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On September 24, soldiers from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) attacked and looted the Royal Palace, in Bafut, North-West region. © Creative Commons/ShareAlike 3.0

When Cameroon ratified the World Heritage Convention in 1982, it pledged to protect and preserve its rich historical and cultural heritage. Cameroon is also party to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property. Now, it faces a crucial test in keeping these promises following an attack by government troops on a sacred site of great cultural importance.

On September 24, soldiers from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) attacked and looted the Royal Palace in Bafut, North-West region. Included on a Tentative List of World Heritage Sites since 2006 by UNESCO, the United Nations body for education, science and culture, the Bafut Royal Palace hosts the family of the “Fon,” the traditional regional authority. It comprises over 50 buildings arranged around a shrine and is surrounded by a sacred forest. But the palace also sits at the epicenter of a simmering crisis in the country’s Anglophone regions.

At least 10 BIR soldiers attacked the palace where, according to witnesses, the soldiers may have suspected Anglophone separatists were hiding. They shot and wounded the Fon’s brother before looting the palace museum and taking several precious artifacts, including a bronze mask from the 18th century and golden necklaces. The military operation lasted for three hours and occurred during a traditional ceremony with more than 200 people.

This is not the first time government forces have disregarded UNESCO obligations. In September 2018, BIR soldiers destroyed parts of the Bafut palace roof, again on the pretext of searching for separatists. In the 2018 and 2019 attacks, no separatists were found.

The Fon has asked the government, its international partners, and UNESCO to conduct an independent investigation into the attack. The government should rein in BIR forces and hold commanders of the recent assault accountable for their actions.

More than buildings and precious objects, the Bafut Palace is a piece of Cameroon’s history and a key element of its cultural identity. In the current unrest in the Anglophone regions, belligerents should make sure that this cultural heritage is protected.

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