The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Separatists vow to derail Africa’s biggest soccer tournament with bullets and bombs in Cameroon

A man on a motorbike carries a Cameroon flag near Japoma Stadium in Douala on Jan. 9. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

DAKAR, Senegal — On the fourth day of the Africa Cup of Nations, broadcasting from Cameroon to 150 countries this month, the rebels acted on their threat.

A dozen men fired AK-47s into the air less than a quarter-mile from where the Malian soccer team was practicing Wednesday, spooking the players off the field and drawing security forces into a shootout that killed a taxi driver and his passenger.

Elsewhere that morning in the southwestern city of Buea, someone tossed a homemade bomb from a cab window, wounding three police officers. A bus of Gambian footballers, startled by the chaos, raced back to their hotel.

Separatist groups that pledged to derail AFCON — Africa’s biggest soccer competition — briefly succeeded. Their stated goal: Remind the world of their grievances with the Cameroonian government. But hours after the casings cooled, Mali went on to defeat Tunisia 1-0 and attention faded from the five-year conflict often called “neglected” or “forgotten” — even as the rebels vowed more attacks.

“We will continue to carry out anti-AFCON operations,” a separatist spokesman, Capo Daniel, said in a YouTube video Thursday, taking credit for the bullets and explosives. “We will uphold our dignity.”

At least 4,000 people have died since fighting erupted between the separatists and government forces in 2017. Nearly a million have lost their homes.

A billion viewers are expected to watch the AFCON matches, which run through February. Hoping to harness that spotlight, human rights groups are calling for a soccer cease-fire. “Such a truce could be the first step in rebuilding trust and moving toward talks between the authorities and separatist leaders after years of bloodshed,” the International Crisis Group wrote.

Neither side has attempted to make contact, as far as researchers know.

Twenty-four teams are competing in the biennial tournament at six stadiums across Cameroon, including venues in Buea and Limbe, cities in the Anglophone region, where rebels are pushing to create their own country called Ambazonia.

Thousands of fans have flocked in for the games, a flood of jerseys and flags. Many who live in Buea, though — where Mali, Tunisia, Gambia and Mauritania are training — view the rebels’ declarations as warnings.

“You don’t see the football spirit. People who live here — who cannot just leave — are afraid to be associated with the Cup,” said Arrey Elvis Ntui, the Cameroon expert for the International Crisis Group. “We love football, but we prefer to remain alive.”

Days before the shots were fired in Buea, gunmen had ransacked a gas station that displayed AFCON posters and detonated an improvised explosive device in Limbe. (No one was hurt.) The tournament’s mascot, Mola the Lion, went viral for wearing a bulletproof vest.

Daniel, the separatist spokesman, said in a statement, “Do not put football fans’ lives at risk thinking Africa’s most corrupt regime will guarantee security.”

Ntui, who grew up near Buea, had planned to attend the Mali-Tunisia game — discreetly, no jersey — but decided to stay home after the Wednesday clashes.

“The roads were too dangerous,” he said.

Cameroon’s conflict can be traced to the end of French and British colonial rule, which split the nation into a French-speaking majority (80 percent) and English-speaking minority.

The nation’s president of 40 years, Paul Biya, speaks only French in public. Anglophone activists have long said they have felt shut out of opportunity or flat-out persecuted. Protest movements, met with violent government responses, morphed into armed groups. Both the rebels and government forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings and sexual assault, among other atrocities.

As the conflict deepens, more Cameroonians are drawn to the separatist cause, analysts say, feeding the cycle of bloodshed. Exacerbating the mayhem is the Boko Haram insurgency on Cameroon’s northern border, where Islamist militants regularly attack villages with automatic weapons and suicide blasts.

Cameroon was supposed to host AFCON in 2019, but regional soccer authorities determined the country wasn’t ready, citing the unrest and a lack of infrastructure, so Egypt stepped in.

Biya’s government rushed to finish the stadiums — drawing criticism that they should have been more focused on ending the fighting — and, after a year of pandemic delays, AFCON kicked off Jan. 9 in the capital, Yaoundé, with security forces numbering in the thousands standing guard.

Some European clubs, raising concerns about the violence and the coronavirus, tried to restrict African players from traveling to Cameroon, igniting controversy around risks the athletes had already faced in omicron-ravaged Europe.

Tensions around the tournament have not been this high since 2010, when separatists in Angola ambushed a bus of Togolese players, killing three.

The Senegalese Football Federation blasted one English soccer club, Watford, for “disrespectful, pernicious and discriminatory behavior” after the team withheld one of its stars, Ismaila Sarr. (Watford said Sarr was benched because of injuries before allowing him to travel to Cameroon on Jan. 4.)

Cameroon has imposed strict health rules to curb coronavirus transmission, said Yap Boum, a Cameroonian epidemiologist who helped steer the AFCON launch: Everyone must be tested and vaccinated before entering a stadium.

That’s a hefty order in a nation where less than 4 percent of people have been fully vaccinated, he said, so spectators have the option of getting jabbed on their way in.

Health organizers have also prepared for worst-case scenarios.

“If there is any high number of people injured because of football — or because of the separatists — we have a plan with all the hospitals,” Boum said, “to handle a large number of trauma injuries at the same time.”

On opening day in Yaoundé, video captured fans in Cameroon’s green, red and yellow cheering and clapping. Biya and the first lady waved from the sunroof of a black SUV driving laps on the stadium’s track.

Cameroon came back from behind to beat Burkina Faso 2-1.

“The energy was amazing,” said one fan in the stands, Diane Audrey Ngako. “I felt so proud. Thousands and thousands of Cameroonians singing our national anthem.”

The 30-year-old chief executive of a creative agency missed feeling patriotic. She was disappointed with the government for letting the Anglophone crisis fester. She wished there didn’t have to be soldiers on every corner.

“We should have ended this war five years ago,” Ngako said. “The government has to take action to make it end. I wish that all Cameroonians could celebrate this.”

Glynn Hill in Washington contributed to this report.

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