The Roots of Violence Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis

 As Anglophones became increasingly associated with the opposition, the discrimination they faced as a linguistic minority intensified over the ensuing decades.

On 9 February, Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982, convened another round of legislative and municipal elections that his ruling party will be sure to dominate. However, on 26 February, Cameroon’s constitutional council ordered a rerun of the 9 February elections in a majority of the country’s Anglophone regions, due to allegations of irregularities and fraud by President Biya’s ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) party.

Meanwhile, ongoing violence in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions (the Northwest and Southwest regions) rages on as the Biya regime fails to address the needs of its most prominent linguistic minority. Because of the violence, voter turnout in the most recent presidential election (held in 2018) was historically low at 5.4 per cent and 15.9 per cent in the northwest and southwest regions, respectively. When the final results of the 2020 elections are announced in the coming weeks, similar participation rates will be expected.

But it is important to note that voter turnout in the Anglophone regions—as well as most of the rest of the country—has always been low, a feature of an autocratic system where elections hold no hope for a change in political power. It is precisely this lack of democratic freedom or representation that is at the heart of the so-called Anglophone Crisis, which has reached a boiling point in Cameroon today. The crisis is unlikely to be resolved until Cameroon undergoes a more fundamental process of structural change to its political and social systems.

Background to the Crisis

The spark for the current violence in the Anglophone regions dates back to 6 October 2016, when Anglophone lawyers and teachers went on strike in protest of the ‘francophonization’ of their professions. However, the roots of the crisis date back to the colonial period, when German Kamerun was split between the British and the French in 1916. During World War I, France invaded Cameroon from her colonies in the East (Afrique équatoriale française or AEF), while Britain invaded from Nigeria in the West. The two powers largely kept for themselves the territory they had captured. The British Cameroons were incorporated into Nigeria while French Cameroun was administered as a stand-alone French colony.

Over the course of the colonial period, the British and French Cameroonian territories drifted farther and farther apart in terms of formal institutions as well as cultural identity. The British implemented their educational and legal systems while the French implemented theirs. Slowly, the inhabitants of the British territory began to learn English as their brethren just across the border were taught French. By 1960, when Cameroon won independence from France, the two colonies had completely different institutions of governance as well as cultural reference points.

At independence in 1961, the British Cameroons were presented with the opportunity to vote on a referendum. The territories had two options: remain a part of Nigeria or reunify with French Cameroun. At the time, the British Southern Cameroons felt marginalized from Nigeria, seen as a relative backwater of the colony and receiving little investment from the central government. Thus, the Southern British Cameroons voted overwhelming (70.5 per cent) to reunify with French Cameroun. Despite the formal agreement that Cameroon would be a federation between the former British and French territories, it was immediately clear that the two Cameroons were not entering an equal partnership. Geographically, French Cameroun was ten times larger than British Southern Cameroon. Likewise, it had four times the population and at the time was considered much more economically and socially developed.

Indeed, as the first President of Cameroon, Ahamadou Ahidjo (a Francophone) began to consolidate power in the executive branch, he adopted a new constitution which abandoned the federation between the Anglophone and Francophone regions, resulting in a unitary state. This marked the first major abrogation of Anglophone rights under the Cameroonian regime. In 1982, Paul Biya succeeded Ahidjo as the second President of Cameroon, and in 1990, Cameroonian voices began to call for the end of single-party rule and the establishment of multi-party elections. Although opposition parties formed across the country, the Anglophone community was at the forefront of protest and opposition during this era. The largest electoral threat came from the Social Democratic Front, a largely Anglophone party led by John Fru Ndi, an Anglophone populist from the capital of the Northwest region. Under immense pressure, presidential elections were held on 11 October 1992. President Biya won the election on a very narrow plurality, with 39.98 per cent of the vote to John Fru Ndi’s 35.97 per cent. International electoral observers contended that due to electoral fraud, it is possible Biya lost the election to Fru Ndi altogether. In the eyes of Anglophones, this marked the second major abrogation of Anglophone rights under the Cameroonian regime.

Since these momentous elections, Biya has mercilessly coopted and repressed his opposition, especially in the Anglophone regions. As Anglophones became increasingly associated with the opposition, the discrimination they faced as a linguistic minority intensified over the ensuing decades. Although both French and English are official languages of Cameroon, relatively few Cameroonians speak both. On the most basic level, because both the administrative (Yaoundé) and economic (Douala) capitals are in Francophone regions, and 80 per cent of Cameroonians are from the Francophone regions, Anglophones are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to political power. Anglophones are also at a disadvantage when it comes to obtaining formal jobs, especially in the public sector. It is common to hear stories of Anglophones going to Yaoundé to collect official documents—for example, to get a birth certificate or passport—and being turned away or ridiculed if they cannot speak French. Anglophones also complain that the central government underinvests in infrastructure for the Northwest and Southwest regions, although national budgets reveal that in comparison to the Anglophone regions, the Northern regions receive far lest investment in infrastructure spending overall.

Further, Anglophones have long complained of formal and informal ‘Francophonization’ of Anglophone culture and institutions. To this day, the Anglophone regions operate using the British educational and legal systems while the Francophone regions use the French systems; Anglophones argue that there is a concerted effort to undermine these British systems. This formal and informal discrimination Anglophones face in their day-to-day lives represents, in their eyes, the third major abrogation of their political rights and provided the stimulus for the current crisis.

The Anglophone Crisis: From Protest to Rebellion

On 6 October 2016, Anglophone lawyers went on strike, specifically to protest this ‘Francophonization’ of their profession. They complained that Francophone lawyers and judges were continuously appointed by the central government to their courts, untrained in common law practices and unable to understand English-language court documents. In November, teachers joined the strike and organized protests, making similar complaints about Francophone teachers being posted to schools in the Anglophone regions without being able to understand English. During this time, schools across the Anglophone regions shut down in support of the strike.

The government reacted overzealously. Within two weeks, more than 100 protestors had been arrested and six killed. The government offered no concessions or opportunity for dialogue. Almost three months later, with protests mounting, President Biya called for dialogue, and a meeting was scheduled in January. However, a few days later, two protest leaders, Agbor Balla and Fontem Neba, were arrested. Their arrests provoked more protests, including a new ‘ghost towns’ campaign, where whole cities and towns shut down every Monday in protest. In response, the government completely blocked the internet in the Anglophone regions for three months.

In September 2017, with schools still closed and many of the original political prisoners still in jail, the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC) formally launched separatist military operations in the Anglophone regions against the central government. The Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) also began burning down schools that were not compliant with the general strike. In retaliation, police began firing on protesters. On 1 October—unification day—the AGC declared independence, and security forces moved in full force into the Anglophone regions.

From October 2017 until now, violence in the Anglophone regions has been chaotic and persistent. The so-called ‘Amba boys’, separatist militants organized into around half a dozen different uncoordinated militias, are poorly trained and equipped, oftentimes attacking security forces with machetes and spears. As a result, security forces have been responding indiscriminately, targeting young men especially. In addition to targeting police, gendarmes and soldiers, the Amba boys have also been burning down schools, as well as kidnapping and occasionally killing school children and teachers. The Rapid Intervention Battalion—an elite Cameroonian military force specially trained by the US to combat Boko Haram, has been burning down villages accused of supporting separatists, killing hundreds of civilians. Movement between cities and regions has been seriously curtailed by curfews and travel bans. The military has been acting with near impunity; operating in an autocratic state with a weak rule of law and with the complete backing of the President, they have little reason and few incentives to respect human rights or legal processes. As of today, more than 3,000 people have died in the conflict, and 700,000 have been displaced.

Recent Efforts at Reconciliation

In the past year, the Cameroonian government has made some efforts towards reconciliation. Most importantly, a National Dialogue was organized between 30 September and 4 October, 2019. Although President Biya called for the dialogue between government and opposition leaders, he himself was not present at the meeting and separatists refused to participate given security fears. Most of the major political and NGO groups were present at the meeting, but independence for the Anglophone regions—and even a return to federalism—were off the table for negotiation.

Overall, the National Dialogue adopted the government’s official stance as its outcome. The government accepted a number of cosmetic changes that failed to address the Anglophones’ specific demands. Core to this approach is ‘decentralization,’ in which municipal leaders will be given more power and autonomy. On the day of the legislative and municipal elections earlier this month, President Biya also mentioned that ‘regional elections’ would also be held but as of yet, it is unclear what this will mean. In addition, the National Assembly adopted laws giving the Anglophone regions a ‘special status’ as well as a bilingualism law, reasserting French and English as equal languages under the law.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, in an autocratic state with sham elections and the arbitrary enforcement of law and order, passing more laws means very little. The Biya regime is masterful at cosmetic changes that appear democratic in nature but do nothing to devolve power out of the hands of the President. Although linguistic and cultural identity are important to understanding the current Anglophone crisis in Cameroon, at its heart, the crisis is a symptom of the autocratic state. In the last Afrobarometer poll held before the outbreak of the current crisis (2015), less than five percent of Anglophones said they did not identify at all as Cameroonian, indicating that the crisis was not borne out of a primordial hatred between Anglophones and Francophones. Instead, the crisis is about the inability of the state to provide true political representation to its citizens.

The state cannot credibly commit to protecting Anglophones’ rights as a linguistic and cultural minority because it cannot credibly commit to protecting political rights in general. Cameroonian jails are currently packed past capacity with political prisoners. Reports of torture and rape within the prisons are common. Fraudulent elections are held irregularly, and the president’s ruling party wins each one by laughable margins. Presidential term limits were abolished in 2008 and now a majority of Cameroonians have only ever known one president in their lifetime.

It is unclear—though unlikely—whether the Cameroonian government will be able to quell the current violence. Either way, the underlying causes of the conflict will not be dealt with until there is a fundamental change in government. Some speculate that President Biya will select a successor before the next presidential elections, slated for 2025. But if there are any surprises in the meantime, a transition may come sooner than expected. A post-Biya political opening might provide a way for Anglophones to claim their long-awaited autonomy

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