Linguistic Division Imperils Cameroon’s Unity

Linguistic Division Imperils Cameroon’s Unity

Linguistic Division Imperils Cameroon’s Unity


5 min read

Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis reached its lowest ebb so far on 1 October when security forces killed 17 people and wounded 50 during mass protests linked to the grievances of the country’s restive English-speaking regions. Soldiers opened fire on protesters who had hoisted a blue-and-white flag in a symbolic declaration of independence for the Republic of Ambazonia, in an increasing struggle for autonomy for the Cameroonian regions that were colonised by the British. It is high time the parties to the dispute sought an amicable settlement of the standoff, before the violence worsens.

Tensions have been escalating over the past 12 months between Cameroon’s French-speaking authorities and English-speaking minority due to the latter’s complaints of political and economic discrimination and marginalisation. The situation started with protests by lawyers who took to the streets over what they described as “infiltrating and assimilating the common-law system” by a Francophone majority. Their objections included the deployment of French-trained judges with little or no knowledge of the common law used in English-language courts and the appointment of notaries to do the work of lawyers in the English system. Anglophones also expressed concerns that some important legal texts were accessible only in French and that English common law was not accorded a befitting status in Cameroon’s Anglophone universities.

Almost immediately, teachers and students signed up to the agitations. They complained of discrimination and marginalisation of English-speaking students and graduates, the appointment of French-trained teachers who barely spoke English to teach Anglophone students, and the continued ‘Francophonisation’ of their universities. Demonstrations turned to riots and general strikes. Over time, calls for changes deepened into demands for a return to the country’s earlier federal system or outright secession

Authorities responded heavy-handedly. Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s 35-year-old regime declared the protests acts of subversion punishable by death. The government arrested protest leaders, blocked the Internet and web-based messaging services, especially Facebook and WhatsApp, and sent text messages warning Cameroonians they faced jail terms for “spreading false news” through social media. In 2016, the authorities cut the electricity in the affected districts for about six months. There were also reports of torture and of arson against the country’s security agents.

Cameroon’s English-French dichotomy is rooted in the country’s colonial history. After the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles gave the French and British mandates over the territory, with the former controlling about 175,000 square miles and the latter about 32,000 square miles. Each of the duo established its rule and influenced its territory with its language, systems, and culture. In 1961, the two self-governing English-speaking regions merged with the eight French-speaking provinces to create the modern-day country. Today, Francophones account for about 80 per cent of Cameroon’s 25 million people, with the Anglophones making up the remaining 20 per cent.

At the time of the merger, the two territories agreed to adopt a federal system of equal units that allowed each to retain its colonial-era language and customs and to exercise considerable power over its territory, economy, and administration. However, the government in Yaoundé never kept these promises, as the then President Ahmoudou Ahidjo reorganised the two federal states into six regions just months after unification, a move that introduced confusion and sowed the seed for the current uprising. The Anglophones’ customs and institutions were gradually pulverised, and their currency and membership of the Commonwealth discarded. In 1971, the federal system, which had never properly been implemented, was abolished, and the hopes of the Anglophones for some measure of independence were dashed.

The latest incident is not the first time clashes have turned deadly in the former British colony. But it is the ugliest episode – not only because of the number of casualties but also because of the confusion and chaos it has caused and the attention it has attracted. A release signed by six Cameroonian bishops said the “barbarism and the irresponsible use of firearms against unarmed civilians” produced a “warlike atmosphere” in the West African country. The UN high commissioner for human rights reiterated concerns voiced earlier by the UN secretary general over the recent turmoil, calling on the government to “ensure that security forces exercise restraint” and on the parties to engage in meaningful political dialogue. 

The US described the situation as “unacceptable” and pressed the authorities to “respect human rights and freedoms, including access to the internet.” The UK urged all sides to take steps to restore confidence and shun provocative statements and acts, and implored security forces to ensure proportionate use of force.

The regime’s current attitude towards peaceful protesters will only swell violence and radicalise protesters. If the situation is not doused now, unarmed civilians who are being killed, tortured, or detained may be pushed to pick up arms. Worse still, disgruntled youths, who are especially vulnerable to radicalisation, may sign on to extremist groups like Boko Haram. This will only aggravate matters in a country that has been battling the Boko Haram insurgency for years. There is therefore an urgent need for parties to come to the negotiating table.

However, the Biya administration’s body language indicates that it is not ready to initiate dialogue any time soon. Thus, the UN and human rights groups should exert diplomatic pressure on Yaoundé to exercise restraint from disproportionate use of force and invite aggrieved Cameroonians to talk.

The fact that the government has broken several promises in the past has eroded citizens’ confidence. Mediators therefore need to help the parties rebuild trust and resolve their complaints. This can be done by stopping further violence, restoring access to the Internet and messaging services, and meeting some of the immediate demands of the Anglophones. Paris and London, on whose legacies current tensions are based, have a role in helping parties build confidence and reach an amicable settlement. They can do so by exerting diplomatic pressure, encouraging civility on the respective sides, and providing technical and logistical support to a future reconciliation process.

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