The Anglophone crisis in Cameroon is a direct result of colonialism. The effects of the crisis have been devastating, with many human rights activists warning that if not resolved, the country could plunge into civil war.
The crisis in the Anglophone regions (Northwest and Southwest) of Cameroon that began in October 2016 with protests by teachers and lawyers escalated into an armed insurrection at the end of 2017 and has since degenerated into a civil war. The conflict has killed at least 1,850 people since September 2017 and has now spread to the Francophone West and Littoral regions. It has had a substantial social and humanitarian impact in the Anglophone regions: most schools have been closed for the last two years; more than 170 villages have been destroyed; 530,000 people have been internally displaced and 35,000 have sought refuge in neighboring Nigeria. The conflict has also devastated the local economy, which accounts for about one-fifth of the country’s GDP. (World Report 2019).
Roots of Colonialism
Like many other conflicts across Africa, the one in Cameroon has deep roots in the colonial history of the country. Up until the 19th century, its territory was divided between various local kingdoms and fiefdoms. In the 1880s, the Germans launched a campaign of colonization of the area and established Cameroon as their colony in 1884. After World War I, the League of Nations handed control over the territory to Britain and France which divided it and established separate administrative systems. As anti-colonial sentiments swept through Africa following World War II, the French and British Cameroons separately sought their independence.
However, the British convinced the UN that Anglophone Cameroon was not economically viable and could only survive by uniting with Francophone Cameroon or Nigeria. While the northern part of Anglophone Cameroon voted to join Nigeria, neither option was as popular in the southern part which, in the absence of a much-preferred option for separate statehood, ultimately joined with French Cameroon.
When the two territories reunited in 1961, a new constitution was drafted to define the new union as a federal entity in which the autonomy of the English-speaking minority would be protected. However, in 1972, a controversial referendum transformed the federation into a unitary state, effectively ending the autonomy of the Anglophone regions. The fact that the will of the Anglophone population was overruled in 1961 and the subsequent systemic discrimination and marginalization they suffered under successive governments dominated by Francophones planted the seeds of the current separatist conflict.
The Animosity between French-speaking and English-speaking Cameroonians
The animosity is actually between English-speaking Cameroonians and the government-led and dominated by French-speaking Cameroonians. They have ruled the country in an authoritarian way since the unification of the two former United Nations trusteeship territories – French Cameroun and British Southern Cameroons – in 1961. The current dispute is between the part of the country that was once run by the British and the larger part where French is spoken and which was once run by the French. In 1972 the original federal structure that post-colonial unification was based on was abrogated. The English-speaking, or Anglophone, West Cameroon was annexed in a united republic, and in 1984 the word “united” was scrapped. The country became Cameroon and the English-speaking region was assimilated into the French-speaking area.
The dignity and statehood of Anglophones were silently destroyed – not by the French-speaking (Francophone) community at large, but by the government led and dominated by Francophones. Being Anglophone or Francophone in Cameroon is not just the ability to speak, read and use English or French as a working language. It is about being exposed to the Anglophone or Francophone ways including things like outlook, culture and how local governments are run. Anglophones have long complained that their language and culture are marginalized. They feel their judicial, educational and local government systems should be protected. They want an end to annexation and assimilation and more respect from the government for their language and political philosophies. And if that doesn’t happen, they want a total separation and their own independent state.
Historical call for an independent state?
On January 1, 1960, French Cameroun gained independence and became the Cameroun Republic. Later that year Nigeria gained its independence from Britain and became the Federal Republic. The British-controlled southern Cameroons were then separated from Nigeria and were due to achieve full independence on October 1, 1961. But there was a drawback: The United Nations organized a plebiscite in which southern Cameroonians were asked to choose between joining the Cameroun Republic or Nigeria. This vote was prompted by a British report that insisted its former territory would not survive economically on its own.
Southern Cameroonians wanted nothing more to do with Nigeria. They had suffered enormously at the hands of Igbo people who’d settled in their territory in previous decades. So they elected to unite in a new federation with the Cameroun Republic. It was supposed to be a partnership of equals, a notion reinforced by bilateral negotiations that had started before the vote.
These negotiations were concluded at the Foumban Conference in July 1961. According to Fanso (2017), the general view after the conference was that the delegation from the Cameroun Republic accompanied by French advisors virtually got everything they want but the Anglophones received none of the support promised by the British or the UN. So the new federation was born, but it was never a happy union. Since then Anglophones have pushed for autonomy. This call is actually supported in a UN resolution passed in April 1961 that defines the joining of the two former territories as a federation of two states, equal in status and autonomous.
What’s prompted the latest violence?
In October 2016 lawyers went on a strike in an effort to force the government to stop appointing Francophone magistrates who spoke no English and had no training in common law to preside over courts in the Anglophone regions. During peaceful demonstrations in the cities of Bamenda and Buea, the lawyers were roughly manhandled by government security forces.
Teachers soon came out in support of the lawyers. They wanted the government to stop posting Francophone teachers who spoke no English to teach subjects other than French in Anglophone schools. People across professions followed the teachers, and Cameroon’s cities became “ghost towns” everywhere on certain days of the week as part of a large-scale stay away.
In addition to government forces manhandling protesters, the government also banned trade unions that had led the strikes. Many of their members – some of whom were engaged in discussions with the government – were arrested and jailed on charges of terrorism and attempts to change the form of the state. The government also shut down the internet and other communication services in Anglophone regions to stop people from sharing information and organizing.
Shamed by international condemnation, President Biya reinstated communication services three months later. He also ordered the release of some strike leaders and scrapped the charges against them. But he didn’t call for a resumption of talks.
Anglophones were unimpressed. On October 1 they took to the streets to commemorate what they consider their independence day. They raised the flag of Ambazonia in various towns and cities. It was an assertion of autonomy. Government security forces were deployed and used excesses. Harper’s article (2017) indicates that more than 600,000 people have been displaced and about 3,000 killed during the conflict which started in October 2017.
Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis is deadlocked. The separatists continue to dream that independence is just around the corner. In Yaoundé, the government still wrongly believes it can win a quick military victory. Twenty months of clashes have killed 1,850, displaced 530,000 and led tens of thousands to seek refuge abroad.
Is there any chance of resolving this conflict?
Breaking the deadlock requires strong internal and international pressure. Cameroonians who advocate compromise solutions (civil society, opposition, Anglophone federalists and supporters of decentralization) should pressure the government and the separatists to participate in the Anglophone General Conference and, subsequently, a national dialogue. Francophone Cameroonians have a special role to play in political parties, churches and society at large, to show the government their solidarity with their Anglophone compatriots. But faced with the belligerents’ hard-line stance, internal actors cannot succeed without resolute international support. International actors can encourage the parties to the conflict to make concessions, reward those who agree to moderate their positions and sanction those who stand in the way of dialogue. But they should first reach a common position.
Fanso, V. G. (2017) History explains why Cameroon is at war with itself over language and culture. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://reliefweb.int/report/cameroon/history-explains-why-cameroon-war-itself-over-language-and-culture
Harper, M. (2017) Thousands flee Cameroon after upsurge in conflict. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/clm1wxp5p5jt/cameroon
World Report 2018 Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/cameroon