By Charles Kouasseu
Is there an Anglophone problem in Cameroon? That isn’t the right question—but best of luck to anyone who tries to answer “yes” or “no” without being bashed on the head by those who believe the opposite. The situation in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon (formerly known as Southern Cameroons)—comprising about 20 percent of the country’s territory and an estimated population of 6.2 million—is too serious today for anyone to waste energy on useless rhetoric. The question instead should be: Is there an Anglophone solution to this so-called Anglophone problem?
Background of the Conflict
On Oct. 1, 1961, the Southern Cameroons (under British trusteeship) came together with La République du Cameroun (independent since Jan. 1, 1960) to form a new state: the Federal Republic of Cameroon. In July of that year, a week of talks was held in Foumban. Even though these negotiations failed to meet the requirements of U.N. Resolution 1608(XV) inviting all stakeholders in the territory to “initiate urgent discussions”—the British representative failed to show up—the representatives of the two states agreed that three characteristics of the state were not to be changed without agreement from all parties: the structure of the federation, the common law system, and the education system.
Over the years, however, all three institutions have been modified. The structure of the state has changed twice. After a referendum in 1972, it became the United Republic of Cameroon—but without the involvement of the Southern Cameroons Parliament, which was subsequently dissolved. Then, in 1984, it became the Republic of Cameroon following a presidential decree. The common law system and the education system have also been eroded progressively. For instance, Francophone magistrates were appointed in common law courts, and teachers and lecturers with little or no English skill were sent to teach in Anglophone schools.
Infuriated by these unilateral moves, thousands of Anglophones took to the streets in Bamenda on May 26, 1990, defying a government ban, to launch the Social Democratic Front (SDF), a political party advocating for a return to federation. With a Francophone-controlled government deaf to their calls, some decided to secede and created the Southern Cameroons National Congress (SCNC) and the Southern Cameroons People’s Organisation (SCAPO) in 1999. Others took the case to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), where the government was found guilty on several counts for rights violations, ranging from discriminatory practices against the people of Northwest and Southwest to arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment.
In November 2016, Anglophone lawyers started a strike. Teachers followed suit, and now all sectors have joined in, generalizing the strike. The government is responding to the situation with a heavy hand—it has shut down the internet in the two regions, arrested protesters and sent them to Francophone military courts, and met some demonstrators with teargas canisters or live bullets. An official death toll has not yet been issued, and an end is not in sight as the conflict seemingly enters a stalemate.
Prospects of a Two-State Federation
To consider a hypothetical solution, let’s say the Cameroonian government, to get out of the present impasse, decides to meet all the requests of the Anglophones: reverse the changes to the legal and school systems and allow self-determination in a federalist state, as agreed in the Foumban talks and recommended by the ACHPR. If this were to happen, the country at first would not just go back to normal—it would get better. There would no longer be a Francophone Government Delegate heading a city council or Governors, Divisional Officers, and Sub-Divisional Officers appointed by presidential decree. The government of the State of Southern Cameroons would take charge of SONARA (Société Nationale de Raffinage)—the country’s oil refinery based in Limbe, in the Southwest—and freely extract and refine oil, as well as choose what to do with the profits. The Southern Cameroons government would finally revive the deep seaport of Limbe, which has greater potential than the Douala and Kribi ports, as it is located closer to Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, and only 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital and home to a small, congested seaport. Southern Cameroons could also have its own currency and representatives chosen by the people through free and fair elections. Having representatives who are accountable to the public would induce better resource management, bringing prosperity and development. On the Francophone side, representatives are only accountable to the president. Changes of this magnitude would bring the periphery to the center, something which the regime in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, understands far too well and is not willing to let happen.
If it is granted self-determination, however, Southern Cameroons could quickly become a place of refuge for Francophones. Not only would they want to enjoy the freedom of choosing their officials through elections, but many would also prefer—and are already sending their children to—Anglophone schools. No visas would stop them from crossing the Mungo River, which separates the two parts of the country. The large numbers of Francophones fleeing into the Southern Cameroons could exacerbate social tensions between the newcomers and the longtime residents.
A Non-Anglophone Solution for an Anglophone Problem
To end the conflict in Cameroon and prevent its resurgence, it is clear that going back to a two-state federation will not be enough. The way forward would be to convene talks with political parties and all other stakeholders for a federation comprised of four to 10 states, based either on the country’s four geocultural areas (the grass fields comprising the West and Northwest regions; the Sawa-dominated Littoral and Southwest regions; the Fang-Béti in the Centre, East, and South; and the Soudano-Sahelian in the northernmost regions), the seven provinces created in 1972, or the 10 regions currently in place. With each government accountable to its people and not to the president, resources would be managed better, thus creating economic opportunities reducing the incentives for disruptive internal migration. All Anglophones currently detained on political grounds should be released prior to the negotiations.
The government has become so nervous that it is even forbidding public debate on federalism in Francophone areas. The international community—particularly the U.K., which has historical ties with the English speaking part of Cameroon, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the African Union, and the Commonwealth organization—ought to step in to more aggressively denounce and help stop the state’s crimes and the collective punishment currently being inflicted on the Anglophone people.
Charles Kouasseu is a satirical storyteller and author of “The King’s Chair,” a musical comedy about a love story between a king and his chair.
[Photo courtesy of SarahTz]