The “Anglophone Problem” in Cameroon: Is Another Crisis Brewing?
A new episode of what is commonly known as the “Anglophone problem”1 in Cameroon has been spurred by the demonstration of English-speaking lawyers, teachers, and students against the systematic marginalization of Anglophones in the legal and educational sectors in a supposed bilingual and bi-cultural country. The government’s response was initially characterized by Gestapo-style harassment and detention of leaders of Anglophone civil society groups, shutdown of the internet, and continued denial of any real “Anglophone problem.”2 It should be noted that other responses included a National Commission on the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism created by Presidential Decree in January 2017. Also, following some negotiations, the shutdown of the internet has been lifted, alongside reforms in the judiciary and educational sector aimed at increased inclusion of Anglophone Cameroonians in those institutions.
This article provides an insight into the resurgence of the “Anglophone problem,” the timing of which—a year before general elections in 2018—suggests that a crisis is brewing in one of Africa’s bilingual countries. It recommends that the international community—particularly the United Nations (UN)—encourage and mediate dialogue between the leaders of the Anglophone civil society consortium and the Cameroonian government to prevent escalation capable of threatening next year’s elections, and morphing into another sub-regional security menace and refugee crisis.
The current protests broke out on November 28, 2016, when lawyers, later joined by teachers and students, from Cameroon’s Anglophone region embarked on a strike to protest the imposition of French-speaking judges and teachers in their courtrooms and classrooms, and to demand greater inclusion of English-speaking Cameroonians in the country. The protests originated because French-speaking teachers with little command of the English language are sent to the Anglophone regions to teach students who cannot communicate in the French language. Similarly, judges of the French Civil Law are sent to Anglophone courts to preside over cases with lawyers of the British Common Law. These practices cause a strong likelihood of under-education for Anglophone children and gross injustices in the courtrooms due to the language barrier and differences in the legal systems. This is what Konings and Nyamnjoh have described as attempts at “Frenchification” of the region.3 After the initial strike action, civil society organizations joined the strike, and it became a string of general strikes and public protests that have disrupted the smooth running of public life.
The existence of an Anglophone problem has been minimized and criminalized by the Cameroonian government, which has labeled it a quest for secession by enemies of the state.4 The origin of the conflict can be traced to the ways which successive Yaoundé governments have manipulated the terms of negotiation that brought Southern Cameroons into the poorly negotiated “union of two states.”5 However, many view the “Anglophone problem” as an expression of socio-cultural, political, and economic challenges faced by indigenes of the territory, whom account for about 20 percent of the Cameroonian population. Failure to address the crisis might give way to the birth of extremism in the country and the region at large. This is apparent given the gradual shift by some of the champions of the Anglophone cause from their demand for the reinstatement of the 1961 federalist arrangement—whereby there were two equal states comprising the French-speaking and the English-speaking regions—to outright demands for secession.6 Yet given the economic importance of the region, Yaoundé is unlikely to give up without a brutal war. Thus far, the government’s militarized responses have been brought to the attention of the international community. The internet blackout in the Anglophone region lasted three months and was only restored amidst strong international pressure.
The government’s stance on the absence of any real Anglophone problem continues to influence its insouciant responses. Multiple commissions have been created with no concrete effort to address the problem: for instance, the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. The Minister of Higher Education, Fame Ndongo, is quoted to have said that Cameroonian teachers can be deployed to teach anywhere in the country, regardless of the linguistic differences. Such statements give credence to accusations of a systematic effort to marginalize the Anglophone region.7
Rather than fully addressing the problem, which is already taking a toll on the country’s unity and economic prosperity, there are concerns that the Yaoundé government has largely embarked on repressive actions, including the internet shutdown, surveillance, threats to social media users, and gross disregard for human rights. Presently, Anglophone bishops are being dragged to court on trumped-up charges in a frantic attempt to silence Anglophone civil society. Meanwhile, the school calendar has been disrupted and the question of school resumption, come September, looms. Whether students resume in September or not seems to be a determining factor for both the government and the leaders of the protests.
The International Community
Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the African Bar Association, have condemned government actions. Twitter has been filled with messages to alert the international community of the ongoing atrocities in Cameroon, yet the UN and the United Kingdom have responded timidly after being eerily quiet for six months. The United States, under former president Barack Obama, issued a statement to condemn the actions of Yaoundé, especially attempts to “restrict free expression and peaceful assembly.”8
Countries within the sub-region have been noticeably quiet. A full-blown crisis in southern Cameroon would likely create a refugee crisis in the border communities with Nigeria, only adding to the instability created by violence in the Niger Delta and the Boko Haram crisis affecting the northern areas of both countries.
Since the restoration of internet in the Anglophone region, the situation has remained concerning. Popular opinion holds that an Anglophone problem may not exist today if decentralization had been applied. The UN and the international community should pressure the Cameroonian government to release leaders of the Anglophone civil society consortium and any protestors that were arbitrarily arrested and detained. The UN should support productive dialogue between the leaders of the Anglophone struggle and the Cameroonian government. Such talks should be spearheaded by credible mediators who encourage the parties to be reasonably flexible in their demands. A sustainable solution to the crisis requires the urgent initiation of negotiations centered on the establishment of a mutually acceptable federal system of government similar to the initial arrangement of October 1, 1961, under which many Anglophones believe their rights can be guaranteed and culture protected.
- Piet Konings and Francis B. Nyamnjoh, “The Anglophone Problem in Cameroon,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 35, no. 2 (1997): 207–229. ↩
- Bamenda Provincial Episcopal Conference (BAPEC), 22 December 2016, “Memorandum Presented to the Head of State, His Excellency President Paul Biya, by the Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda on the Current Situation of Unrest in the Northwest and Southwest Regions of Cameroon,” BAPEC/PRES/2016/30, December 22, 2016, http://www.cameroon-info.net/article/cameroon-bamenda-provincial-episcopal-conference-memorandum-to-president-paul-biya-on-the-current-situation-in-278001.html. ↩
- Konings and Nyamnjoh, “The Anglophone Problem.” ↩
- BAPEC, “Memorandum,” 7; and Jean-Emmanuel Pondi, “Is There an ‘Anglophone Problem’ in Cameroon?” Cameroon Concord Online, December 23, 2016, 8. ↩
- Pondi, “Is There an ‘Anglophone Problem’,” 8. ↩
- BAPEC, “Memorandum,” 4. ↩
- BaretaNews, “Fame Ndongo Goes Ballistic: ENS Teachers Can Teach Anywhere, Deal with It,” BaretaNews, December 24, 2016. ↩
- BaretaNews, “Southern Cameroons Protest: Us State Department Reacts,” BaretaNews, November 29, 2016. ↩