When Elie Smith was growing up in Cameroon’s English-speaking west, he was taught in school that he came from a proudly bilingual country – a British colony and a French colony stitched together in the 1960s to form a new and united nation.
So it came as a shock when he arrived in Douala, the country’s largest city, to take his national high school entrance exam, and found that all the test questions were in French – with no translation. He spoke French, but for his many classmates who didn’t, the exam was a humiliation.
“You just had to guess at what was being said and try your best to answer what you hoped the question was,” remembers Mr. Smith, who now works as a journalist and activist for the rights of Anglophone Cameroonians. But from then on, he says, he saw the idea of a united, bilingual nation as a myth. “There is a reason why Anglophones consider themselves second-class citizens here,” he says.
For decades, Cameroon’s dizzying diversity has been a point of intense pride for the small West African country. “All Africa in one country,” its English-speaking residents boast of the country’s 240-some ethnic groups. “L’Afrique en miniature,” French speakers say, pointing to the country’s mountains and beaches, its deserts and its rainforests.
But since late 2016, that miniature Africa has also played host to a miniature, language-fueled version of an often-violent conflict that has long tested the continent as a whole – over how to bridge gaps of culture and geography in countries mashed together by European colonial powers decades or centuries ago.
In Cameroon, like many countries around it, at the heart of those conflicts is a debate about political power – who has it, who wants it, who deserves it. For decades, many countries in the region have been held together precariously by strongmen who kept the lid on dissent and minority rights. But increasingly, from the Gambia to Togo to Gabon, a new generation of activists are demanding more democratic systems, aiming to better integrate minority groups pushed to the periphery.
“The common thread here is regime fatigue,” says Fonteh Akum, a senior researcher on peace and security in West Africa at the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think tank. “There’s a move across the region to interrogate power and demonstrate in favor of a new version of the state where citizens’ participation is allowed and encouraged.”
Unraveling at the seams
If every happy African democracy is in many ways alike – as Tolstoy would put it – every unhappy autocracy is unhappy in its own way. And in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions, much of that unhappiness is drawn from the kind of experience Smith had as a teenager – a persistent, nagging feeling that the country’s English-speaking minority weren’t the equals of their Francophone countrymen.
That feeling goes back a long way.
What is today Cameroon was, just over a century ago, Germany’s Kamerun. When the Germans lost their African colonies after World War I, the British and French chopped up the territory between them. Four decades later, at independence, the two halves were messily patched back together – and members of the French-speaking majority quickly took the political reins. Although the government is ostensibly bilingual, language-related tensions have stalked the country ever since.
The Anglais-Francais divide cracked open most recently in the fall of 2016, when lawyers and teachers in the Anglophone regions began protesting the appointment of French speakers in their regions’ schools and courts. By the end of the year, police response to the protests had turned violent – prompting a declaration of secession this October by an entity calling itself Ambazonia, a heavy-handed government crackdown against the demonstrators, and soon, a flood of refugees into neighboring Nigeria.
Last week, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, announced that at least 10,000 English-speaking Cameroonians had fled across the border. Earlier this month, they warned that the number could climb above 40,000. Several prominent Anglophone activists, meanwhile, have been arrested in recent weeks – including ten currently being held by Nigerian police and Cameroonian-American poet Patrice Nganang, who was detained briefly in December for allegedly threatening the president – and more than two dozen people have died in protests since the beginning of 2017. Several Cameroonian security forces have also been killed by secessionists. The national government, meanwhile, has had the internet in the region almost completely shut off for the last four months.
Fight for recognition
But if language set off this conflict, experts and activists say it ultimately shares a common root with many other African civil conflicts – marginalized minorities trying to fight their way back into political life, after years or decades of alleged second-class status. Cameroon, which is about one-fifth Anglophone, has never had an English-speaking president, minister of finance, or minister of defense. (Of 35 ministers in the current government, one is an Anglophone). And the marginalization of Anglophone regions goes beyond language and culture, residents say, pointing to disparities in public spending between the country’s largely French-speaking East and English-speaking West.
President Paul Biya, born in what was then French Cameroons, has been in power since 1982 – which, after former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s ouster in December 2017, makes Mr. Biya the continent’s second-longest-lasting dictator. In a New Year’s speech last year, the president blamed loss of life on “extremist rioters.”
“Do I need to repeat this?” he asked. “Cameroon is one and indivisible! It shall so remain.”
But Anglophones’ sense of being outsiders has been compounded by the government’s brutal crackdown on activists, says Ilaria Allegrozzi, a researcher with Amnesty International who studies Cameroon. At least 17 people reportedly died in a single day during protests in October, following Ambazonia’s declaration of independence, and more than 500 were arrested.
“If there’s such a heavy-handed response to crisis that could otherwise be addressed through dialogues, through development, through education – that’s just a game that the government will ultimately lose,” she says. “It will only increase the disillusionment of communities and push people to join armed groups [fighting for Anglophone independence].”
For many young Cameroonians, however, the battle is less for independence than recognition, says Smith.
“This conflict is cyclical, but this time there’s been a new element injected into it, which is that we have a president who’s been in power for more than 30 years,” he says. “There’s a feeling that maybe if new leadership comes up, they will be more open to looking at the grievances of Anglophone Cameroonians.”
“I believe that.”