On 22 September, massive protests across Cameroon’s Anglophone regions brought an estimated 30-80,000 people onto the streets. These were far larger than those which sparked the crisis at the end of 2016. In clashes with security forces, three to six protesters reportedly died – the first deaths in the crisis since January.
The demonstration came in the context of an already-deteriorating situation marked by the use of homemade bombs by militants, the failure to open schools for a second year due to ongoing strikes, and mounting incidents of arson.
The violence followed incidents in Western capitals throughout the previous month. On 1 August, a meeting in Washington between a senior delegation from the Cameroonian government and the US-based diaspora descended into farce, interrupted by angry exchanges. In Belgium, the delegation’s meeting was interrupted by violent scuffles. In South Africa, activists who had been denied access broke into the meeting, which was then cut short. The same happened in Canada, where the flag of Ambazonia, the putative homeland of Anglophone secessionists, was raised inside the High Commission. And in the UK, the invite list was reduced to a select and vetted group.
The resurgence of violence demonstrates that the roots of this crisis run deep, as detailed in the recent report from International Crisis Group, and that the measures taken by the government so far have failed to address grievances. By jailing the legitimate representatives of the Anglophone movement back in January, the government may have even played into the hands of the more radical elements.
As 1 October approaches, the anniversary of reunification of Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon, some militants are preparing to declare independence. If serious measures are not taken and a willingness to start genuine dialogue not forthcoming, protests are sure to erupt again, and could be worse this time.
Cameroon’s Anglophones make up 20% of the population. Most live in former British territories in the North-West and South-West regions. Their anger was sparked off in 2016 by the government’s refusal to respond to Anglophone lawyers who were aggrieved at the nomination of magistrates who neither spoke English well enough nor were trained in British common law.
After demonstrations were met with sometimes brutal force, teachers and students joined the growing movement, adding similar concerns about a way of life being progressively taken over by Francophone practices. At least nine people have now died in subsequent violence, and militants have frequently used sabotage and arson.
After negotiations broke down in January of this year, the government imprisoned the most prominent Anglophone activists alongside many others caught up in protests. They also cut off the internet in Anglophone areas for three months, causing huge damage to the economy.
Anglophones feel marginalised and often humiliated in their own country. Many look back to the independence era. In February 1961, Anglophone Cameroonians, then under British rule, voted in a controversial UN-organised referendum to re-join francophone Cameroon. For the previous 40 years, they had been ruled by the British following the defeat of Germany, the first colonial power of all of Cameroon, in the First World War.
The constitutional conference which followed in July 1961 was hopelessly one-sided. A weak Anglophone negotiating team sparred with a Francophone side which had already gained independence and had strong support from its former colonial power, France. The result was a series of vague promises that Cameroon would be an “equal federation” in which the English language and customs derived from British rule would carry equal weight at the federal level.
The reality was anything but. First, in October 1961, only weeks after Anglophone Cameroon joined the federation, President Ahmadou Ahidjo (a Francophone who enjoyed very close ties to France) reorganised the country from two federal states to six regions. With the regions’ powers unclear, this move deliberately introduced confusion into local governance that has remained to this day.
Ahidjo then named federal inspectors in each region, who enjoyed more power than locally elected politicians. In 1965, he banned opposition parties, forcing all political aspirants, including Anglophones, into his orbit. At the same time, he chipped away at customs and institutions the Anglophones had inherited: their currency was discarded; membership of the British Commonwealth was not considered; imperial weights and measures were dispensed with. In 1971, through a national referendum, Ahidjo abolished federalism altogether, crushing the now fading Anglophone hope that they could enjoy a partnership of equals.
For three decades, Anglophones, like many of their Francophone compatriots, cowed by the brutal civil war that had raged in Francophone Cameroon in the 1960s, more or less accepted their lot. But in the 1990s, political freedoms blossomed again, and Anglophones were encouraged by the fact that the most important opposition party to emerge at the time, the Social Democratic Front, had one foot, if not two, firmly planted in the Anglophone region.
But as President Paul Biya, in power since 1984, slowly crushed hopes of pluralism and freedom, Anglophone frustrations grew again. Movements calling for a return to federalism, and even outright secession, proliferated. For many years these groups were largely based in the diaspora, hence the anger seen in Western capitals. But the movement of 2016 and 2017 has more domestic roots, based on widespread anger on the ground.
Decentralisation as the Start of a Sustainable Solution
After repressing the movement at the start of the year, the government has made some concessions, most notably restoring the internet in April and allowing the release of some (but not all) detained activists in August. But Yaoundé continues to treat the Anglophone movement as subversive and illegitimate. Militants were imprisoned in January for publicly discussing federalism, a discussion which should be perfectly allowable. The government refuses to acknowledge widespread feelings of marginalisation and humiliation.
To reach a sustainable solution, especially important with national elections looming next autumn, the government must start by acknowledging the well-founded grievances of Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. For trust to be re-built and maintained, concrete actions need to be taken.
Decentralisation is the most promising and is set out in the new constitution of 1996 and in laws of 2004. Since then, mayors and local councils have been elected, and the law stipulates that they should have their own budget and be responsible for local public services. But even these vague legal texts – for example the percentage of locally raised taxes to be devolved to local government is not specified – are not respected in practice.
Regional councils, led by elected regional presidents, are foreseen in the constitution, but have not been created 21 years on. Shortly after creating local councils, the government created its own delegates nominated by the president and accountable only to him. In day to day matters, the delegate has far more power than their elected counterparts, even those from the ruling party.
The problem of partial decentralisation is a frustration in all parts of the country. Improving it countrywide would have the distinct advantage of appealing to the Anglophones without seeming to give them special treatment. Regional councils should be created, or else a national debate started on whether they are needed. Local councils should have the powers over public services foreseen in the law and autonomy over their budgets.
Improved decentralisation would, if handled properly, reassure Anglophones that they have control over their own legal and educational system, rather than feeling that any gain they make is subject to the whims of central government.
Of course administrators in Yaoundé, and President Biya himself, who has created one of the world’s most centralised decision-making machineries, would lose some of their discretion. But the up side would be significant: a reinvigorated sense of national purpose and cohesiveness and less risk of renewed violence in Anglophone areas.
Richard Moncrieff, Project Director, Central Africa.
Originally published in African Arguments