daily life in Cameroon and potentially even the tournament.

Authorities in the west African country have ramped up security, particularly in the capital, Yaoundé, and other host cities across five of Cameroon’s 10 regions – with the effect of securing the tournament and bringing the crisis into view.

In Limbe, a peaceful coastal city where Mali, Tunisia, The Gambia and Mauritania will play group matches, an explosion near the city centre last Wednesday left six injured and destroyed property.

Marinette Abah, 33, was returning home from evening prayers at the time.

“We were home when we received a call that Marinette had been wounded in the explosion,” her brother Calvin Nang said. “We met her with blood all over her body.”

A faction of the separatist Ambazonia movement claimed responsibility, and the wider movement, which has condemned the government in Yaoundé as a colonial administration, has pledged to disrupt the tournament.

Tensions in the north-western and south-western anglophone regions boiled over in late 2016, when protests against marginalisation of the English language, by lawyers and teachers, were brutally put down by Cameroonian security forces.

Cameroonian soldiers patrol the entrance of the Olembe stadium in Yaounde this week, two days before the start of the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN).
Cameroonian soldiers patrol the entrance of the Olembe stadium in Yaounde this week, two days before the start of the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN). Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

It fuelled a rise in armed activities by separatist groups seeking independence for the English-speaking parts of Cameroon. The groups have been accused of several attacks and blasts, including against schools, escalating an education boycott that began in 2017, and depriving a generation of Cameroonian children of an education, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Cameroonian security forces have been accused of human rights abuses against anglophones, especially in rural areas.

Many anglophones in Cameroon accuse the government of marginalisation and of attempting to assimilate their education and legal systems into the dominant francophone system.

A spokesperson for Samuel Eto’o, a hugely popular figure as one of Africa’s greatest ever footballers a former Afcon champion as well as Champions League and La Liga winner with Barcelona and now head of Cameroon’s football association, refused to be drawn on the security crisis, focusing instead on preparations for the tournament, including 30 new or renovated football stadiums and training pitches.

n an interview last month Eto’o also condemned the attempt by European football authorities to again postpone the tournament.

“If the Euros took place in the middle of the pandemic, with full stadiums in several cities in Europe and there was no problem, why wouldn’t Afcon be played in Cameroon?”

Last month, the European Club Association wrote to its African counterpart, the Confederation of African Football informing them they did not intend to release African players for 2021 Afcon in Cameroon citing rising infections.

For many in a football-loving nation, the tournament is a proud moment, where Cameroon start as underdogs behind favourites Algeria, Egypt and Senegal.

For others in the English-speaking parts of Cameroon, the tournament is a sideshow to an ongoing crisis.

Wilfred Taka, a student in Bamenda, one of the cities in the anglophone north-west, said abuses by security forces were a constant reality, as well as the activities of armed separatists.

“So many people have left Bamenda and the north-west to safer towns. Many of the businesses have shut down. For the past five years, things have not been easy,” he said.

“Hardly will the month go to an end before you will hear of killings and kidnappings.

The tournament is a good thing for the country, but would it not have been better if they had focused on peace first? But they have not done that.”


Emmanuel Akinwotu and Franklin Sone Bayen in Limbe

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
In a world full of wars, why are so many of them ignored? | Simon Tisdall
Instability across central Africa has resulted in a humanitarian crisis. There needs to be greater focus on conflict resolution

Simon Tisdall

09, Jun, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Unity is main goal of Libyan team in Africa Cup of Nations
Players enter soccer tournament in a spirit of democracy, as host’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang, looks on

David Smith Johannesburg

21, Jan, 2012 @6:17 PM

Article image
Egypt wins right to clean up another avoidable Africa Cup of Nations mess | Nick Ames
Football-mad fans and the presence of Mohamed Salah can revive a flagging tournament but for the fourth time in a row the original hosts have had to be hastily replaced

Nick Ames

08, Jan, 2019 @4:10 PM

Article image
Why Cameroon are on the bottom rung for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations
Jonathan Wilson: With Samuel Eto'o serving an eight-month suspension, Cameroon must take on Guinea-Bissau for the right to play-off against one of the 2012 qualifiers to get to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations

Jonathan Wilson

28, Feb, 2012 @11:46 AM

Article image
Former Liverpool defender Rigobert Song fighting for life after stroke
Former Liverpool, West Ham United and Cameroon defender Rigobert Song is reportedly fighting for his life after being rushed to hospital in Yaounde

Guardian sport and agencies

03, Oct, 2016 @8:35 AM

Article image
Samuel Eto’o steps up to help forgotten victims of Boko Haram
The Cameroonian football icon is raising money and awareness amid the escalating crisis in west Africa which, he says, ‘isn’t being talked about enough but is causing huge pain and damage’

David Hytner

29, Oct, 2015 @12:05 PM

Article image
Vaccine inequality exposed by dire situation in world’s poorest nations
Analysis: the failings of the Covax programme, logistical issues and governments’ own inadequacies are making a bad situation worse

Peter Beaumont

30, May, 2021 @9:15 AM

Article image
David Smith visits Cameroon on the 50th anniversary of independence

David Smith visits Cameroon in Africa on the 50th anniversary of independence

David Smith

20, May, 2010 @11:26 AM

Article image
Magnificent men and women to race flying machines across Africa
Vintage Air Rally will challenge entrants to fly from Cairo to the Cape in 35 days

Helena Smith

13, Nov, 2016 @12:05 AM

Article image
Amid rising ethnic tensions, Kenyans fear poll could trigger fresh violence
Calls for action to avert bloodshed as Kenyatta heads for a landslide in election boycotted by the opposition, writes Jason Burke in Nairobi

Jason Burke

29, Oct, 2017 @6:05 AM