On the surface of what has been dubbed the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon, one would think it is simply a clash of two cultures and languages in the bilingual nation, but it goes deeper and farther back than that.
Since late 2016, Cameroon has faced an increasingly violent uprising in the bilingual country’s minority Anglophone regions, where English speakers say they have been marginalised by the government, which is led and dominated by a French-speaking majority. The current dispute can be traced back to a colonial legacy.
At the end of World War I, the League of Nations divided the German colony of Kamerun between France and Britain. In 1960, French Cameroun gained independence and became Cameroun Republic.
Later that year the British-controlled southern Cameroon was then separated from Nigeria and was due to achieve full independence. But at the last minute the United Nations gave the southern Cameroonians the choice 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. The southern Cameroonians opted to unite in a new federation with Cameroun Republic.
It was supposed to be a partnership of equals, a notion reinforced by bilateral negotiations that had started before the vote, but the general view later on was that the delegation from the Cameroun Republic, accompanied by French advisers, got virtually everything they wanted while the Anglophones, who received none of the support promised by the British or the UN, were effectively sidelined.
Unification left Anglophones with a sense that their territory was in economic decline, because it entailed the centralisation and dismantling of West Cameroon’s economic structures. Successive regimes further centralised systems in the country, and imposed cultural assimilation which went against prior terms of unification.
Fast forward to the current crisis, and the “Anglophone problem” resurged in October 2016 when 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.
While the march mobilised by the lawyers was peaceful, police forces violently dispersed the crowd, and manhandled some lawyers. Teachers soon came out in support of the lawyers, and university students joined the rallies leading to violent clashes with police and army as the government’s response was to militarise the region.
The current crisis has increased support for a return to the 1961 federation and power-sharing agreement among the Anglophone population, and reinforced support for secessionism among others. In light of the upcoming October elections, President Paul Biya, who is 85 and in power since 1982, has to contend with the need for change that is sweeping across the nation.
It is difficult to imagine a credible dialogue to calm the tensions unless the government takes conciliatory measures, unlike before, and sets out institutional reforms that decentralise the country.
Also a firmer response from the international community, such as the African Union, could help to avoid the conflict from deteriorating into Africa’s next civil war.
The crisis has revealed the gap between the concerns of the Anglophone and Francophone population, as well as a disparity between the elites and common folk, especially as Francophones share some Anglophone grievances.