Cameroon’s government has announced that a group of soldiers killed nine villagers, including an 18-month-old girl, in a “manifestly disproportionate” and “hasty” response to a confrontation in the Northwest region last week Tuesday. The four soldiers were searching for a missing comrade in the village of Missong when they came across a group of angry villagers at night, the Defence Ministry said in a statement.

“In an inappropriate reaction, unsuited to the circumstances and manifestly disproportionate to the hostile villagers’ refusal to cooperate … the soldiers, in a hasty reaction of self-protection … used their weapons,” the statement said.

The victims were four men, four women and the infant, it said. A one-year-old child was slightly injured and taken to a hospital. The statement was an unusual admission of blame by the army, which civilians and rights groups have accused of numerous killings and abuses during an ongoing separatist conflict.

Cameroon’s Northwest Region is one of two English-speaking regions where secessionist fighters protesting about perceived marginalisation by the French-speaking majority have been battling government troops since 2017. Last year, a mob lynched a military police officer after he killed a five-year-old girl when he fired on a car at a checkpoint. A month later, a policeman killed an eight-year-old girl in similar circumstances. The conflict has killed more than 3,000 people and displaced nearly 1 million since it started. The ministry said the four soldiers have been arrested and an investigation opened and offered its condolences to the families of the victims.

First, a quick note must be made of the implications of Yaounde’s actions. Militaries the world over have an enormous responsibility to take their legal obligations seriously. A cornerstone principle of the laws of war which has found clear expression in contemporary international humanitarian law is the doctrine of proportionality. This principle requires that the application of coercive force must be reasonable in intensity, duration, and magnitude, based on all facts known to the commander at the time, to decisively counter the hostile act or intent. The rule of proportionality prohibits attacks which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects or a combination, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

It is in that sense that the defence ministry’s statement in the wake of Missong was situated.

Having said that, the central government’s action is unique in its thoughtful consideration of facts on the ground. In the past it had been far more likely justify excessive military action after the fact and dismiss criticism as unpatriotic and the work of dissident elements and unmoored Western reportage. In that light, the Cameroonian Army’s actions will win it few friends, particularly since it has more than clearly indicated that it is not interested in any charm offensive in the two regions with heightened separatist sympathies.

The defence ministry’s statement also heavily shifts responsibility for compelling restraint on possibly unarmed civilians. It perpetuates the culture of impunity that many of the continent’s militaries are infamous for. We have seen similar spins in state sanctioned massacres in Nigeria – the massacre of Shiites in Zaria, in December 2015, happened when the Nigerian Army opened fire on protesters for daring to block a road being used by a convoy of the then Chief of Army Staff. Such actions are counterproductive because they not only undermine legitimate operations against separatists and armed elements but also serve as recruitment tools for the latter, ultimately entrenching an unending cycle of violence in a conflict that has displaced thousands of Cameroonians away from their homes, and unfortunately ended many lives.