N Melo
by N Melo
June 6, 2022 0


Since October 2017, Cameroon has been in the midst of a deadly conflict that pits the military against separatist forces in the two English-speaking regions of the Northwest and Southwest. Its origins date back to the colonization of the country by the French and British governments.

Between 1919 and 1961, these two regions, then under British colonial administration, were known as British Southern Cameroon. After a referendum organized by the United Nations on February 11, 1961, their inhabitants opted for “reunification” with French Cameroon on October 1, 1961.

But not everything went well after reunification. The two English-speaking regions, which make up about 20 per cent of the population, have repeatedly complained of discrimination and exclusion. Protests throughout 2016 in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon escalated into civil war in 2017.

Almost five years later, the conflict continues to rage. According to recent estimates, it has already resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 civilians and the displacement of more than 712,000 people within the Anglophone regions. More than 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

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President Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982, says he is determined to continue this futile war against the separatist groups, which he calls “terrorists.

Unfortunately, to date, there is no clear and credible agenda for negotiations, making peace and reconciliation problematic. It is clear, however, that the grievances of Anglophones run deep and have long remained unaddressed.

As a political anthropologist who has studied the situation of Cameroonian anglophones for a long time, I see the way in which the elite and marginalized groups are defined on the basis of their language as the driving force behind this conflict.

The grievances of Anglophones

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

In October 2016, Anglophone teachers’ and lawyers’ unions staged peaceful protests against the “neglect” and “marginalization” of the two Anglophone regions. Groups of people massively took part in the year-long protests. They specifically denounced the appointment of French-speaking teachers, prosecutors and judges in the English-speaking regions. Union leaders saw this as a manifestation of a gradual process of “francophonization” of the state.

In French-speaking regions, such as Douala and Yaoundé, which are home to large communities of anglophones, French is often the only language that can be used to access essential public services. Disgruntled anglophones are angry about the gap between a reality that sees them relegated to second-class status and official claims that Cameroon is a bilingual state. The obstacles they face because of language are proof of this.

Anglophone Cameroonians have long complained of the near total domination of public life by their francophone compatriots. Elites from this group have allegedly used their power to marginalize the English-speaking regions in the allocation of resources for economic development.

This chronic marginalization has led to calls for a separatist movement.


The Republic of Ambazonia

The separatists describe themselves as a movement for the “restoration” of the “Republic of Ambazonia. The name Ambazonia is derived from Ambas Bay in the Gulf of Guinea. The invention of the name in the mid-1980s is attributed to a dissident English-speaking lawyer, Fon Gorji Dinka.

Resentment of the authoritarian rule of the country’s predominantly French-speaking leaders is one of the main reasons for the call for separation by anglophones. And whenever English-speaking Cameroonians have protested, they have been heavily repressed. This happened first under the administration of Ahmadou Ahidjo (1960-1982) and then under Paul Biya (from 1982).

Since 1990, demonstrations in the English-speaking regions have often met with a violent, swift and deadly response. This was also the case during the 2016-2017 protests. Unarmed protesters were shot by soldiers. Detained individuals were still subjected to violence.

Another major grievance of the Anglophone separatists is related to what they see as the “colonial character” of their union with the French state of Cameroon.

Anglophone nationalists question the February 11, 1961 plebiscite imposed by the United Nations. They claim that by forcing British Cameroonians to choose between Nigeria and French Cameroon for independence, the U.N. violated its own decolonization provisions under Article 76 (b) of its Charter – regarding the independence of former trust territories – was rigged. The two options offered in the referendum – French Cameroon or Nigeria – did not take into account the aspirations and desires of the people to become autonomous, thus contravening the fundamental provisions of its decolonization framework.

As a result, English-speaking Cameroonians claim that the French-speaking majority views and treats the two English-speaking regions as a colonial outgrowth. And that the area, and the people who live there, are not an integral part of Cameroon.

A difficult road to peace
The road to peace will be difficult.

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

Radical separatists – such as Chris Anu of the Ambazonia Interim Government, Ayaba Cho Lucas and Ivo Tapang of the Ambazonia Governing Council – are demanding outright independence. They believe this is the only way for English-speaking Cameroonians to free themselves from French-speaking domination and avoid future crises.

This divide between federalists and separatists complicates any peaceful dialogue and negotiations.

To make matters worse, Biya and his government have rejected any discussion with the separatists that would imply a loss of central government power.

In addition, the violent repression of Anglophone protests in 2016-2017 has had two important consequences: the dominant Anglophone elite is afraid to speak out, and Anglophone youth have become more radicalized and increasingly supported by Anglophone Cameroonians in the diaspora.

I believe that the only solution to this crisis is autonomy for the two Anglophone regions. The exact form of this autonomy would have to be the subject of a long and carefully negotiated agreement between the various parties involved. And, whatever that agreement is, it should be subject to the will of the people of these two regions of the former southern Cameroon.

Obtaining this autonomy will not be easy, however, given the strong reluctance of francophone elites in Yaoundé to concede a change in the form of the state. In addition, the increasingly authoritarian attitude of the current regime has raised fears of violent repression of dissenting voices in the country. And the political institutions have little or no capacity to take steps toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

For action on autonomy to be taken, pressure would have to come from outside, including the English-speaking Cameroonian diaspora, the international media, human rights organizations and major Western powers such as the United States and the European Union.

N Melo
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