Published On: Wed, Jan 11th, 2017


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For many across Africa and beyond, there is a vague awareness that Cameroon is embroiled in political turmoil but for most observers it is hard to understand exactly what the fracas is all about, especially because Cameroon has invested heavily in projecting itself as a rock of stability in the region. For the gross majority of Cameroonians however, nothing is farther from the truth. It is a country with a myriad issues boiling under the surface with the Anglophone problem being a major one.

Never in their 55 year history have Anglophone Cameroonians risen with such force in rebellion towards systematic exclusion and marginalization. It is unprecedented yet inevitable that it would come to this. But before I continue this write-up, it is important that I clarify the use of some terminology in usage. By definition, Anglophone means “consisting of or belonging to an English-speaking population especially in a country where two or more languages are spoken” as defined by Merriam-Webster. The same applies to a francophone as one who speaks French within a similar context. I will use the terms Anglophone/West Cameroonians and Francophone/East Cameroonians throughout this write-up to denote two peoples within the Cameroonian context. I have chosen also to use the term provinces instead of regions to denote the political demarcation of the country.
However, it is important to point out that being Anglophone in Cameroon has little to do with the language one speaks, but rather points to the geographical provenance of any individual from West Cameroon, while being francophone points to provenance from the part of Cameroon East of the Mungo River. In many instances, the individual might speak both languages fluently, but the level of opportunities available to the individual would depend on their provenance.
Historically, the people of West and East Cameroon have ethnic and cultural ties that pre-date colonialism. The people of the Littoral and Western Provinces of the country have direct ancestral ties with the peoples of the South West and North West provinces respectively. However after the defeat of the Germans in the Second World War, erstwhile German colonies were handed over to the victors. In the case of Cameroon, the French and the British shared the spoils, resulting in birth of separate Cameroons at independence, based on English and French. To cut a long story short, at independence in 1961, the leaders of British Cameroons were largely rooting for independence but were obliged by the United Nations to choose between two less favourable options – The choice of either joining Nigeria or French Cameroon (An imposition which needs to be interrogated, given the alleged complicity of Britain and France). The vote eventually favoured French Cameroon, especially given the not so cordial relationship with their Nigerian neighbours. British Cameroon and French Cameroon entered into a Federal Republic in which both entities had equal status.
However at the very onset of the Federal Republic of Cameroon in 1961, an elaborate scheme had been established to erode the status of the West Cameroonians. This included the imposition of the remnants of the French Franc (adoption of the franc CFA which is today an albatross around the neck of Francophone Africa) as the currency, the national flag which was a replica of the French Flag for most of Francophone Africa, the national anthem and a host of others. French very quickly became the main language with English playing the role of sub-titles. In 1972, the then President of the Federal Republic – Amadou Ahidjo carried out a ‘Plebiscite’ which saw the abolition of the Federal status into what was called the United Republic of Cameroon. British Cameroon had by this exercise been subsumed into French Cameroon. The National flag which had two starts to denote the two peoples was changed to one star. This was symbolically significant.
It is important to state that this exercise was a fraud in two ways – Firstly, the initial agreement in 1961 clearly stated that under no circumstance could the Federal Status be changed. Secondly, Cameroonians who went to the ballot boxes were conned into voting between the choices of “Yes” or “Oui”. Oui in French basically means ‘Yes’. For the majority of Cameroonians at the time, they did not know the difference between the two and therefore were obliged to vote between Yes and Yes! This is how the federal status of the Nation was abolished.
In 1984, Ahidjo’s successor, Paul Biya unilaterally changed the configuration of the nation once again, calling it “The Republic of Cameroon”. This move essentially returned the country to its initial French appellation at independence in 1960 and thereby dissolving the British Southern Cameroon in the process – or what some have termed annexing the other state and its people. This act was accompanied by a systematic demotion and in some cases annulment of all the socio-economic and political advantages of the erstwhile British Cameroon, including its educational and legal systems. This saw the systematic destruction of the economic strengths of West Cameroon including its banks, produce marketing board and electricity company, thereby ensuring complete dependence on East Cameroon. This gave birth to a number of clandestine movements including the Southern Cameroons National Council which called for complete independence from French Cameroon. For the past two decades, these various resistance movements have pursued the legal route and taken the Government to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in the Gambia where judgement recommended dialogue between the government and the people of West Cameroon. The recommendations of Banjul have largely been ignored by the government.
Meanwhile, the past twenty years have seen a gradual but steady shift from marginalisation at national level to a complete take over even within Anglophone provinces. Key positions in both provinces are gradually handed over to Francophones while similar positions are not open to Anglophones in French speaking regions of the country. French is slowly being used as the main language in many official correspondence with English being an after-thought (I have elaborated elsewhere why it is a shame that foreign languages should be used as basis for separation and why in my opinion English does not deserve to be defended as a language of any African people. However for the purpose context, it is an important aspect of Anglophone identity in Cameroon).
Things came to a head recently when Common Law Lawyers protested against the imposition of Francophone Magistrates to the English speaking part of the country, even though most of them are not trained in Common Law (Their background is in French Civil Law) and therefore expected to preside over cases in a system they had no understanding of. The protest of the lawyers was followed by that of the teachers who protested against the imposition of French trained teachers to Anglophone zones even though they can hardly speak English, resulting in them imposing French on learners with no foundation in French language. In hospitals, patients have found it difficult to communicate with doctors and nurses, with sometimes aggravating consequences.
The protests of the lawyers and teachers was immediately followed by widespread protest marches across the two provinces. Politically, never in the 54 year history of Cameroon has an Anglophone held key ministries like Finance, Armed Forces, Territorial Administration, State Security, etc. At best, they have been deputy ministers. Yet, the bulk of the country’s wealth, especially oil, cocoa and timber is tapped from Anglophone Cameroon. French has been imposed as the language of instruction of the military and the police and forcing even Anglophones in the forces to pretend not to speak English.
Many denialists of Anglophone marginalization point to the fact that Cameroon has a population of about 23 million inhabitants of which Anglophones constitute only 20 percent and only two out of the 10 provinces. But even this argument flies in the face of logic. For instance, in Mr. Biya’s 34 year old regime, he has appointed about 700 ministers with only 76 being Anglophones. Out of a total of 135 State Corporations, only 15 Anglophones hold positions as General Managers including that fact that no Anglophone has ever been appointed General Manager of SONARA (the company in charge of extracting the country’s oil). Yet the oil is extracted in Anglophone Cameroon. Of 58 Senior Divisional Officers, only six are Anglophones while boasting 2 out of 32 generals in the military.
Others have argued that there is an Anglophone problem is limited to linguistic discrimination. This is untrue. Language is only a superficial explanation to a deep-rooted problem. The deprivation of anglophones from key positions is not due to their inability to speak or express themselves in French. In fact many have attained a fluency in the language that surpasses the level of some of their francophone counterparts. However that has not necessarily opened certain doors for them. Discrimination is largely done on the basis of geographic origin. It is important to outline here that this discrimination is not only meted against Anglophones. Discrimination in Cameroon is meted in varying degrees depending on the geographical and ethnic provenance of the individual.
There are groupings within the Francophone region which are also marginalized. Two key reasons define their marginalization. The first is their cultural and historic ties to people of Anglophone regions and secondly their political history vis-à-vis France’s interests in Cameroon. Two groups come to mind – the Bamileke and the Bassa who paid heavily for their opposition to French rule and their quest for the complete independence of Cameroon.
A French-led genocide in the 50s and 60s saw the decimation of the Bassa and Bamileke populations with a reported five-hundred thousand people killed as a result of their support for the Union des Populations Camerounaises (UPC). UPC leadership was clear about its intentions to get complete independence for Cameroon, a territory which was almost as important as Algeria was for France. The entire UPC leadership was wiped out through various means and replaced by French stooge Amadou Ahidjo. Ahidjo received his orders directly from Paris, ruthlessly pursuing and killing members of the UPC in the country. He was also instrumental in negotiating and manipulating the unification between French and British Cameroons ensuring the capture of West Cameroons assets (including its oil) which directly benefited France. He was also the president that signed the Accords de Cooperation entre la France et le Cameroun 57 years ago. This agreement basically stipulates:
1. France will determine the political, economic and sociocultural policies of Cameroon.
2. France will determine the currency to be used by Cameroon
3. France will determine the educational curriculum for schools in Cameroon at all levels
4. France will hold 65% of all Cameroon’s revenue as a favour.
5. Cameroon’s primary resources must be exploited by France first and only in cases where France is not interested can Cameroon open the market to other stakeholders or exploit it herself.
6. Should the President of Cameroon find himself being overcome by external aggression or internal rebellion, he has the responsibility to call for France’s aid. Should he/she be unable to do this, the French Ambassador in Cameroon can do it in his/her place. Ahidjo’s handpicked successor, Paul Biya has maintained the tradition of ensuring the protection of France’s interests above those of Cameroonians.
So while many have pointed to the imposition of French language, francophone arrogance and the deliberate eradication of anglo-saxon culture, I argue that these are merely manifestations of a clearly defined policy along economic lines. The marginalization of Anglophones is directly tied to France’s economic interests in Cameroon and specifically to West Cameroon. This is crucial to the understanding of the Anglophone crisis and therefore crucial towards finding durable solutions.
One has to go back to the UN imposition on Former British Cameroons which did not allow for complete independence but rather forced a choice they did not want. Northern British Cameroons voted to join Nigeria while Southern British Cameroon voted to join French Cameroon. It is interesting that Ahidjo who was a muslim from the Northern part of French Cameroon did very little to convince the people of the Northern British Cameroons to join French Cameroon, given that these were his direct kinsmen (largely Hausa/Fulani muslims), and could easily have selected to join French Cameroon. Yet, he went out of his way to coax and get Southern Cameroons to be part of his country, in spite of the stark differences. This is important to understand the underlying motives which drove Ahidjo’s policies.
Arrangements for the unification of French and British Cameroons was taking place at a time when France was losing Algeria, and with that its oil wealth. Southern British Cameroon provided alternatives for the loss of Algeria, thus France’s influence of UN decision to impose a choice between Nigeria and French Cameroon but not independence. By joining the newly independent French Cameroon, France’s access and control of the region’s oil was assured. The present agitation in Anglophone Cameroon therefore touches directly on French interests in the country and the Central African Region as a whole.
It is clear that the lines are drawn. The use of the military and the gendarmes to quell dissent has largely been unsuccessful and the relationship of trust has irretrievably been broken. I therefore predict the following:
1. The present rebellion has opened a Secessionist Pandora’s Box: What was meant to protect France’s interests in Cameroon has engendered a culture of arrogance and unapologetic exploitation. The experience of Anglophones and the brewing anger has amplified calls for complete independence. These arguments are further strengthened by the various illegal actions (like the abolition of the Federation, the creation of a unitary state, etc.) carried out by the regime over the past 55 years. There is therefore a strong legal case for separation and the Regime knows this. However this option comes with its own weakness which I will elaborate in a separate article.
2. The Regime will be forced to make some concessions: Regardless the regime will be forced to make concessions. In spite of its denial, remedial action is already taking place at various levels and I predict that the regime will make some concessions. However, I also predict that these will mostly be cosmetic changes for two reasons. The Biya regime has never negotiated in good faith and only concedes with its back to the wall. Secondly, the demands of the Anglophones touches on the nerve centre of French interests in Cameroon and there are grounds for legal challenge of the status quo which both the regime and France would be keen to avoid. There will be stiff resistance to fundamental changes.
3. French as a language will be rejected in Anglophone Cameroon: Cameroon had a unique opportunity to make bilingualism a reference point for Africa. That opportunity regrettably has been lost. French will always be seen as a language of oppression and experience in other parts of the world have pointed to the fact that such perceptions do not promote a language but rather kill it. A case in point is Afrikaans in South Africa. This is worsened by the fact that English is a dominant international language and French is slowly by surely losing its place as an international language.
4. Best Case Scenario will be a return to a Federated Cameroon: A return to Federation will be inevitable. In fact it is the best case scenario for French Cameroon at the moment. While this might not be the case immediately, it is only a matter of time. There is the strong possibility that the regime might choose to implement a system of pseudo-federation but federation it will be eventually.
5. The beginning of the end of FranceAfrique in Africa: I have argued before that Cameroon is the epicentre of French hegemony in Africa and Anglophone Cameroon is the head cornerstone which will likely cause the crumbling of the French edifice. This rebellion might just be the beginning of the end of this policy and system which has held not only Francophone Africa but the whogle African continent behind.
Millan Atam is a Cameroonian and Head of Kamerun Obosso, a Movement which seeks to contribute to Good Governance and Accountability in Cameroon.

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