The ferocious language war tearing Camerooon apart
PUBLISHED: 09:00 29 July 2018
Out of sight of the world, Cameroon is succumbing to catastrophe. JULIUS A, AMIN reports
I spent part of last month in Cameroon travelling to various communities and listening to ordinary voices about the ongoing Anglophone crisis, which has seen unrest and clashes between English-speaking minority and the French-speaking majority. I witnessed the devastating impact of the conflict on people and their community.
In city after city, businesses have shut down, nightlife is almost absent and children are gallivanting in the streets instead of going to school. In some places, things have deteriorated to such an extent that residents are sleeping on the floors of their homes, so fearful are they of being hit by stray bullets. Homelessness, which was previously a rarity, is now a fixture on the urban landscape. And there are growing numbers of ‘internally displaced persons’ – those who have abandoned their homes and communities in search of safer places. Given the absence of reliable figures, it is impossible to tell the number of people displaced or killed, but armoured vehicles escort buses between the different cities, and significant parts of the Anglophone territory, in the south west of the country, look deserted.
It is a crisis which has flared up in the last two years, with peaceful protests by teachers and lawyers about the marginalisation of Anglophone areas turning into a brutal conflict between government forces and those fighting for secession. Yet it is a crisis with deep roots.
Annexed by Germany in 1884, Cameroon remained a German colony until 1916, when its rulers were driven out by British, French and Belgian forces. Three years later, after Germany’s defeat in the First World War, it was split into two unequal pieces and handed to Britain and France.
While the French received the majority, the British were given one-fifth of the former German Kamerun, comprising a narrow strip of territory stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Chad. Britain sought to use the Cameroonian territory – known as the British Cameroons, and administered in Northern and Southern areas – as a buffer to protect its larger Nigerian colony.
They were administered from, but not joined to, the British territory of Nigeria and the British allowed native authorities to administer populations according to their own traditions. Eastern Nigerians were, thus, de facto colonialists of the British Cameroons, and were labelled ‘Black imperialists’. This was significant when, in 1961, a plebiscite was held, asking English-speaking Cameroonians whether they wanted to be integrated into Nigeria or into the rest of Cameroon.
The French-administered part of Cameroon had become independent in 1960, under president Ahmadou Ahidjo. He then launched a reunification campaign in towns in the British Southern Cameroons region.
He promised Anglophones equality and respect, insisting that Anglophone Cameroon’s political, economic, and social institutions would thrive in a new federal system. In the plebiscite, the people of British Southern Cameroons voted in support of reunification with East Cameroon. (The Muslim-majority Northern Cameroons opted to join Nigeria). The decision was approved by the UN General Assembly.
Soon after reunification, Ahidjo began to renege on promises he had made and systematically ignored agreements that had been reached. He finally dealt a crushing blow to the federal system in 1972 when, in a hurriedly organised referendum, he replaced it with a united republic.
Over the decades, voices of protest have kept reminding the government to keep to its promises to Anglophone Cameroon. Each time, the response from the men in the capital Yaoundé was either intimidation, bribery, jail, or sometimes death.
Unaware of changing times, a similar approach was taken to the current crisis when teachers and lawyers went on strike two years ago. They were demanding changes to government policy which increasingly undermined the use of English and Anglophone values in schools and the judicial system.
Government responses included arrest, jail, beatings, and intimidation. As images of police brutality were shared widely online – embarrassing the regime of president Paul Biya (who has ruled since succeeding Ahidjo in 1982) and garnering sympathy for a return to the pre-1972 federal system – attempts were made to disrupt the internet connection in restive areas.
But the official response did not succeed. The Biya team had failed to read the signs of the times. What changed the dynamics of these protests was social media and the resilience of the young people.
At the same time, another faction has intensified demand for Anglophone Cameroon’s complete secession. Leaders of that group declared the Ambazonia Republic – in the area comprising the former Southern Cameroons – and created the Ambazonia Defence Force, with which to hit back at government forces.
A year into the crisis, Biya, reacting to the killing of six military officers in the Anglophone region, declared war on those he termed “separatists” and vowed that they would be “eliminated”. The Ambazonia Defence Force responded by raising the stakes further, promising to fight to the end.
Both sides were now on a collision course, and increasingly the population felt trapped between the two. Massive casualties have been reported on both sides. Poverty, crime, and despair have reached a new level in the country, and there is no end in sight.
It is a crisis in need of urgent attention, yet major powers such as the US, China, France and the UK have done little. Cameroonians need to stop looking to these major powers for solutions to the problems. They must realise that only they can solve them. One useful move would be to reschedule the presidential elections, recently announced for October 7.
But even if that doesn’t happen, there are measures that can help the Anglophone regions now. There will be debates about restoring federalism and constitutional amendments, but the country cannot wait until those complex issues are all resolved. The killing, displacement, destruction of property and businesses, and capital flight should stop immediately.
The president needs to go on nationwide television to assure the people that he heard the grievances, call for an immediate ceasefire, and implement immediate relief and recovery programmes. He must also commit to releasing those arrested for exercising their political and freedom of speech rights.
The problems are daunting, and the president and his team must mobilise the country to be involved in finding solutions. There should be a public debate on the restoration of a federal system in the country. Leadership alone cannot solve the problems. Each one should be asked to do their part.
As I was repeatedly told, ‘enough is enough’.
Julius A. Amin is a history professor at the University of Dayton, in the US; this article also appears at www.theconversation.com