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Cameroon: how language plunged a country into deadly conflict with no end in sight

Demonstrators from Cameroon protest against President Biya
Cameroonian demonstrators in Belgium demand President Biya step down and release all political prisoners. Photo by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Since October 2017, Cameroon has been engulfed by a deadly conflict. The conflict is rooted in the colonisation of Cameroon by both the French and British governments – and the two languages that came with it, French and English.

Today, the conflict is between Cameroon’s military and separatist forces from the two anglophone North-West and South-West regions.

Between 1919 and 1961, these two regions were under British colonial administration and were known as British Southern Cameroons. Following a UN plebiscite, or vote, on 11 February 1961, inhabitants voted to “reunite” with French Cameroun on 1 October 1961.

But all didn’t go well after the unification of the two regions. The two English-speaking regions, which make up about 20% of the population, have repeatedly complained of discrimination and exclusion. A year-long protest in Cameroon’s anglophone regions in 2016 descended into a civil war in 2017.

Almost five years later, the conflict continues to rage on. By recent estimates, the conflict has already led to the death of over 4,000 civilians and more than 712,000 internally displaced persons from the Anglophone regions. More than 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

President Paul Biya, Cameroon’s leader since 1982, is fixated on pursuing a failed path of war against the separatist groups, whom he calls “terrorists”.

Sadly, there is no clear and credible agenda for negotiations as yet – which makes peace and reconciliation elusive. What is clear is that anglophone grievances run deep and have remained unaddressed for a long time.

As a political anthropologist who has studied the situation of Cameroonian anglophones at length, I see the way that elite and marginalised groups are defined by language as a driver of this conflict.

Anglophone grievances

The immediate origins of the crisis can be traced to the government’s violent repression of protests by lawyer and teacher unions in 2016.

In October 2016, anglophone teachers’ and lawyers’ unions launched peaceful protests against the “neglect” and “marginalisation” of the two English-speaking regions. Large groups of people took part in the year-long protests. They focused on the appointment of francophone teachers, prosecutors and judges in anglophone areas. The union leadership denounced these appointments as part of the government’s gradual but steady process of “francophonisation” of the state.

In the francophone regions, such as Douala and Yaoundé, which host large communities of anglophones, French is often the only language that can be used to access vital public services. Disaffected anglophones are resentful of the chasm between the official claim that Cameroon is a bilingual state and the reality of anglophones’ de facto second-class citizenship. This is evidenced in the barriers they face due to language.

Anglophone Cameroonians have long complained about the almost total domination of public life by the francophone Cameroonians. The elites in this group are believed to have used their power to marginalise anglophone regions when allocating resources for economic development.

This historical marginalisation led to calls for a separatist movement.

Republic of Ambazonia

The separatists describe themselves as a movement for the “restoration” of the “Republic of Ambazonia”. The name Ambazonia – derived from Ambas Bay, in the Gulf of Guinea – was coined in the mid-1980s by an anglophone dissident lawyer, Fon Gorji Dinka.

A main reason for anglophone calls for separation is their resentment of the authoritarian rule by the country’s mostly francophone leadership. And, when anglophone Cameroonians protested, they were met with force. This happened first under Ahmadou Ahidjo’s administration (1960–1982) and then under Paul Biya (from 1982 onwards).

Since 1990, protests in the anglophone regions have often been met with swift and deadly violence. The same happened in the 2016-2017 protests. Unarmed protesters were shot and killed by soldiers. Those detained also face abuse.

Another important grievance of anglophone separatists is what they claim to be the “coloniality” of their union with the French Cameroon state.

Anglophone nationalists question the UN-imposed plebiscite of 11 February 1961. They argue that by compelling British Cameroonians to choose between Nigeria and French Cameroon as the route to their independence, the UN’s implementation of its own provisions for decolonisation in Article 76 (b) – regarding the attainment of independence for former trust territories – was flawed. The choices offered by the UN to decide between French Cameroun and Nigeria ignored the people’s desire and wishes for self-rule, which contravenes the very fundamental provisions of the UN’s decolonisation framework.

As a consequence, anglophone Cameroonians claim that the francophone majority views and treats the two anglophone regions as a colonial appendage. And that the region, and people who live there, are not an equal part of Cameroon.

Hard road to peace

The road to peace will be a hard one.

To achieve peace while maintaining unity in the country, some autonomists advocate a “return” to the initial 1961 agreement of a two-state federation. These federalists were in the majority among anglophones before the start of the 2016 conflict. However, after almost five years of violent fighting some of the federalists have become more alienated by the abuses of the regime’s forces in the war zones.

Radical separatists – such as Chris Anu of the Ambazonian Interim Government and Ayaba Cho Lucas and Ivo Tapang of the Ambazonia Governing Council – are demanding outright and total independence. They believe it’s the only way for anglophone Cameroonians to free themselves from francophone domination and to avoid future crises.

This split between federalists and separatists complicates possible dialogue and peaceful negotiations.

This isn’t helped by the fact that Biya and his government have spurned discussions with Ambazonian separatists or federalists on changes that would imply a loss of power for the central government.

In addition, the violent suppression of the anglophone protests in 2016–2017 has had two important consequences. It has made the mainstream or establishment anglophone elite fearful of speaking out. And it has further radicalised anglophone youth and rallied support from anglophone Cameroonians in the diaspora.

I believe the only solution to the crisis is autonomy for the two Anglophone regions. The exact form of this autonomy would need a long and carefully negotiated settlement between the different forces at play. And, whatever the settlement, it would have to be subjected to the popular will of the people in these two regions of former Southern Cameroons.

But getting this autonomy won’t be easy given the considerable reluctance from Francophone elites in Yaounde to concede a change to the form of the state. Moreover, the deepening authoritarian posture of the regime in place instils fear of violent crackdowns among dissident voices within the country and political institutions, like the parliament, have little or no capacity to drive measures towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

For steps towards autonomy to be taken there would need to be pressure from outside. This includes pressure from the anglophone Cameroonian diaspora, international media, human rights organisations, and major Western powers such as the United States and the European Union.

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