While the world’s attention was focused on the emergence of secessionist fervour in Catalonia, many missed the advent of two similar cries for independence in Nigeria and Cameroon. The neighbouring states have experienced a series of heavy protests in recent months, posing a significant challenge to their respective governments. While Nigeria’s Biafra separatists have galvanised their movement on issues of political and economic marginalisation due to ethnicity, the root of Cameroon secessionist uprising is all about the use of colonial languages.
At the root of protester’s grievances is the perceived discrimination felt amongst the country’s English-speaking communities in the Northwest and Southeast regions. A nation comprising of 23 million people, Cameroon’s socio-economic divisions are broken down along linguistic, ethnic and regional lines. Both English and French are official languages of the country but in spite of this, the country is divided between the francophone majority, which make up over 80% of the population, and the anglophone minority.
The conflict – like so many in Africa – can be traced back to the destructive impact of colonisation. After the First World War, former German colony Cameroon was divided between French and British governments, with France occupying the majority of Cameroon’s territory. In 1960 the French territory of Cameroon voted for independence and as did the British territory in the following year. The vote was meant to unify the English and French speaking regions together and under the new federation both French and English were to be the national languages of the country of equal status. As the present crisis shows, the linguistic status of English was greatly undermined in favour of a unitary state that disseminated the practice of spoken and written French in the majority of the state’s main institutions.
The anglophone population have held a deep seated resentment against the central government for allegedly marginalising the populace from the economic and political spheres of power. There was also a growing sentiment that the French-speaking dominated government was encroaching upon the anglophone region’s autonomy by requiring administrative and civil services to converse in French, alienating English speaking Cameroonians. This disconnect from the francophone community is so great that an emerging separatist movement is calling for the creation of a new state, the Ambazonia republic.
There is also definitive economic disparity between anglophone and francophone regions; the home region of President Paul Biya in the south receives a greater allocation of resources than the North West and South West regions combined. The limited amount of resources that are allocated to the English-speaking regions pay little attention to crucial infrastructure such as the rebuilding poor roads.
Demonstrations challenging the government’s treatment of the anglophone populace arose in November 2016, when anglophone lawyers opposed the nomination of magistrates who conducted their duties in French and did not speak English well enough to communicate with English-speaking lawyers. They also opposed the imposition of French in anglophone schools. The government’s refusal to address their complaints triggered the social unrest that eventually swept across the entire country.
In early October Amnesty International confirmed that 17 people have been killed in the ensuing violence, though a local human rights group put the death toll at at least 100. The government has been criticised for its heavy use of force; Amnesty also documented that at least 500 people have been detained in overcrowded detention facilities following mass arbitrary arrests in the country’s anglophone regions. laria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International’s Lake Chad researcher said that such measures were likely to exacerbate the already volatile situation: “This mass arrest of protestors, most of whom were acting peacefully, is not only a violation of human rights, but is also likely to be counter-productive”.
This statement reflects the growing resentment brewing in Cameroon as result of the security crackdown. In response to the demonstrations the government shut down internet services in the country’s English speaking regions, which according to a study by The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa undermined Cameroon’s economic growth and affected the delivery of critical services. The purposeful disruption of internet services by government has become an increasingly commonplace across sub-Saharan Africa – costing the region nearly $250 million since 2015.
The political situation has come at an inopportune time for President Biya as the nation goes to the national elections next year. The world’s longest serving head of state has been facing pressures to resign from his position having served as leader for over three decades. It is expected that Mr Biya will attempt to extend his presidential term but the current political climate may make that difficult. The government’s decision to use the hammer instead of engaging separatists through peaceful dialogue will be more likely to encourage local support for secession.
As the movement continues to galvanise in response to the government’s perceived oppression, Biya may be forced to find a viable solution that does not completely ostracise the anglophone groups that are vocalising their dissent. To stay united Cameroon will have to confront it’s colonial past and bring about a new solution that attempts to bridge the gaps that have polarised local communities. Whether President Biya is the person for the job remains to be seen.