By - Adedoyin Shittu
In the past eight years, Cameroon has had it fair share of instability caused by three phenomenon; the spillover of the Boko Haram insurgency from Nigeria to the northern regions of Cameroon, the flare-up of federalist and secessionist movements in the English-speaking regions in 2016, and increased organised crime in the eastern regions due to CAR’s ongoing conflict.
On September 10th 2019 while trying to address the crisis in the English speaking region, Paul Biya announced that the country would hold a major “National Dialogue” in a bid to put an end to the conflict between security forces and armed separatists from the anglophone minority in the west. The week-long dialogue on the separatist crisis is due to begin Monday September 30th to October 4th in Yaounde and the government says it has invited more than 1,000 people, including lawmakers, clergy, teachers, and civil society activists.
Cameroon’s population of 24 million are majority French-speaking while English speakers account for about a fifth of the population. The English speakers are concentrated mainly in the two western areas, the Northwest Region and the Southwest Region, these were the areas controlled by Britain during colonial rule while the other areas were controlled by France. After the colonial powers withdrew in the 1960s, both regions came together to form Cameroon.
For decades Cameroon enjoyed relative political and social stability compared to its neighbours – Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Republic of the Congo – who faced intractable violent conflicts and political upheaval. The Anglophone crisis has claimed around 3,000 lives, displaced more than half a million people within Cameroon, compelled another 40,000 to flee to Nigeria, deprived 700,000 children of schooling in their home areas and left one in three people in the Anglophone regions in need of humanitarian aid.
This crisis has also hurt the country’s economy deeply. The two biggest agricultural companies owned by the country, Cameroon Development Corporation and PAMOL, have lost up to 80 per cent of their capacity. In September 2018, companies working in the Anglophone regions reported losses estimated at a half-billion dollars since the beginning of the crisis in 2017 and the country’s security forces are overstretched; fighting Anglophone separatists in the west and Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the north.
Grievances in the English-speaking regions
The Anglophone Crisis resulted from decades of “neglect, abuse, and exploitation but it began in 2016, with what began as a peaceful demonstration carried out by teachers and lawyers in the English-speaking North West and South West regions after there were demands to use French in their common law courts and English-modeled schools. Teachers in the English-speaking regions went on strike to help their students and the lawyers also went on strike to protest the country’s legal system which is largely based on the French Civil law
The English speakers in the country have long complained of discrimination and they often say that they are excluded from state jobs because they are limited in the French language skills. They also complained that official documents are often only published in French, even though English is also an official language. Students in English-speaking regions were worried that they would not be able to succeed and get good jobs once they graduate, because they do not get the opportunity to be educated and work in their mother tongue and they wanted the government to stop sending teachers who only speak in French or Pidgin English to their schools. Like teachers, Cameroonian lawyers said that the government was sending French-educated civil law judges who do not understand English common law to their courts. These grievances led to the protest but it quickly escalated into an armed conflict against the marginalisation of the English-speaking regions of the country when soldiers used live ammunition on protestors. Also in the typical African fashion, the government after intimidating protesters, arrested, jailed, and tortured protestants.
In turn, voices that called for complete secession of the Anglophone regions took up arms and formed a military wing, Ambazonia Defence Force, and used it to hit back at government forces. They barricade highways, destroyed property, kidnapped government officials, and dared the military to follow them into their hide-outs. Both the National soldiers and the Anglophone militants reportedly committed abuses against the population, including burning villages, closing down schools and killing civilians.
On 20 August, the government sentenced ten prominent separatist leaders to life in prison, this made separatists to up their attacks. In early September, they imposed a “lockdown” (general strike), which has again blocked the start of the new school year, nearly all schools in the area have been shuttered for most of the last three years as separatists have enforced, sometimes violently, a school boycott.
But these Anglophone grievances did not start today but in the early 1960s almost after the country independence. The first President of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo reorganised the country from two federal states, “Francophone and “Anglophone”, to six regions and banned opposition parties. In 1971, through a national referendum, Ahidjo abolished federalism for a United Republic of Cameroon directed from Yaounde, the countr’s capital.
Based on widespread anger on the ground due to the marginalization of the minority English speakers, there have been movements calling for a return to federalism, and even outright secession and the government have reacted typical to the African leader style; repressing the movement through the blocking of internet which was later restored, and the arrest of leaders of the Anglophone movement. The government treated the course as subversive and illegitimate.
Federalism and secession have also been defined as taboo topics in Cameroon and the topic have gotten some people arrested just for discussing it openly.
Call for National Dialogue
President Biya’s proposed dialogue is scheduled for 30 September to 4 October at the Palais des Congrès in the capital Yaoundé. He has entrusted its organisation to Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute, an Anglophone. Ngute has started consultations with a wide range of Cameroonians.
While Biya has long ruled out separation as an option, insisting that Cameroon will remain “one and indivisible,” a survey conducted by religious leaders ahead of National Dialogue indicated the severity of the nation’s Anglophone crisis. Over 1,000 Anglophones responded to the questionnaire shared by the group and a vast majority want to secede.
Cardinal Christian Tumi, one of the religious leaders delegated to conduct the survey in the country’s volatile Anglophone regions has this to say, “In our questionnaire to Anglophones, we tried to influence the Anglophone opinion, but we did not succeed; therefore, it shows how deep the problem is… When we said, ‘what form of government do you think can solve this problem? Federation or decentralization…’ I think just about 4 or 5 people reacted out of a thousand. 69 percent said absolute separation,” Tumi told journalists shortly after his meeting with the prime minister. ”We drew the conclusion … that 69 percent of our respondents are convinced that if we want to love each other; that is to say, if the Anglophones and Francophones want to live as brothers and sisters, absolute separation…that is to say, secession, is important,” Tumi said. Many Anglophones consider themselves estranged from the rest of a nation where they say the francophone majority has a lock grip on power and wealth.
Also the dialogue seem to have failed before starting because several separatist forces and some opposition parties have announced a boycott. The government of Cameroon had sent out invitations to Ambazonia leaders and activists in the diaspora to attend the Major National Dialogue. The activists have taken to social media to display the invitations while rubbishing it as they call for the government to release all those arrested if it is really serious to dialogue with separatists.
One of the activists, Mark Bareta laughed off his invitation and said it is an attempt from the government to arrest separatists by enticing them to come for dialogue. In a statement he said, “Mr Prime Minister, you cannot be organising dialogue when French Cameroon troops are actively killing our people and the rate has increased since September 10, 2019.”
Another activist who turned down the invitation is Eric Tataw, he lives in the United States. He says he will not be attending the National Dialogue because he and fellow separatists based in the diaspora are wanted in Cameroon on charges of secession and terrorism. Tataw says Cameroon should free arrested activists and leaders as a sign they are truly ready for dialogue. “I have told them categorically clear that let them release all detainees, and then start discussing with them and then from there we will know if the president of Cameroon is serious to have dialogue or not.” Some of the separatists have argued on social media that they want the dialogue to take place either in Switzerland or Ivory Coast, under the supervision of world powers like the U.S., Germany and Britain, and in the presence of the United Nations. But the president said, through his speaker, George Ewane, that he has ruled out the possibility of inviting a foreign mediator. “Some nations that have offered to mediate,” he says, “have not stopped Cameroonians in the diaspora from financially sponsoring violence back home.”
The mood in English-speaking Cameroon is a mix of anxiety, resignation and fatigue as the date for the Dialogue draws closer. More than ever, Cameroon needs a real and inclusive national dialogue where no subject is considered taboo because the country is currently moving towards two societies, one Francophone, one Anglophone—separate, hostile, and unequal.
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