English-speakers mobilize to end their marginalization in Cameroon

    General strikes and boycotts of schools and courts have paralyzed parts of Cameroon for months as English-speakers struggle for self-determination.
    Woman carries the flag of Southern Cameroons at a protest in Brussels in March.
    Woman carries the flag of Southern Cameroons at a protest in Brussels in March. (Twitter/@myarkwithin)

    A vibrant mass movement in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon has rocked the country since October 2016, despite receiving little international media attention. Citizens from these regions have been mobilizing against their marginalization by the Francophone-dominated government. They complain about chronic under-representation in all issues of national life, including political appointments and professional training. They argue that since their reunification over 55 years ago, they have been treated as second-class citizens. Their vibrant economic and political institutions have been completely erased, and their education and judicial systems have being undermined and degraded.

    Anglophone Cameroonians feel cheated in the reunification process with French-speaking Cameroon, having twice traded their autonomous status — in 1961 and 1972 — for two administrative regions. Their grievances have been broadly referred to as “The Anglophone problem” — a failure by Cameroon’s government to effectively reconcile the influence and traditions introduced by Britain and France, each of which administered parts of the country following World War I.

    The current struggle grew out of an industrial strike organized by the Cameroon Teachers Trade Union and lawyers in the Anglophone regions, which has shut down the schools and courts since late last year. They took action to decry declining standards in the education and judicial systems in the English-speaking parts of the country. They were also angry about the increasing number of French-speaking professionals being posted to work in schools and courts in these regions, as they do not have a sufficient mastery of the system or English to effectively carry out their duties. The teachers and the lawyers demanded measures to strengthen and safeguard the integrity of their education and judicial systems, including a redeployment of purely French-speaking professionals working in courts and schools in the Anglophone regions.

    The strike intensified over the last three months of 2016 due to the slow response of the government to adequately address their demands. Anglophone lawyers were reportedly brutalized and humiliated in public by security forces, and their wigs and gowns confiscated. University students who showed solidarity with the lawyers and teachers were reported to have been subjected to torture, rape and other abusive treatment that resulted in some deaths.

    Common law lawyers march in Bamanda on November 8, 2016.
    Common law lawyers stage a peaceful march in Bamanda on November 8, 2016. (Facebook/Maybelle Boma)

    This aggravated the situation and provided pro-Anglophone activists and advocacy groups with the opportunity to highlight the grievances of the teachers and lawyers within the wider context of the problem of Anglophone marginalization in Cameroon. Some of them have been demanding a return to a federal system of government, which was abandoned in 1972, or a restoration of the state of Southern Cameroons to what it was before 1961, as the only ways to address the Anglophone problem.

    Deep roots

    The current crisis in Cameroon is not new. It dates back to the introduction of a one-party system of politics in the Federal Republic of Cameroon by President Amadou Ahidjo in 1966, and the subsequent suppression of the vibrant multi-party politics practiced in the English-speaking part of Cameroon. This was followed by constitutional reforms in 1972 that established the unitary state — in breach of the 1961 reunification agreement that pledged to preserve the federal structures of the state. This generated a general feeling of discontent and frustration among the people and led to underground mobilization through the circulation of fliers and tracts — purportedly from Anglophone Cameroonians living abroad — denouncing their subjugation. President Ahidjo responded by setting up a commission in 1979 to look into the problem, but no sustainable solution was put in place.

    The problem was aggravated by President Paul Biya who succeeded Ahidjo in November 1982. He signed a presidential decree in 1984 reverting the official name of the country to the Republic of Cameroon. This reflected the name of French-speaking parts of Cameroon before reunification. Thereafter, the Anglophone community has complained of continued erosion of their identity and the disappearance of their economic and political institutions and system of administration. This has included the complete alienation of Anglophones from top political appointments and other high-ranking public offices in the country. The ways that they organized society when they were independent have completely disappeared. They see this as a deliberate arrangement by the Francophone-dominated administration to annex and subjugate the English-speaking citizens of the country.

    The lack of credible action by the government of Cameroon to address the grievances of the Anglophones led to intense protests in the 1990s. Activists organized “ghost towns,” which rendered major cities completely inactive, as a result of general strikes orchestrated to show defiance and discontent. The All Anglophones Conferences provided a platform for national dialogue on the issue when tensions around the plight of English-speakers reached a boiling point. Out of that gathering several notable pro-Anglophone advocacy groups were born — including the Southern Cameroon National Council, the Southern Cameroons People Organisation and the Southern Cameroons Youth League. In 1994, Southern Cameroonians — led by former Prime Minister John Ngu Foncha — took a delegation to the United Nations to seek support for their quest for autonomy, but these efforts were not successful.

    The movement today

    The nonviolent strategies employed by pro-Anglophone movements today have remained fairly consistent over the decades. Much like in the 1970s and ’80s, the circulation of fliers to mobilize the public is common in the current uprising. As was the case in the 1990s, massive protest marches have remained a popular tactic. This time around, however, the growing Southern Cameroon diaspora has taken the movement global by protesting at diplomatic missions and in the streets. There have also been regular acts of non-cooperation with the state — especially boycotts of government-organized events, such as the Mount Cameroon Race of Hope, the 2017 University Games and Labor Day activities, which used to be widely attended.

    Streets void of usual traffic on a typical "ghost town" day in Buea, one of the chief towns in Anglophone Cameroon.
    Streets void of usual traffic on a typical “ghost town” day in Buea, one of the chief towns in Anglophone Cameroon. (Cameroon Daily Journal)

    The “ghost town” phenomenon has also re-emerged as a key tactic in the ongoing nonviolent struggle. This has been observed in all major Anglophone towns and shows how widespread the dissatisfaction is with the government. Students have also been pushed to boycott schools. This has literally paralyzed the 2016-2017 academic year in Anglophone Cameroon. While many have argued that this tactic sacrifices the future of young people to achieve political goals, some pro-Anglophone activists and their supporters consider it a necessary measure to overhaul what they argue is a failing Anglophone education system.

    Much like the pro-Anglophone movement in the 1990s, there is no clear leader of the current movement. Several different groups are championing the Anglophone cause, some of which were born in the heart of the current uprising. One of the key groups is the recently-outlawed Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, which is led by Agbor Balla and Neba Fontem. They are currently under detention and facing trial on various charges, including what many in Anglophone Cameroon consider drummed up accusations of terrorism against the state. On its website, however, the consortium is clear about its nonviolent stance in the pursuit of constructive dialogue on the Anglophone problem.

    Other prominent advocacy groups include the U.S.-based Movement for the Restoration of the State of Southern Cameroon, and Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front, or SCACUF, a union of several pro-Anglophone movements based in the diaspora. These groups organize civil disobedience and have different philosophies, strategies and objectives — either calling for a return to a federal system of government or for secession — but they are united in their desire to find a sustainable solution to the crisis.

    The availability of the internet, mobile phones and other multimedia tools has given the struggle a new lease on life. Both the pro-Anglophone movement and the government are using these tools to their advantage. They have facilitated the flow of information and citizen mobilization and engagement, both at home and abroad. These tools have been instrumental in building a massive show of solidarity around the struggle. For instance, activists now find it easier to organize successful crowd-funding campaigns online. Websites and blogs have also become common. SCACUF recently announced plans to establish a satellite television service. To activists, these are important avenues for informing, educating and motivating ordinary people to continue the struggle.

    Signs of progress

    To avoid harming its reputation, the government of Cameroon has been cautious in considering the repressive strategies it used in the 1990s. This is in response to the availability of the internet, which facilitates the free circulation of information about acts of violence that have been committed by both the government and some protesters. To thwart the influence of this technology, the internet was shut down on January 17 in the Anglophone regions and not turned on for more than three months.

    The internet blackout stymied the free flow of real-time information between activists and the people. This slowed down the rate of activities geared at advancing the struggle. Activists resorted to the use of alternative measures, such as mobile phone texting and “home calling” campaigns — strategies in which the diaspora and other citizens outside of the Anglophone regions called family and community members back home to circulate information and mobilize action. People also regularly traveled to neighboring regions to access the internet, which generated the term “internet refugeeism.” On April 20, however, the internet connection was switched on after a rigorous widespread international campaign by pro-Anglophone activists and advocacy groups.

    There have also been several failed attempts by the government to fully resume the school year in the Anglophone regions. Controversial as it is, activists see this as a measure of their ability to thwart the government’s influence and put its legitimacy over the English-speaking regions into question. It is worth noting here that the Anglophone struggle is not a problem between the Anglophones and the Francophones. Instead, it pits the Anglophones against a Francophone-dominated government that is considered to be insensitive to the plight of Anglophone Cameroonians. To some Francophones, the Anglophone struggle provides a platform for greater national dialogue on issues affecting all Cameroonians.

    Contrary to the 1990s, when the government dismissed the Anglophone problem, in recent speeches President Paul Biya has indirectly admitted that some of the grievances are legitimate and that the state is open to dialogue, as long as it does not question the form of the state of Cameroon or lead to secession. A national commission on bilingualism and multiculturalism with a focus on how to foster greater national integration in the country has been created. Many education and judicial reforms have been announced. They include the creation of a common law department at the National School of Administration and Magistracy and the University of Buea to cater to the needs of the Anglophone common law system.

    Challenges going forward

    In spite of these signs of progress, it is clear — from the persistence of ghost towns, the boycott of schools and courts and attitudes expressed through social media — that the population of Southern Cameroonians remain defiant and still expects more from the government, including either a return to a federal system or outright secession from the union with French-speaking Cameroon.

    The struggle has gained some international attention thanks to the role of the diaspora and the availability of the internet. This has brought greater pressure to bear on the state to reopen another round of talks with the strike leaders. On April 12, the United Nations made its first public statement about the crisis in Cameroon. After consultations with government officials, heads of some diplomatic missions to Cameroon and some of the imprisoned leaders of the struggle, the special representative of the U.N. Secretary General, François Lonseny Fall, called on the government to reinstate the internet and open up avenues of constructive dialogue to find sustainable solutions to the ongoing crises. However, major bilateral development partners — such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — have been largely silent in the face of the crisis. This is frustrating to pro-Anglophone advocacy groups, who believe that their intervention would serve as a strong morale booster and will facilitate the process of resolving the crisis in a way deemed more acceptable to the wishes and aspirations of many English-speaking Cameroonians.

    At the moment, some Anglophone activists have argued that members of parliament, senators and government ministers from the Anglophone parts of Cameroon should desert their positions, as the parliamentarian Wirba Joseph has done. It is not apparent, however, that they will follow this call. So far, they have remained strongly loyal to the government, which does not necessarily indicate support for the continued marginalization of the Anglophones.

    The current struggle — against a government that is largely aging — is supported by the youth of the Southern Cameroons. They aspire to hold the reins of power and to steer the affairs of Cameroon in more efficient, democratic and transparent ways. One way that they can continue building momentum is to step up advocacy with the international and diplomatic community to put pressure on the government to open up a more genuine round of talks for sustainable solutions to the current crises. However, the lack of unity among the various factions approaching this cause makes it difficult for the government to know who to approach for dialogue. Their success will depend on more effective organizational strategies and collaboration between the different pro-Anglophone advocacy groups, as well as the continued support of the people of Southern Cameroons. The Anglophones will have to form one strong united front and not waver in their persistence and commitment to nonviolence, which has presented a serious challenge to the repressive strategies the government of Cameroon has used over the years.

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