Cameroon has experienced a violent escalation in its Anglophone crisis which erupted last year. On October 1 and 2, 2017, Cameroonian security forces attempted to suppress mass protests in Anglophone western Cameroon. Eyewitnesses reported that troops on the ground and in attack helicopters — which were ostensibly just there to conduct surveillance — “fired tear gas and live rounds on the crowds.” Human rights observers have counted over 20 people killed in the violence.
As Mbom Sixtus explains, the crisis erupted last year when Anglophone lawyers and teachers staged protests over “the influence of French in court rooms and schools.” This was just the tip of the iceberg: the Anglophone Cameroonians’ grievances are rooted in “the region’s under-development, its lack of political representation, and the perceived erosion of an Anglophone cultural heritage.” The authoritarian government of Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon for the past 35 years, exacerbated the mass discontent when it “labelled the demonstrators terrorists” and “tried to snuff out dissent with hundreds of arrests.” The government even “cut the internet to western Cameroon for three months, arguing that social media was being used to fan the unrest.”
The Anglophone and Francophone divide dates back to Cameroon’s complex decolonization from both the British and French empires: “Before independence in 1960, Cameroon was split between a larger French and smaller British mandate. During decolonization, a portion of British Cameroon elected to enter into a federation with French Cameroon rather than join Nigeria to its northwest. The new Anglophone state of West Cameroon had its own prime minister, who was also the federation’s vice president … Shortly after, federalism was abolished and a new unitary state created. Many of the Anglophone grievances date back to this change.”
Major grievances of the Anglophone Cameroonians include their perception of “oppression, marginalization, and deprivation,” which arises in large part from their territory’s resource curse: “Western Cameroon is 20 percent of the population but reportedly produces 60 percent of Cameroon’s GDP, and has little to show for it.” Another major grievance of the Anglophone Cameroonians is what they see as the government’s attempts at the Francophonization of their culture, which some perceive to amount to cultural genocide.
The lawyers’ and teachers’ protests in 2016, for instance, were staged in protest of the government’s imposition of the “French language and legal standards … Anglophone Cameroonian courts are sometimes run by appointed French-educated judges despite no knowledge of British common law, which is supposed to be in use. Similarly, teachers and students have criticized the lack of opportunities to study or take exams in English.” As my former student, an Anglophone Cameroonian, observes: “the government is systematically wiping out our voice and heritage.”
The government’s heavy-handed response to the 2016 protests radicalized the protest movement. Dozens of businesses which failed to comply with boycotts organized by the protestors have been burned down, and “schools have been burnt down too, and only remain open now with police acting as guards.” Following a series of killings of protestors in late 2016 by government security forces, the voices of the protestors, which initially focused on calling for the restoration of federalism, are now increasingly dominated by calls for secession and the establishment of an independent Anglophone Republic of Ambazonia.
While the Cameroonian government has made some attempts to appease the Anglophone community, the mass protests in September and October indicate clearly that these measures are insufficient to stem the unrest.
As Richard Moncrieff recalls, “after negotiations broke down in January of this year, the government imprisoned the most prominent Anglophone activists alongside many others caught up in protests … By jailing the legitimate representatives of the Anglophone movement back in January, the government may have even played into the hands of the more radical elements.”
The government, for its part, sees the radicalized protestors as posing a security threat similar to that posed by the Boko Haram terrorist group which government security forces are concurrently fighting. In its account of the deadly confrontation between Anglophone protestors and security forces in the northwestern city of Bamenda on December 8, 2016, the government described the protestors as challenging the security forces with “a well-planned act of urban guerrilla warfare,” and instigating treasonous thoughts of secession with their displays of the colonial British flag of the Southern Cameroons.
The government’s narrative of the terrorist threat posed by the radicalized protestors was further strengthened in September 2017 when a series of improvised bombs were triggered across the region, targeting a school, government installations, and security forces. The dozens of Anglophone protestors who have been apprehended and detained over the past year hence “could face the death penalty if tried under Cameroon’s controversial anti-terrorism law, enacted in the wake of Boko Haram attacks in the country’s Far North Region.”
Following the October 2017 killings of protestors, foreign powers have expressed their concerns with the deteriorating situation in Cameroon. The US has called on the Cameroonian government “to respect human rights and freedom of expression, including access to the internet.” The US embassy in Yaoundé has also warned its citizens “to defer all but essential travel to the North West and South West regions.” The UK has likewise called on “the parties to reject violence, embrace dialogue and to urgently take action to implement solutions that address the root causes and grievances being raised.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has “condemned the violence and called for dialogue.” The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has likewise urged the Cameroonian government “to ensure that the security forces exercise restraint and take measures to prevent the use of force when policing demonstrations,” and has also reminded the government that “people should be allowed to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, including through having uninterrupted access to the internet.”
While the Cameroonian government has made some attempts to appease the Anglophone community — including “creating a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism; creating new benches for Common Law at the Supreme Court and new departments at the National School of Administration and Magistracy; recruiting Anglophone magistrates and 1,000 bilingual teachers; and turning the internet back on after a 92-day cut” — the mass protests in September and October indicate clearly that these measures are insufficient to stem the unrest. How much further the conflict will escalate will be seen in the coming weeks.
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Pila, T. [TeyimPila]. (2017, October 3). Not at all... The issue is now bigger than just decentralization. The government is systematically wiping out our voice and heritage. [Tweet].
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Sixtus, M. (2016, December 15). Non, merci: English-speaking Cameroon rises up, wants Republic of Ambazonia. IRIN.
Sixtus, M. (2017, May 16). Language of peace hard to find as Cameroon crisis festers. IRIN.
Sixtus, M. (2017, October 4). Cameroon’s descent into crisis: the long history of anglophone discord. IRIN.