President Paul Biya issued his annual message to mark Cameroon’s annual youth day on Wednesday. In a break from the usual platitudes, he made a heartfelt appeal for young people in the two English-speaking regions, Southwest and Northwest, where government forces and Anglophone separatists have engaged in increasingly brutal violence and reprisals since 2016, to lay down their weapons and return to community life.
He also made a vigorous defence of new decentralization laws that, he claimed, represent ‘a genuine peaceful revolution that respond to the desire of our fellow citizens to participate more fully in the management of local affairs’.
The president hopes these measures – reinforcing bilingual language rights and devolving greater autonomy to provincial level – will defuse the deep discontent in Anglophone Cameroon and open the path to peaceful resolution of a crisis that has cost more than 2,000 lives, left 432,000 people displaced or refugees and profoundly shaken the cohesion of the state.
Routine political life goes on, with legislative and municipal elections staged on 9 February. The opposition split, with the Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon boycotting the polls while the Social Democratic Front opted to take part. But in some English-speaking communities gunshots could be heard and turnout was low.
Both government security forces and the separatist fighters for an independent ‘Ambazonia’ have committed abuses, and growing bitterness has eroded space for compromise. Previous initiatives – such as a bilingualism commission last October’s national dialogue talks – failed to break the deadlock, create space for a renegotiated understanding of national identity or salve the deep anger and grievances accumulated on both sides.
Over the past two decades Cameroon has avoided the chaos and conflicts endured by many neighbouring states. With a broad economic resource base, it navigated the oil price slump with relative ease. Cameroon is home to a dizzying and complex tangle of ethnic and language groups but has remained largely free from identity-based conflict – many groups overlap or are bridged within families.
This was certainly the case for English- and French-speaking communities, with middle class French speaking families in Douala sending their children to well-regarded Anglophone schools in the nearby Southwest region, while numerous English-speakers came the other way for work, trade or to take up positions in the central government in the capital Yaoundé.
In Kumba Town, near the official language boundary, shops, local trade and women’s development groups for many years operated in an easy blend of both traditions. At the top of the state Biya (like his predecessor, Cameroon’s first president Ahmadou Ahidjo) is a Francophone, while prime ministers are always chosen from the English-speaking community.
But underneath the surface, profound questions of identity and culture have been left unresolved since Cameroon emerged as a modern state, the product of a complex colonial and post-colonial history.
Cameroon was a German colony until the First World War. Subsequently, a western strip was placed under British administration, while the larger part was allocated to French rule. In 1960, the French-administered territory became independent and the following year the southern part of British Cameroons voted to join it in forming a new federal republic. (The north opted, instead, to join Nigeria.)
The federal structure was abandoned in 1972, but a dual linguistic and institutional system remained a foundational principle of the state. The Anglophones retain a distinct institutional identity, and educational and judicial systems derived from those of the UK.
But the Anglophone regions account for only a fifth of the national population – and, in practice, natives of the Francophone regions have dominated the power structure and exercised preponderant political and administrative influence.
English-speaking educational and judicial systems were increasingly under-resourced, to the point where, for example, secondary schools had to be partly staffed by French speakers trained in their own system and with only a weak command of both the local language and the English-based syllabus.
And more fundamentally, a degree of social disregard became commonplace, with Anglophones often regarded as ‘provincials’, citizens of second rank. In one parliamentary session, captured on a widely circulated video, the speaker refused to let deputies speak in English, as is their constitutional right.
Inadequate and brutal responses
Such dismissive attitudes perhaps partly explain why Biya and his government were initially so slow to react when Anglophone teachers and lawyers began a campaign of peaceful protest in 2016 to demand more investment and personnel for public services.
Instead, an over-confident central state sought to squash their campaign, triggering a gradual slide towards increased militancy and the re-emergence of long-dormant separatist ideas in Southwest and Northwest.
The Cameroonian state has authoritarian reflexes – Biya’s most important political opponent, Maurice Kamto, was jailed for eight months last year – a mindset perhaps reinforced by the fact that, in the north, government forces continue to face a serious security threat from Boko Haram. Mobilization by separatists was met with an increasingly random and brutal crackdown by state security forces.
Eventually, the government did respond to the original public service and social grievances. But by that stage, the crisis had spiralled far beyond this original agenda. In an increasingly polarized climate, with the radical separatist cause attracting youthful recruits, those Anglophone ‘moderate’ civil rights campaigners still prepared to settle for limited reforms now found themselves accused of ‘selling out’.
Since his re-election in 2018, Biya has struggled to revive some space for dialogue and negotiation. The new decentralization reform he has announced is something that was first floated more than a decade ago, only to be lost in parliamentary and bureaucratic inertia.
So it may take a much larger and more fundamentally generous gesture than this to rebuild the social and political space for a revived and genuinely equal sense of national identity to which all Cameroonians feel they can adhere.