November 21st 2016, the population of Bamenda gather to protest. The citizens of the formerly Southern British Cameroon take to the streets of the most populated city of North West part of Cameroon.
Bamenda is home to over 700,000 inhabitants. They march in support of the Northwest Region Lawyers’ Assembly and the Cameroon Teachers’ Trade Union. The former fight for the Common Law to remain the judiciary system of the English-speaking regions of the country, North-West and South-West, and the latter request that their English speaking students be taught by Anglophone teachers.
After seeing people from two respectable professions molested and ridiculed by police forces, the population of the English-Speaking part of Cameroon goes out to collectively voice what they were bearing on their chest for decades now: they are fed up with marginalization, ridicule and second-class citizenship.
This uprising brings to the table the forbidden debate: the Anglophone problem. Well-known in the North-West and South-West regions, the Anglophone problem is almost a novelty for the younger generation in the French-speaking part of Cameroon: ever since the Federal Republic of Cameroon became the United Republic of Cameroon in 1972 and then the Republic of Cameroon in 1984, English-speaking Cameroonians have complained about mistreatment from their French-speaking brothers, accusing them of acting as neo-colonial masters. Renowned authors such as Bate Besong or Nkengansong have written extensively on the topic.
One of the main grievances of the population of the English-speaking part of the country is the “francophonization” of their regions, where top administrative positions are held by Francophones and a growing number of them (French-speaking Cameroonians) are appointed to teach Anglophone students despite a poor mastery of the Anglophone education sub-system (different from the Francophone education sub-system) and the language.
Through the Minister of Communication, the Government (later contradicted by the Prime Minister who was not backed by the declarations of his Government) made its position clear: there is no Anglophone problem, there is no Anglophone or Francophone in Cameroon, we are all Cameroonians and that’s that.
Saying there is no problem while an entire population is out on the streets peacefully protesting for equality and facing violence by police forces is in itself a problem; refusing to admit citizens have a problem is a problem; meeting peace with violence is a problem; saying their grievances are pointless is a problem; saying there is no problem and therefore pretending there is no human rights violation in this “non-existent” crisis management is a problem.
The government is appointed to serve the nation – and therefore citizens – so ignoring the cries of the population is a problem.
The issue here is more complicated than we think, and some people focus on one aspect only: language. Many think Cameroon is on fire only because it is not bilingual enough, there is some truth in this. Indeed, the language of public service is French. When the President addresses the nation on special occasions such as the National Day, he uses French.
Public documents are written in French and are then (if ever) translated into English. Releases from the National School of Administration and Magistracy (ENAM), for example, are poorly translated and difficult to understand more often than not. Access to public information is not the easiest thing for English-speaking Cameroonians. But we have to admit that the situation is the same for a French-speaking Cameroonian living in English-speaking regions. The issue is conspicuous in the French-speaking parts of the country because the core activities of the country occur there, precisely in the Center and littoral regions.
The Anglophone problem
More and more parents prefer that their children be trained in the Anglophone education sub-system. More and more children graduating from high school in the Francophone education sub-system are going to Anglophone Universities (University of Buea and University of Bamenda). This is great: bilingualism is spreading, though mostly in the French-speaking part of the country. We should take advantage of this to genuinely establish bilingualism across the nation.
But what we tend to forget is this: the term “Anglophone” in Cameroon is not limited to “having English as first language”. It also involves an individual’s place of birth, as well as that of his parents and grandparents. “Anglos” (as we usually call them) feel marginalized beyond the language barrier, and with reason. A French-speaking Cameroonian who is able to speak English is considered an asset for his/her community. The English-speaking Cameroonian speaking French remains an “Anglo”. It does not make him/her any better, and that is where the problem lies: how they are perceived and therefore treated. This is a major part of the Anglophone problem. Honorable Joseph Wirba (Parliamentarian for Jakiri, and member of the Social Democratic Front, the main opposition party), expressed this situation eloquently at the National Assembly on December 13. He articulated- eloquently- the sentiment of English-speaking Cameroonian citizens.
Claiming we will all be speaking both languages in a few years only addresses part of the problem because it overlooks the marginalization, and nurtures frustration. Learning how to speak English does not equal becoming a Cameroonian citizen from the two English-speaking regions of the country. It does not mean marginalization has ceased because Francophones who speak English are not marginalized.
Some said we are all Cameroonians and we are all suffering from unemployment, electricity shortage, and underdevelopment, among others. True. Some claimed that people from the North-West and the South-West regions don’t have “extra” reasons to demand better treatment. This also can be true. But, let us not forget that there were two Cameroons which came together under certain conditions, and if these conditions are not fulfilled at some point by one party or the other party, they each have the right to speak up. It may not make citizens of one party more legitimate than those of the other party, but neither would their silence.
“We are all Cameroonians”. “There is no Anglophones or Francophones”. These statements have been heard multiple times since the beginning of this crisis. Cameroon is called Africa in miniature around the world because of our diversity. Besides football, that diversity is what makes us famous, but it seems we are doing everything possible to kill it for the sake of unity. Being united does not mean being identical. Unity in diversity is what we should seek. To make it possible, we need to accept and respect our differences as Cameroonian citizens. Trying to be the same or identical means absorbing minorities into the majority. This is what we are experiencing in Cameroon. This is why some feel assimilated.
Cameroon is diverse in all aspects. Other than Canada, we are the only country in the entire world to have English and French as national languages and now, we are seen fighting on international TV stations. Because of something we should be proud of, something that makes us stand out. We are one of the few countries with a dual judiciary system and we are making lawyers crawl in dirt, we humiliate them because they want to preserve this state of affairs- this duality. Our diversity is our strength. How many countries across the globe have- on top of English and French as official languages- a dual judiciary system, more than 200 tribes, and more than 150 linguistic groups?
Besides the numerous (failing) attempts of discussions between the strikers and the government to solve the issues raised by lawyers and teachers, in order to address the issue about bilingualism, a commission could be created to assess the situation of bilingualism across the country and take appropriate measures for English and French to be at the same level in all the ten regions of the country. As mentioned above, the situation is deplorable in both English-speaking and French-speaking regions when it comes to bilingualism, but it is more noticeable in the French-speaking part of the country because everything related to the administration of the country and public services is carried out there.
Cameroonians are renowned for sometimes falling into excesses, but this situation has gone too far. Some are talking about going back to Federalism. Some are talking about secession. The national flag has been torn up and burned. Despite the outrage of the protesters who are sick and tired of their situation and of the way their grievances are addressed (or not), this type of action shows contempt towards the State. Secession is anti-constitutional.
A grievance keeps coming back from those demanding separation of the North-West and South-West regions from the rest of the country: people want their regions to administrate themselves. This is possible through decentralization. With decentralization, each and every region will be in charge of its own social and financial development. The center and the littoral regions are two of the most favored regions. To compensate for this, the North-West and South-West along with the other regions, desperately need to be the master of their own development to the greatest extent possible.
In 2004, laws on decentralization were promulgated. In 2008, provinces became regions and we thought this would accelerate the process of decentralization. However, as of the publication of this post, there is no significant change observed at the level of citizens (assuming that things are moving at the level of the administration). As citizens, we generally take promises and wait for the magic to happen. We should call to account those in charge, ask about the evolution of the process, and ask why nothing seems to be moving. Crying, yelling, demanding and then lying down and waiting patiently for results is not helping any of us. The situation at hand is proof enough of this.
Decentralization here does not mean creating small states in Cameroon. It is not about operating in self-sufficiency. It is about being in charge of social and financial development of the region for the sake of the region and of the country as a whole. We need to be united and to respect each other. Today, the voice of English-speaking Cameroonians has more credibility when it comes to marginalization because they are a minority, but French-speaking Cameroonians living in the English-speaking regions also experience mistreatment: they are called “frogs”, they are mocked and qualified lazy because “just as political leaders, they do not know how to do anything right”, they are asked to go back to their “kingdom”, they are called invaders.
Though history shows greater misconduct from the French-speaking part of the country, the English-speaking part is not blameless. Here is the summary from the 45th Ordinary Session of the Africa Union’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2009 about the English-speaking people of Cameroon wanting to be recognized as a People. The situation, the responsibility and the shortcomings of both parties are clearly articulated.
Integration should come from both parties. French-speaking Cameroonians as well as English-speaking Cameroonians should both be open to dialogue and compromises. The blame game should give way to constructive talks, and these talks should not be the responsibility of politicians only- they have proven several times that their agenda can be quite different from that of the people they are supposed to be serving. Our leaders failed us so many times, let’s not disappoint ourselves. We have the power to change things for the better. Together.