The shadow of history: Cameroon's struggles for peaceful coexistence
Article by: Kenza Toche
One State, Different Language Groups
Cameroon is facing an internal struggle to achieve equality and freedom among different ethnic groups. Since 2017, over 1,000 military personnel and civilians have been killed, and over 1 million forced to flee their homes, in what is known as the ‘Anglophone Crisis’.
English or French? The language divide
Previously ruled by Germany, Cameroon was partitioned after Germany’s defeat in the First World War, with France being handed 80% of the country, whilst Britain was to rule the remaining 20%. It was during this colonial-era split that tensions began to rise between the French-speaking and English-speaking communities. Ultimately, Cameroon became independent in 1960. In 1972, a federation that had given both groups a certain level of democracy was essentially abolished, giving the Francophones power over both groups and territories. The situation exacerbated further after the presidential election of Paul Biya, who is today the longest-serving President in Africa and has ruled Cameroon for the past 38 years. Many Anglophones have long lamented the marginalisation of their language and culture because of policies that were put in place and which include:
1. Changing the country’s only official name to La Republique du Cameroun 2. Replacing English speaking teachers with Francophones ones 3. Ordering the Anglophone courts to take over the Francophone judicial system 4. Making government documents increasingly only available in French
The conflict escalated in 2017 when a non-violent demonstration against the marginalisation of English-speaking citizens deteriorated into violence after the military was accused of responding with arrests and torture.
The Anglophone Argument
Constitutional changes have caused many Anglophones to believe their judicial and educational government structures should be safeguarded. A recent study by Samuel Atechi and Julius Angwah found that the Anglophones are against the demise of the English language as it contains an element of Cameroonian culture, can facilitate economic development, and -of course- as they have better command of it than of French. For example, as English is the most spoken language in the world, it has become an economic necessity as a tool of paramount importance to tap into new opportunities both at home and abroad.
Collective rights and individual rights
For the past years, Cameroon’s forces, and armed English-speaking separatists, have been clashing in the country’s western region. Anglophones want their government to honour their language and political philosophies by ending assimilation. Many are calling for complete secession and their own sovereign state if these demands are not met. For many people in Anglophone Cameroon, their individual rights are inextricably tied to those of their group and are impossible to defend if the community to which they belong is not recognised, and the group's mutual rights not secured.
The Francophone Stance
Of course, there are always several sides to every story. Making up an overwhelming 83% of the 25 million population of Cameroon, it is also critical to recognise how the Francophones are interpreting the current situation. Many of the French-speaking residents are in favour of having their language better represented through policy changes regarding their educational and judicial constitutions. They believe that as they are a majority, it is sensible to deliver communication in their language. However, what many do not agree with is the state of Cameroon's socio-economic situation. The country still has a healthcare system that has been described as a catastrophe by opposition Francophone leaders, as well as an education system that only leads to unemployment. For example, the unemployment rate currently stands at 3.6%, much higher than neighbouring Chad (2.3%) and nearby Niger (0.7%). This is likely to only increase as the Anglo-Francophone conflict and therefore uncertainty for investors continues. Similarly, the poverty reduction rate is lagging behind its population growth rate, particularly in heavily populated Anglophone regions. Therefore, the recent outbreak of war is not the only area for concern in Cameroon, as many Francophones and Anglophones share the common grievance.
Looking to the future
Cameroon has proven to have a degree of instability due to adopting policies that do not fully represent what all of its people want. Both contesting parties have been charged with war crimes and expressed their refusal to communicate with one another. Anglophone separatists have lost faith in the government since it broke previous agreements, while President Biya has stated that his government is open to negotiations only if the sovereignty of the nation is not called into question. A stand-off has been created as no party is showing a willingness to back down.
The only way to achieve long-term stability is for the Cameroonian government and armed Anglophone parties to come to a peaceful agreement. To address the Anglophone Crisis, dialogue and diplomacy are imperative. Common ground is needed in which both parties can feel they are benefitting. But how long this may take, and how many lives will be lost in the meantime, is a cause for concern.
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