Today we learned of the tragic death of Charles Trumann Wesco, an American missionary, near Bamenda, in Northwest Cameroon. Mr. Wesco arrived in the country two weeks ago, working as a missionary with his wife and eight children. The Wesco family initially began their relationship with Cameroon in 2015 during a survey visit, and had arrived only two weeks ago for their latest stint in the country. On a shopping trip to Bamenda, Charles Wesco was struck by a bullet whilst travelling in a Toyota 4×4 with his friend and members of his family, later dying in a local hospital. Initial reports immediately placed the blame on Cameroonian security forces, although this will inevitably be subject to significant debate in the coming days.
Firstly, I would like to express my sincere condolences to the Wesco family, their fellow missionaries and friends in Cameroon, and their wider church family in the United States. There are no words that can alleviate their shock, horror and loss at this time. I take solace in the fact that Mr. Wesco’s journey as a missionary was guided by a profoundly deep calling to serve his lord in Cameroon, and that he was thus where he thought he was needed- and belonged. A family with deeply religious connections, I have no doubt that the Wesco family will find themselves enveloped in the love and healing of their community. For now, though, I wish them nothing but the best in recovering from this traumatic event. This was not your war, not your conflict, and yet it has changed your lives. May you find peace.
The blame game for this incident has already begun. Local sources reported immediately that he had been killed by Cameroonian security forces, however the Cameroonian government have taken the line that he was killed by ‘terrorists’ (separatist fighters) in the region. It is not my place to speculate on what really happened.
What I will say is this:
The Anglophone Crisis has spiralled out of control. Cameroon’s security forces no longer have a firm grip over the region, being challenged across Northwest and Southwest Cameroon by a variety of separatist groups. Their campaign of brutality, littered with clear evidence of significant human rights abuses, has not only alienated the local population but also fuelled the conflict itself. Far from ‘crushing’ the Ambazonian movement, it has invigorated it- given it life, given it blood, created martyrs. Cameroon’s Special Forces, the Israeli-trained and equipped BIR, led a campaign marked by similar abuses against Boko Haram, but now these tactics, similar to a combination of ‘Search and Destroy’ and ‘Scorched Earth’ has seen hundreds of villages burnt, hundreds of civilians killed, and sources of food destroyed. Evidence has shown summary executions, torture, and people burned to death. The myriad abuses of Cameroon’s forces are severe enough that they will one day form part of an evidence dossier at an international court.
Whilst Cameroon’s tactics were to crush the Ambazonian movement, instead it has enlarged it, with armed groups increasing both in size and number. Where they once may have found a sympathetic local population, they now find ghost towns and cities where people have fled the violence, either to elsewhere in Cameroon or in neighbouring Nigeria. The Ambazonian armed groups have also become increasingly well-equipped over time, replacing their obsolete ‘Dane Guns’ with weapons captured from Cameroonian troops, with some evidence of arms reaching them from further afield. They do not have the firepower to go toe to toe with Biya’s troops by any means, but they are certainly in a stronger position than they were.
In every village, there is a story of brutality, a tale of death and destruction. If President Biya is not careful, behind every blade of grass he will find a rebel.
At the same time, abuses have also been perpetrated by separatist groups, and these too must be addressed. Whilst in scale they are outweighed by the actions of Cameroonian forces, it is important to recognise that separatist groups have committed acts that would be considered abuses. The enforced closure of schools across the two regions is denying a generation of children an education, and the summary justice dished out to suspected sympathisers must not go unnoticed.
The Anglophone Crisis was once the Anglophone Problem, but now it is an Anglophone War. This represents an absolute failure of Cameroon’s government to address Anglophone concerns in the past, but also that of the international community to put sufficient pressure on Biya’s regime to prevent abuses, or even to attempt to prevent the slide into conflict. The Ambazonian diaspora and NGOs have been calling for international attention and monitoring of the situation, however these calls ultimately went unheeded.
Instead, the Anglophone Crisis has spiralled out of control into a serious conflict that further destabilises the fragile Great Lakes region. The lack of international leadership is nothing short of a disgrace, and had up until this point been measured by South Cameroonian blood- but now a price has been paid in American blood too.
Enough is enough. The time for international dialogue is past- the time for international action is now. It is imperative that the cycle of violence is broken, that aid is allowed to flow to the communities that desperately need it, and that the grievances of the Anglophone population are properly addressed.
In the past I have called for an international, impartial monitoring mission (as supported in theory by the UK) to establish the facts on the ground. I believe that the window of opportunity for this operation has now passed. The situation has deteriorated too much- Peacekeepers and Peacebuilders are now required. The notion of a UN-sponsored independence referendum has been mooted on a few occasions, and this would be a logical step if Cameroon’s government is unwilling to compromise on any form of renewed federalism. Biya’s controversial election has also created discord in the Francophone population, with Maurice Kamto still proclaiming victory- Cameroon is as weak as perhaps it has ever been, and the Anglophone Crisis threatens the integrity of Cameroon itself, as well as the wider region.
There will be masses of media attention over the next few days, as the tragic loss of Charles Wesco will reverberate around every corner of the United States of America, and further afield.
As utterly awful as Wesco’s death is, it is a dreadful indictment of the international community that it took the death of one American to put the Anglophone Crisis on the international agenda- and not the deaths of hundreds of Africans.
Rest in Peace, Charles Wesco. May your legacy be that of righteous peace.