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Tale of Two States: Cameroon’s Crisis



“Que l’on se comprenne bien, il n’est pas interdit d’exprimer des préoccupations dans la République. En revanche, rien de grand ne peut se construire dans la surenchère verbale, la violence de rue et le défi à l’autorité.”

“Let me make this very clear: it is not forbidden to voice any concerns in the Republic. However, nothing great can be achieved by using verbal excesses, street violence, and defying authority.”

The message, posted in both English and French on Cameroon’s President Paul Biya’s official Facebook page on October 1st 2017, aimed to condemn protestor insurgencies in the western regions of the country. What lies unspoken is that the same violence it denounces was enacted by the government itself. On a day commonly celebrated as “Reunification Day”, marking the British Liberation of the Anglophone faction of the country 48 years ago, English-speaking secessionists opposed to the “Frenchification” of the nation took to the streets. They marched towards the major cities, waving the flags of their would-be nation, Ambazonia, only to be met with military troops blockading the city gates. Some of the military units came from the same contingent designated for the fight against Boko Haram. Bullets and tear gas were unleashed onto the crowds. According to Amnesty International, 17 people were killed, and hundreds more were wounded.

These recent public demonstrations were a continuation of the movement launched by the Anglophone separatist factions in November 2016. The first sparks of civil disobedience came in the form of a lawyers’ strike in the Northwest and later the Southwest region. Legal professionals, taking to the streets in wigs and robes, called for application of the British Common Law, rather than the increasingly prevailing Napoleonic Code, as the judicial standard. They also asked for official English versions of key legal documents to be released simultaneously with their default French equivalents and for the employment of more English-language magistrates.  One month later, a teachers’ strike, calling for more English-language instruction and claiming that Anglophone schools were being staffed with Francophones with poor English skills, fanned the growing flames. These protests soon spread even further, with groups of activists rejecting the “francophonisation”, or “frenchification”, of the regions.

“Sick Anglophones meet with Francophone doctors and they are unable to understand one another. In the tax center, it’s the same problem,” explains Wilfred Tassang, the executive secretary of the Cameroon Teacher’s Trade Union and Vice Chairman of the Southern Cameroons’ Ambazonian Governing Council. “They give us French forms, they do not take into account our problems.”  

The persistence of the protests and their continued oppression reflect both the Biya government and the international community’s failure in adequately responding—or indeed taking seriously—the concerns of the country’s Anglophone minority.


Unification, Reunification?

For decades, Anglophones have fought against their unfair treatment by the government, and their disquietudes go far beyond language barriers. Their sense of alienation dates back to 1961, when the region, under British control at the time, first gained the right to self-governance through a UN-sponsored plebiscite. The resulting independence, however, was nominal. Anglophone Cameroon was immediately strong-armed into unification with the Republic of Cameroon, the former French colony which had gained independence four years prior. The region’s citizens had voted to join Francophone Cameroon, rather than become a part of Nigeria, with which they had been grouped into one single British-ruled colony since the empire’s invasion in 1916. They had expected much more independence as a region than what they ultimately received from the Republic’s then-president, Ahmadou Ahidjo.

This initial insult was exacerbated by subsequent Francophone policies on the region, which decreased Anglophone representation in government, neglected infrastructure construction in majority-Anglophone regions and consistently siphoned resources from the oil-rich Anglophone provinces.

Demonstrations rallying for civil liberties—and for asserting themselves as a political entity to be reckoned with–have racked the country since its reunification. In the 1960s, Anglophone Cameroon splintered into factions over the question of mandated unification, with one side rallying for union with Nigeria while the other, Cameroon. In the 1970s, the beginning of President Biya’s term marked widespread Anglophone teachers’ discontent over the institution of a Baccalaureate system, which they viewed as undermining the British-style GED. The protesters also objected to the re-renaming of the country to the Republic of Cameroon, the same name Francophone Cameroon adopted post-independence, as opposed to the former “United Republic of Cameroon”. In the 1980s, economic strife coupled with Biya’s blatant patron-clientelism, appointing Francophone individuals to high government positions, caused an outcry.


It was during those years that a truly secessionist movement, as opposed to a call for the devolution of federalism, was born. “Ambazonia”, a new promise land named after the lake of Ambas in southwestern Cameroon, was created by Anglophone lawyer Fon Gorji Dinka and became a rallying cry for the ages. Dinka, though initially not affiliated with the many Anglophone political parties, also became an influential figure in the debate of Anglophone independence.

After Dinka’s ensuing imprisonment, the leading opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF) spearheaded a 6-month long “ville morte” or “ghost town” campaign in conjunction with multiple other opposition parties to protest against the government’s suppression of civil liberties. The campaign saw a rare and efficient cooperation between Anglophone and Francophone groups, both in support of personal freedoms: of the ten provinces, seven saw their workers from every industry walk out on strike. They returned for weekends to supply themselves with essentials, but from Monday to Friday, city life came to a screeching halt in a stand against autocracy.  

The most recent protests, with their mandates for independence and strategies of civic disengagement as a form of peaceful protest, were dishearteningly similar to the scenes of 1991.  The city of Bamenda, one of the major economic centers of the insurgent provinces, had reprised its ghost town status. Citizens stayed home rather than heading to work or school. The primary school Saint Joseph de Makon was open, its instructors ready to welcome pupils, but none appeared. Many parents have decided to keep their children home, just like they did for the larger part of the 2016-17 school year, in an effort to keep the resistance alive.

“They think that we fought for nothing,” explains Peter, a father of five who lives in the center of the city.  “Our fight is very legitimate and it’s so our children will have a better future. Those who talk about returning to school will see nothing but ghosts.” It is not difficult to imagine that another determined protester expressing the same sentiment twenty years ago.

Herein lies the problem. The Anglophone crisis is outgrowing its federalist roots and becoming increasingly representative of Cameroon’s decaying democracy. The longer their concerns go unanswered and trapped in a hamster wheel of protests with minimal reform, the stronger the resentment builds.


“A Clean Year”

Based on the government’s aggressive response to both the 1992 democracy movements and its long history of locking up Anglophone journalists and activists, a softening stance is less than likely. The first 1992  “ville morte” protests ended when Biya, who by then had already been in power for twenty years, sent soldiers into the protesting cities and cut off basic amenities until the citizens despaired of resistance, demonstrating just how separate the government is from the people that it can still remain perfectly functional when more than half of the country has declared a strike. A year after that, when activists attempted to hold the first All Anglophone Conference (AAC), they were banned from their intended venue, the University of Buea. Movement leaders routinely faced police harassment, threats of arrest,  and travel bans. After the AAC reformulated itself as the Southern Cameroons Peoples Conference (SCPC), the group was banned from gathering altogether, with violators facing jail time.


Twenty years later, in response to the November 2016 protests, the government imposed a three-month-long Internet cut-off in January in the Anglophone regions and arrested more than 50 activists, 30 of whom were deemed leaders, for “terrorist actions”. Journalists and a popular radio host, Mancho “BBC” Bibixy, were also imprisoned, and had faced potential death sentences on the charges of hostility against the homeland, civil war, and campaigning for independence.

President Biya has promised to release some of the imprisoned activists in an attempt to inspire an “année blanche” or a “clean year”, expressing his desire to turn over a new leaf. Many Anglophone citizens, however, scorn his lack of action on their true grievances regarding policies and economic inadequacies and believe the gesture to be a strategic concession aimed to highlight the unreasonableness of the Anglophone movement and to justify further use of force when the protests continue.


They turned out to be right. True to their practice, the government, in the days that followed the Oct 1st protests, deployed a thousand soldiers to the regions, put up roadblocks in the major streets, shut down its terrestrial and maritime borders, imposed a curfew from 9 pm to 7am, and once again blocked citizens from accessing the Internet.


Weighing in on the governmental actions, Tassang labels the president’s statement a facade of peace. The mistrust between government and citizens has reached a fever-pitch, and the nuance and context of the narrative, rife with historical tensions, is often lost in the gap of wilful misunderstandings and polarising characterizations.

Amongst the similarities between 1992 and 2016-17, there are two stark differences to the 2017 protests—the casualty rate has gone up, and the Francophone fractions of the country are uninvolved. The government crackdown on free press and the Internet has not helped matters: one of the most popular news stories in the two weeks following the October 1st crisis is the French-language reporting of the events by the state-owned media outlet CRTV. The article adopts a sardonic tone when referring to the “ ‘marginalised’ ” Anglophone populations complete with an extraneous use of quotation marks, and makes no mention of the military’s role in the casualties occurred.


Radio Reports, Radio Silence

Lamentably, international response to Cameroon’s crises has historically been, for the most part, inattention and inaction. Though the United States, Germany, and the European Union had collectively condemned Biya’s undemocratic practices in the past, such as during the 1992 election amidst widespread allegations of fraud and police crackdowns, and threatened to withdraw their aid programs, the intimidation was weakened by the lack of any follow-through. France, however, has consistently been a staunch supporter of the current Cameroon president, which further undercuts any efforts by the international community to collectively negotiate action. In 1992, following the election, France retired a large part of Cameroon’s debt and even twice found a way for government officials to receive back pay.

Based on the half-hearted international acknowledgement of the present Anglophone crisis, Biya has no reason to expect a different outcome than 1992’s quiet laissez-faire attitude from the global heavy-hitters. The US, wary of the nation’s instrumental geographic location in sub-saharan and the American soldiers and drone bases already stationed on Cameroonian soil, urged carefully for “restraint” and “dialogue” in November 2016 but has made no further comments since. The UN Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa, the president of the African Union Commission and the UN Special Representative for Central Africa have made sporadic comments throughout 2016 and 2017 urging for the respect of minorities and the release of political prisoners. Biya responded by ending the Internet ban on Anglophone regions, but have instituted no substantial  reforms. He has judged—correctly it seems, that he can subvert democratic principles with impunity.

France, along with the majority of western liberal democracies, have remained soundly silent, though it is noteworthy that the lion’s share of the international crisis’s coverage on major news outlets is by French media giants such as Le Monde and RFI. The majority of the vocal denunciation and data collection, it must be said, comes from international NGOs such as Amnesty International and the UK Bar. The majority of the protest coverage is also conducted by international, and more specifically francophone sources: Le Monde, RFI, Courrier Internationale.

The international community’s excessive caution evokes the same bystander syndrome that has, again and again, allowed large-scale atrocities against minorities to occur under dictatorships deemed too strategically significant to censure. Such an outcome may well be in Cameroon’s future. With an undemocratic president who can subvert citizens’ freedoms with international impunity and the full support of the military, we may well see the situation deteriorate further as we head into the next presidential “elections” in 2018. Biya is, naturally, already projected to win without having even announced his candidacy. And this time around, unlike in 1992, only the secessionist minority is actively protesting his illiberal tendencies.


Ambazonia: A New Hope?

There are legitimate arguments against secession. The Northwest and Southwest divide in the Anglophone regions, for instance, suggests that Ambazonia may be racked with further conflicts and instability even if they achieve statehood. These two regions of the Anglophone faction have been at political odds since the 1950s, during which the questions of Cameroonian statehood had already been raised. North West championed joining with Nigeria, while the South West favored joining with the then-established La Republique du Cameroun. Their difference in ethnic composition and economic development, with the North West being more wealthy and developed, due to the its technology industry, also plays a role. Aware of these internal conflicts, the country’s first President Ahidjo purposefully divided their geographic boundaries after reunification to maximize potential in-fighting.


For decades now, Biya has been following in his predecessor’s footsteps in exploiting this divide—his 1996 decision to appoint Peter Mafany Musonge to the position of Prime Minister, thereby including more South Anglophones than North Anglophones in his cabinet was the cause of many triumphant celebrations in the South, who finally felt as though their voices were being heeded. Later that year, Biya also appointed more South Anglophones to the central committee of his party’s national convention. This system of patron-clientelism, transparently meant to provoke hostility between the minority and the majority within the minority group, seems to have succeeded. Though there has been a sustained effort throughout the years of protesting Anglophone treatment, the individual protest movements themselves easily fizzled out.


Recently there have been attempts to bridge the divide through increased North-South communication, as seen from the inclusivity of Anglophone conventions and the emboldened responses from both after the fact. Unquestionably, Biya strengthens their desire for unity the more he deploys excessive force upon both sides. However, his relationships with many Anglophone economic elites, as well as his deliberate cabinet representation imbalance, reveal a possibility for further conflicts when the North and South can no longer point to a common enemy.


The Road Ahead

The issue of Cameroonian statehood, of both the national and the republican variety, is rife with cultural, historical, and political nuances that, just like the people within the region in question, cannot be painted with the same brush. Amidst the chaos, one thing is clear: there remains no trust between the Anglophone and Francophone factions, and that any further discussion that will involve no coercion or repression on the part of the Francophone government must be facilitated by an international entity, such as the UN or the African Union. A UN-facilitated referendum, in the style of 1999 Quebec, or even 2017 Catalan, should be held and administered, if only to remedy the international oversight that occurred in 1961. United or not, independent or not, the Anglophone minority deserves to be heard, not treated as though their pleas are nothing more than, to quote the President, “verbal excesses” and “street violence”. In the interest of upholding their rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration, the international community must intervene before the imperiled rights in question are not just for equal treatment and freedom of expression, but the right to life.


Featured image source: CNN

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