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May 3, 2017 | 19:04 GMT

8 mins read

Cameroon's Fighting Words Are in English

French President Francois Hollande meets Cameroonian President Paul Biya at the Elysee Palace in January 2013. France's colonial legacy in Africa shapes many of today's conflicts.
Forecast Highlights

  • Cameroon's Anglophone crisis is the result of its particular colonial history and of its enduring struggle to manage diversity.
  • France's geostrategic and economic interests after Cameroonian independence reinforced the African country's "Frenchification" and its emphasis on centralization.
  • This extreme centralization of power will fuel the conflict with Cameroon's Anglophone regions.

Cameroon's English-speaking community, about 20 percent of the population, is at odds with the majority of Cameroonians who speak French, the country's official language. The dispute is political: Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, shut off internet to the country's English-speaking regions for 93 days before restoring it April 20. Though the resumption of internet service could be viewed as a step forward, the Anglophone crisis, as the conflict has become known, underscores inherent divisions in Cameroon — ones that can't be resolved with the flick of a switch.

Cameroon's history is particular: It became a German colony in 1885 with the signing of the Berlin Treaty, which carved Africa into zones of influence for European powers. The territory on the Western coast facing the Gulf of Guinea and that stretched up into modern-day Chad and the Central African Republic became known as "Kamerun" and was initially subject to German influence. But in 1919, following Germany's defeat in World War I, the region was handed over to British and French authorities. The regions known as the Southern Cameroons and the Northern Cameroons were given to London; the rest went to Paris. The British, who controlled neighboring Nigeria, and the French, who already controlled the majority of what would eventually become Cameroon, were expanding their reach throughout Central Africa.

The Evolving Borders of Cameroon
German influence — language, culture and legal norms — were erased in the new "Cameroons" under British mandate. (German architecture, however, is still evident.) The English language and British cultural and legal norms took root just as French culture spread throughout the much larger territory it controlled.

The Independence Fight

When a wave of independence movements hit sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, the colonial projects and geostrategic aims of the British and French diverged greatly. Great Britain was relatively amenable to African independence movements, for example acceding to Ghana's independence in 1957. France, in contrast, considered continued control of its African colonial possessions as crucial to its status as a "great power."

Cameroon was vital to maintaining France's larger African empire for several reasons. First, French colonists in the territory owned the resource-rich land and had control of the production of numerous profitable resources including coffee, bananas, palm oil, aluminum and lumber. More critically, Cameroon's position — and namely the Port of Douala — had become vital to France's control and supply of the northern parts of France's Central African territory (including modern-day Chad and the Central African Republic), which since World War II had been strategically critical for protecting France's northern holdings.

France's ambition to hold onto Cameroon clashed violently with growing nationalist sentiment in the territory. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, France waged a brutal and mostly clandestine war against these independence-minded groups, most notably the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC). The fight was similar to the one waged more openly in Algeria. Great Britain, on the other hand, began to detach from its colonies in the hopes of fostering good relations with the burgeoning states. Yet even as France tried desperately to cling to its empire, events elsewhere — most notably the vote of Guinea-Conakry for full independence — effectively killed France's ambitions to keep control of its colonies, forcing it to eventually grant independence to many of its territorial holdings. However, as France lost its absolute authority, it crafted an alternate system of control that effectively tempered the independence of these countries. In the case of Cameroon, as elsewhere, France empowered malleable local elites to continue with favorable policies and to crack down on dissent in exchange for security and other forms of support.

Consequently, the Republic of Cameroon — which comprised France's Cameroon mandate — was born in 1960, led by Ahmadou Ahidjo, a Muslim and northern politician who in Paris' esteem was the "least worst option." Right away, the new republic was forced to focus on quelling nationalist forces that were still pushing to cut all ties with the colonialists. This gave birth to a robust internal security structure to clamp down on dissent.

A year later, Britain gave Northern Cameroons and Southern Cameroons the choice of joining either the newly independent Nigeria or Cameroon. No option for outright independence was given, a violation of the U.N. mandate statute and a choice that that many in the regions believed should have been offered. The desire for an independence option, however, clashed with Great Britain's postcolonial state-building policy, which stressed the need for Cameroon's British territories to join the independent Federation of Nigeria to strengthen it.

The results of the 1961 plebiscite did not conform to Great Britain's aims: While the Northern Cameroons voted to join Nigeria, the Southern Cameroons decided to join the new Republic of Cameroon. While surprising that an Anglophone territory would willingly join a much larger Francophone one, the result was due to two reasons. First, Ahidjo made attractive promises of regional autonomy within Cameroon. Second, residents feared that their region would be dominated by others if they were to join Nigeria. Indeed, this proved a massive issue for Nigeria for decades to come as ethnic groups and regions battled it out for domination of the state, sparking coups and countercoups. Thus, in 1961 the Republic of Cameroon transformed into the Federal Republic of Cameroon to denote the joining of Southern Cameroons and a devolution of power to the regions.

Unfulfilled Promises

Ahidjo's promises for greater autonomy for the regions within Cameroon went largely unfulfilled. In fact, with French support, Ahidjo became increasingly authoritarian, backed by an invasive security apparatus determined to eliminate political opposition. (In 1966, all parties other than the president's were banned.) In 1972, the president scrapped the Federal Republic of Cameroon, replacing it with a united state called the United Republic of Cameroon, causing a stir in Anglophone Cameroon that was eventually suppressed. Meanwhile, British engagement with its former mandate all but dried up, and Great Britain chose to instead focus its attention and resources on nurturing its relations with Nigeria and its other former possessions rather than continue to engage with an entity that had essentially chosen to join France's African sphere of influence

In 1982, Ahidjo stepped down as president for health reasons, empowering his vice president, Paul Biya, a Christian from the South, who remains in power. The power transfer quickly sparked tension as Biya sought to redirect power and patronage from Ahidjo's supporters in the north to his own, precipitating a 1984 coup attempt that failed. Though there was temporary hope that Biya would redress the grievances that stemmed from his predecessor's authoritarian era, the slow liberalization of the government in Yaounde — which included a period of "controlled multipartyism" — has changed little.

Yaounde's struggle to manage Cameroon's various divisions — and its emphasis on centralization and control — has inevitably caused resentment within its Anglophone regions, in which British culture is still dominant. Anglophone Cameroon has fought to maintain certain legal and educational practices and has pushed against Yaounde's centralization and "Frenchification."

In October 2016, Anglophone lawyers, tired of dealing with Francophone judges sent by Yaounde who rarely understood English or Common Law, went on strike. A month later, Anglophone teachers joined the strike, citing concerns of a "Frenchification of the Anglo-Saxon education system." From then on, a more general strike in the Anglophone regions broke out, and calls for secession increased. At this point, Yaounde went from being mostly indifferent to the strike to being openly hostile, fearful as it was of spreading secessionist sentiment. Soon, it arrested dozens of supposed Anglophone leaders and shut down the internet in the region to suppress communication and halt the organization of protests.

After more than three months offline, causing local economic losses of more than $3 million, internet was restored following international pressure on the Biya administration. Yet this was only a small step forward, and the conflict endures. Schools in Anglophone Cameroon have been shuttered for more than 7 months. For Yaounde to fully resolve the Anglophone crisis, it will need to negotiate in good faith with Anglophone leaders, release the ones who are in custody and consider their grievances.

There is the possibility that the Anglophone region lacks the power to be able to pressure the government into giving it sufficient concessions to appease it. However, the recent strikes and rioting did jolt the government into action, and it may be willing to cut a deal to end the unrest. Yet one key element of this will almost certainly be the increased autonomy that the populations of the Anglophone regions generally demand. This runs contrary to the political evolution of Cameroon, which has struggled to decentralize authority. In addition, Biya, who is 84, has increasingly spent an increasing amount of time abroad in the past year, likely as a result of health complications. It is possible that Yaounde could become even more inwardly focused in the months or years ahead should the conversation suddenly turn to presidential succession, leaving the Anglophone crisis on the back burner and inevitably inviting another round of strikes, unrest and secessionist demands.

The Anglophone crisis is the result of Cameroon's distinct colonial heritage and its struggle to manage its inherent diversity. However, overcoming these inherent challenges is paramount if Cameroon hopes to foster a more stable political system. In addition, the manner in which the crisis is settled may influence the many other potential African secessionist movements across the continent.


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