This West African nation’s May 20 National Day celebration was marred by running battles between government troops and anglophone separatists who imposed a lockdown, crippling business in English-speaking western regions.
May 20 in Cameroon is also known as the day of National Unity between the English-speaking minority and the majority French-speaking nation.
In Yaounde, the celebration featured a military parade with President Paul Biya waving at an estimated 30,000 people. The soldiers sang and pledged their loyalty and readiness to defend Cameroon’s territorial integrity.
The government said it reduced the time for the military parade to 45 minutes for strategic reasons. Opposition political parties, including the Social Democratic Front, said the ailing 89-year-old Biya could not stand up for two hours to honor the military during its parade, as has been the tradition in Cameroon.
As for the day’s violence, Deputy Commander Capo Daniel of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, which Cameroon officials call a leading separatist group, said his forces stopped government troops from transporting French speakers to English-speaking western regions to give the impression that English speakers are happy with the central government in Yaounde.
Ambazonia is what separatists call the state they say they are fighting to create.
Daniel said “Across Ambazonia, our forces have signaled their presence to our populations by firing shots in the air to send a message that today [May 20] everyone should stay at home and observe a rejection of the Cameroon union with Ambazonia."
The government has denied its troops were transporting French speakers to English-speaking regions. It also said the National Day celebration was successful in Cameroon's French-speaking regions.
The military stated that 28 separatists who tried to disrupt May 20 activities were killed in several northwestern towns, including Oku, Kumbo, Bamenda and Nkambe.
Colonel Samuel Tabot Orock, a government military commander fighting separatists in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s English speaking North-West region, said the military made sure everyone who came out for celebrations was protected.
"Let the world, and Cameroon in particular, understand that the military in Bamenda know that the secessionist fighters will be doing everything in their powers to disrupt a successful 20th May celebration, that is why we are taking every single measure as far as security is concerned to make sure there is a hitch-free 20th May celebration in Bamenda," Orock said.
The government said prior to the day at least 35 people separatists suspected of preparing to commemorate the day were abducted by separatists in several towns of the South-West region including Mutengene and Tiko.
Bernard Okalia Bilai, the governor of the South-West region, said civilians have understood that separatist claims that fighters can create an independent English-speaking state in Cameroon are unfounded.
On May 20, 1972, Cameroon organized what it called a constitutional referendum, during which citizens voted to abolish the federal system of government that had existed since 1961 in favor of a unitary state.
But the separatists say there has been an overbearing influence of French in English-speaking western regions since the 1972 referendum.