BATIBO, CAMEROON - Cameroonian authorities continue to search for a senior regional official kidnapped Sunday by suspected separatist militants in the country's English-speaking northwest. The abduction followed the killing of three gendarmes that same day amid violence in other anglophone towns as officials tried to celebrate National Youth Day.
Julienne Namata, wife of the most senior government official in the Batibo subdivision of Cameroon’s English speaking northwest, prays for the safe return of her husband, Joseph Namata. She says he was taken from their residence on Sunday as he was getting set to go to the town’s ceremonial ground and preside over activities marking Cameroon's 52nd annual National Youth Day.
"At about eight o’clock in the morning, we heard gunshots and I rushed to the room to alert him but when I got to the room, he was not there. I asked the gendarmes who were around the house. They told me he went out with his driver," she said.
Authorities suspect that armed men were able to get Namata into his car without alerting his protection detail.
The vehicle was later found burned. Joseph Namata has not been seen since.
"We have organized a search with all the security forces that are at our disposal and the reinforcement that the governor and the regional security heads sent to us to organize the search, and we want to be grateful to the population that has already started indicating to us and providing us with their assistance in the search," says Absalom Monono Woloa, senior divisional officer of the Momo Division, where the subdivision of Batibo is located.
However, fearing a roundup by security forces, hundreds of youth have also reportedly fled the town. Woloa called on them to return.
Government officials and lawmakers in Cameroon’s two English-speaking zones have faced intimidation and attack in the past year. This is the first kidnapping of an administrative official.
What started as a strike by anglophone lawyers and teachers in November 2016 degenerated as it was overtaken by separatist groups demanding full independence for the country’s anglophone minority. Violence has escalated amid a government crackdown.
The detention of 47 separatist leaders arrested and extradited from neighboring Nigeria last month has thrown oil on the fire.
Armed separatist groups warned on social media that Cameroon should not attempt to celebrate National Youth Day February 11th in the English-speaking regions. Separatists have declared the northwest and the southwest regions a breakaway state they call “Ambazonia.”
Local officials, protected by security forces, went ahead with the celebrations.
Cameroon’s defense minister, Joseph Beti Assomo, said three gendarmes deployed to maintain peace in the southwestern town of Kembong were, in his words “cold-bloodedly assassinated by terrorists" that same February 11.
More than two dozen policemen, gendarmes and soldiers have lost their lives amid the unrest in the anglophone regions, according to the defense minister. He added that hundreds of the separatists have either been killed or arrested, a figure that VOA could not immediately and independently verify.