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Cameroonian pride to host African Cup of Nations tempered by separatist violence

The highly anticipated African Cup of Nations football tournament kicks off today, hosted by Cameroon for the first time in 50 years.

But behind the celebrations – dampened somewhat by strict pandemic restrictions – tensions from a security crisis spreading from Anglophone regions are shaping everyday life in Cameroon and possibly even the tournament.

Authorities in the West African country have stepped up security, particularly in the capital Yaoundé and other host cities in five of Cameroon’s 10 regions – helping to secure the tournament and portray the crisis.

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

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

“We were at home when we got a call that Marinette was injured in the explosion,” her brother Calvin Nang said. “We met her with blood all over her body.”

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

Tensions in the northwestern and southwestern Anglophone regions came to a head in late 2016, when protests against the marginalization of the English language by lawyers and teachers were brutally crushed by Cameroonian security forces.

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

It fueled an increase in armed activity 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 started in 2017, and deprive a generation of Cameroonian children of education, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Cameroonian security forces have been accused of human rights violations against Anglophones, especially in rural areas.

Many Anglophones in Cameroon accuse the government of marginalizing and attempting to integrate their education and justice systems into the dominant French-speaking system.

A spokesman for Samuel Eto’o, a hugely popular figure as one of Africa’s greatest footballers ever, a former Afcon champion, as well as Champions League and La Liga winner at Barcelona and now head of the Cameroon Football Federation, declined to be pulled over. the security crisis, focusing instead on tournament preparations, including 30 new or renovated football stadiums and training fields.

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

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

Last month, the European Club Association wrote to its African counterpart, the Confederation of African Football, informing them that they had no intention of releasing African players for Afcon 2021 in Cameroon, citing rising infections.

For many in a football-loving country, the tournament is a proud moment, with Cameroon starting as an underdog behind favorites Algeria, Egypt and Senegal.

For others in the Anglophone parts of Cameroon, the tournament is an afterthought of an ongoing crisis.

Wilfred Taka, a student in Bamenda, one of the towns in the Anglophone Northwest, said abuses by security forces were a constant reality, as were the activities of armed separatists.

“So many people have left Bamenda and the northwest for safer cities. Many of the companies have closed. The last five years have not been easy,” he said.

“The month will hardly be over when you will hear of murders and kidnappings.

The tournament is a good thing for the country, but wouldn’t it have been better if they focused on peace first? But they didn’t.”