Episode 1: Background to the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis
“Cameroon” is derived from “Rio dos Cameroes,” Portuguese for “River of Prawns.” When the first Europeans made contact in the coast of Cameroon in the mid 15th Century, they encountered a river full of prawns and named it Rio dos Cameroes. But if you’re planning a trip to Cameroon anytime soon, don’t expect to go fishing in Wouri for prawns. The river is known today more for its pollution and lone Bonaberi Bridge (a second bridge has been under construction for years) linking the city of Douala than for its prawns. The name of this Equatorial African nation of about 20 million people is a vestige of one of the earliest attempts at European exploration and colonization of Africa. That legacy of European adventurism in Cameroon laid the foundations for what has become the biggest political crisis that is now bedeviling the country – the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis.
In a series of blog posts, I will discuss the crisis, its causes, and my take on what I think is the best way forward. This is a very controversial, even sensitive topic to discuss in Cameroon. Given the crisis that has engulfed the nation over the past several months, I am not unmindful of the monumental challenges we face and the sacrifices that people have made, including laying down their lives, in the quest for freedom and self-determination.
Some people will agree of some of the issues raised here. Others will disagree. Wherever your views fall on the broad spectrum of opinions on the subject, please feel free to add your voice to the debate. This is an attempt to widen, and also elevate the level of public discourse on the subject. I have seen other circles of debate on the crisis where passions run so high as to impede any meaningful conversation. At its core, this is a very personal, even emotional issue for some people. By all means, we should bring not just our faculties to bear, but also all that we feel about the subject – so long as we do so in a manner that is courteous and allows room for other views. One more issue of note: This is not an academic exercise. When I make typos and factual errors, please feel free to point them out and thank you in advance.
On the surface, the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon is a struggle for self-determination by a group of English-speaking Cameroonians who feel marginalized by the dominant Francophone majority. The grievances that Anglophones claim to suffer are almost innumerate. The country is ostensibly bilingual, but French dominates throughout the system. The Anglophone minority must learn how to speak French to navigate the cumbersome government bureaucracy; the constitution prescribes one country and two legal systems, but French common law pervades the English customary court system; Anglophones are underrepresented in the government – an Anglophone has never been president; the best cabinet ministries – Finance, Post & Telecommunications, Territorial Administration – historically have always gone to Francophones. Even when it comes to admissions into Cameroon’s most prestigious institutions (ENS, IRIC, FMBSes at Universities of Yaoundé, Buea, and Bamenda*) English-speaking students are often at a disadvantage. The vast majority of seats always goes to the Francophone students. The two largest cities in Cameroon are Yaoundé and Douala, both Francophone cities that are the centers of political and economic power respectively. Anglophone Cameroonians feel economically disenfranchised, even though the wealth that goes to building Cameroon’s two biggest cities disproportionately comes from the export of resources mostly extracted from the English-speaking region, according to Nicodemus Fru Awasom, an expert at the African Studies Center, Leiden, Netherlands. These are only a few of the “injustices” that Anglophone Cameroonians have long complained against.
These grievances are only symptoms of a long-simmering tension that has been building up for decades since the dawn of independence in October 1961. During much of this period, Cameroon enjoyed a stable political climate, compared to many other African countries. However, this stability was underpinned by the strong hand of the state – in other words, it was more so an absence of conflict rather than the peaceful coexistence of Africans of different ethnic stripes. Fast-forward to today and the grievances suffered by Anglophones has reached a boiling point. In September 2016 a peaceful strike action by Anglophone lawyers against the predominance of French common law and the appointment of French-speaking judges who adjudicate in French in Anglophone courts quickly gathered momentum and morphed into “region-wide” protests. Taxi drivers, day laborers, traders, teachers, students, doctors, and government civil servants all joined the protests to register their discontent. University students led protest marches, an action punishable in Cameroon with a jail term.
In footage that appeared online, students brought caskets to protest marches – a symbolic gesture indicating that they were willing to die for their cause. Scenes like these had never before been seen on the streets of Cameroon. This time, they said, was different. The government responded how any despotic government best knows how. The authorities sent in heavily armed security forces to crush the protests. Confrontations between protesters and police turned violent. Armed forces used live ammunition against unarmed protesters. Dozens of people died. Scores were wounded. Hundreds beaten. And thousands rounded up and taken to “Nkondengue,” Cameroon’s most notorious prison in Yaoundé. The government employed all tools of repression in its toolkit. Before long, Internet access to all English-speaking regions was cut off. This seemed like an attempt to stifle dissent as protest organizers used Whatsapp, Facebook and other social media platforms to organize for action as well as share with the Diaspora and the international community the atrocities that were being perpetrated by government forces.
The state-controlled media narrated a purified version of what was happening, yet the young people were always ten steps ahead of the authorities. Information continued to filter out. The international press, from powerhouses such as BBC, The Economist, and the New York Times all covered the crisis. Cameroonians in the diaspora sprung to action, protesting at Cameroon embassies in Europe, America, and elsewhere. At the UN, journalists and friends of Cameroon started putting pressure on members of the international community to address the crisis. Under the weight of severe international pressure, the government of Cameroon restored Internet access to the English-speaking region, after about three months of a complete blackout.
Cameroon stands at a crossroads. The stakes for the future of the country are high: to understand and defuse this crisis is of paramount importance. Echoes of Rwandan 1994 genocide loom large. Even more recent history is portentous. In 2011 Cote d’Ivoire, once one of Africa’s greatest economic success stories, plunged into civil war over post-election sectarian strife that pitted the Christian South against the Muslim North. In Burundi in 2016, post-election protests flared into violence that left hundreds of people dead. Even more relevant to Cameroon, the lessons of the Arab Spring are a startling reminder of what is at stake if the current crisis continues to build up without a satisfactory resolution. In the wake of the Arab Spring Libya was plunged into a civil war that still rages on today. In Egypt, government protests against Hosni Mubarak led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians and plunged the nation into a constitutional crisis, leading to a coup d’état by the military before a tumultuous return to civilian government. Post-Mubarak Egypt is not the beacon of freedom that the revolutionaries hoped for.
Cameroon has the potential to be one of Africa’s best success stories. It has an abundance of resources. Its economic indicators are amongst the best in the sub-region. Cameroonians have seldom gone hungry or had a civil war, compared to countries such as Ethiopia or Somalia or Sudan that underwent periods of significant strife in the nineties. Its vibrant youth are highly educated and poised to take the reins of the country to chart it towards a more prosperous future. However, the Anglophone crisis looms large over the country. It is a powder keg on the road to political stability and economic prosperity that requires careful statecraft to defuse. The importance of finding a peaceful resolution to this crisis cannot be overstated. But before exploring potential solutions to the crisis, in the second blog post, we shall turn to history to trace the initial factors that caused the fault lines that threaten to rip apart the country today.