Cameroon is divided. The international community quietly looks on as the country crumples. Many ordinary citizens in Africa are not aware of the unfolding events in the West Africa nation.
Cameroon is in crisis. The roots of division were seeds sown during colonisation. Germany was Cameroon’s first coloniser. In early 1916, during World War I , allies Britain and France seized Togoland and Cameroon. They sliced up the territories between them. The British owned the smaller share, consisting of two thin strips on the eastern border of Nigeria. They are separated by a stretch of land south of the Benoué river, where the Nigerian border bulges to the east. These two regions become known as the British Cameroons.
On the French side, the large eastern area ceded in 1911is returned to French Equatorial Africa. The remaining central territory becomes a new French mandated colony, to be known as French Cameroon.
On January 1 1960 French Cameroon gained independence and became the Republic of Cameroon. Later that year Nigeria gained its independence from Britain and became a Federal Republic. The British-controlled southern Cameroon was then separated from Nigeria and was due to achieve full independence on October 1 1961.
However the British issued a report that their former colony, Anglophone Cameroon could not economically survive on its own. The United Nation put out a referendum to southern Cameroonerians: join Nigeria or join Cameroon. The Anglophone territory was stuck between a rock and hard place. Prior issues with the Nigerian Igbos forced them to join Francophone Cameroon. Anglophone Cameroonians hoped for peace and equality. It soon turned out to the opposite.
The underlying animosity is not between the Anglophone and Francophone communities but, between Anglophone community and the government. Since unification Anglophone Cameroonians felt marginalised. To be specific, their cultural and linguistic identity has constantly been ridiculed and discriminated against. President Biya has favoured the francophone elite installing them in key positions of power in government, media and industry. All this, to the exclusion of the Anglophones citizens. However, this was not enough to push Cameroon to the brink of collapse. According to a survey from the Afrobarometer, an independent polling and research network, when asked whether they identify more as Cameroonians or more with their ethnic group, the vast majority of respondents in the Northwest and Southwest regions said they identified with these categories equally. Less than five percent said they identified more with their ethnic group. Another survey by the Afrobarometer conducted in 2015 before the outbreak of violence, showed that the presidency is the second most trusted institution of the state, after the army. It also showed that only ten percent of Cameroonian respondents believe that their country is not a democracy. This is evidence of the influence of state media.
This underlying currant of tension combined with small seemingly unrelated events catapulted the country into crisis. In October 2016 lawyers publicly demonstrated against government to stop appointing Francophone magistrates who spoke no English and had no training in common law to preside over courts in the Anglophone regions. Despite the demonstrations being peaceful, police violently manhandled the demonstrators. Teachers soon came out in support of the lawyers. They also demanded government to stop posting Francophone teachers who spoke no English to teach subjects other than French in Anglophone schools. Soon, workers from all professions joined the demonstrations. The government retaliated and banned trade unions. Some union members were arrested and charged with terrorism. Then the government undertook extreme measures in violation of citizens’ right to freedom and expression. The internet was shut down and other communication services in Anglophone regions to stop people sharing information and organising. 3 months later, digital service resumed after Biya faced mounting international criticism.
On October 1, in an act of self-determination, the Anglophone community stormed the streets to commemorate their ‘independence day’. The Ambazonian flag was raised in multiple cities. The government flexed its muscles and clamped down hard on protestors. Over the next few days a number of people were killed, some reports suggesting 17 while others suggesting as many as 100.
An overarching reason of resentment towards the government from both francophone and anglophone groups is the faux democracy. Paul Biya has held the helm of presidency for 36 years, making him the longest serving president in Africa, and is showing no signs of leaving the office. Last month Biya won his seventh term as president with 71.3 percent of the vote. Many Cameroonians viewed the win as illegitimate, especially in light of low voter participation in the Anglophone regions.
Anglophone Cameroons’ right to self-determination and identity has been suppressed and marginalised for decades. Amnesty International estimates 400 ordinary citizens have been killed in the past year, and 160 members of the security forces have died since late 2016. Continuous violent confrontation between State forces and the Ambazonia liberation group has made Cameroon’s future uncertain. President Biya’s strong resistance to hear the cries of the Anglophones has jeopardised the nations united future. Tens of thousands of people have fled into neighbouring Nigeria, and hundreds of thousands are internally displaced.
The spirit of change is sweeping through the continent. Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso, Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola – swift precise action has humbled these strongmen to their knees and out of office. Many wonder if this too, might be the fate of Biya.
The international community, particularly the Africa Union must increase pressure to end the violence and reach an amicable solution between the government and citizens. Most importantly, the Cameroonian government must embark on deep introspection to ensure all decisions put citizens first and put them on equal footing. Immediate action is necessary as Cameroon is tittering on the verge of civil war.
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