Since November last year, English-speaking regions in Cameroon have been calling for total independence or, at the very least, a return to the 1961-72 federal system.
People are protesting at their marginalization at the hands of the predominantly French-speaking government. President Paul Biya’s administration has, however, declared these demands and protests to be acts of subversion punishable by death.
Schools have remained closed in the Northwest and Southwest regions since mid-November 2016, and businesses are closed at least once a week in support of the sit-in protests organized by the Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (ACSC).
Attempts by the government to get schools to resume has dismally failed as people continue to insist on the unconditional release of arrested dissidents and the return of the Internet, as well as the demilitarization of the regions.
In a move to neutralize industrial action and prevent it spreading to other parts of the country, the government in January arrested the leaders of the ACSC and cut off the Internet in the regions.
The blocking of the Internet connection took place as protests turned violent and images of killings and military brutality began circulating widely on social media. At least five people were killed in Bamenda, the largest city in the Anglophone west.
Protests began when the government decided to appoint French-speaking teachers and judges who barely understand English to Anglophone schools and courts.
As such, what started as a strike by teachers and lawyers quickly spread, with protesters complaining about economic and social neglect, as well as the clear violation of the constitutional requirement for two official languages -- English and French.
Cameroon, a former German territory, was partitioned between the British and the French in 1922 as trust territories under the League of Nations and later under the UN.
Britain administered its portion as part of Nigeria until 1954, when it was granted autonomy. The two Cameroons were reunited in 1961 after a plebiscite that gave the smaller English Cameroon the choice of joining the Federal Republic of Nigeria or the Republic of Cameroon.
- French dominance
Reunification with Francophone Cameroon resulted in a federal system where both the French and English systems and cultures continued to be observed.
This system was abolished in 1972 by President Amadu Ahidjo and a united republic was adopted with English and French as the official languages. In 1984, President Paul Biya changed the entire country’s name to the Republic of Cameroon.
English speakers have raised worries over the dominance of French and their marginalization in government appointments. In the current government, only six out of 63 ministers are Anglophones and just one has a Cabinet portfolio.
This has led to the formation of secessionist groups like the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), which has been very vocal and active. Since the creation of the group in 1995, many of its members have died in street protests or in jail. A large number are still detained.
Besides the growth of secessionist groups, the leading opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), is Anglophone and has been making demands related to the “Anglophone problem”.
Following the promulgation of the multiparty system in the early 1990s, Anglophones came together to demand the restoration of the Southern Cameroon state and to form national political parties to press their demands.
The SDF is said to have won the presidential elections in 1992 but results were declared in favor of Biya, who is still president today.
English and French are the two official languages in the country but the dominance of French can be seen in presidential addresses and official announcements.
This has led to Anglophones viewing themselves as second-class citizens as they need a better command of French to succeed in most public exams or find work.
Last month, a merger between the secessionist groups and the federalists took place to pressure the government to yield to their demands.
- Internet cut
It is now more than two months since the Internet connection was cut in the Anglophone regions and there are growing fears that security forces may be committing human rights abuses.
The government shut down the Internet after images from the violent protests in November and December circulated on social media, attracting the attention of the international community.
Since then, there have been reports of arbitrary arrests and torture in the region and freedom of speech has been very limited. Those arrested are taken to the capital city Yaounde and jailed a long way from their families.
Some are reported to have died in prison, though the government rejects these claims.
A repeat of the Rwandan case is feared as the government’s earlier response to protests saw teachers, lawyers and students brutalized by the police and military. Live bullets and heavy ammunition were used on peaceful protesters, leaving at least five people dead and many others injured.
In the absence of the Internet, many fear that government will target those in support of secession or federalism and the intimidation and killings may continue.
Moreover, the government has been targeting SCNC activists over the years and this could be an opportunity to eliminate them. Coupled with that, the country’s minister of communication earlier likened federalism to secession, which means those in favor of federalism will be tackled in the same way as SCNC activists.
The western regions have been under heavy military occupation since the start of the protests. The military is mostly made up of Francophone troops and this raises fears that they may be acting without mercy.
There are only three Anglophones out of the 33 army generals in the country. The UN Security Council visited the country earlier this month to assess the ongoing fight against Boko Haram terrorism but said it had also been monitoring the Anglophone crisis, according to Inner City Press.
Amnesty international has condemned the arbitrary arrests and the Internet block. It also called for the unconditional release of protest leaders.
- Economic toll
“This worrying pattern of arbitrary arrests, detention and harassment of civil society members is entirely at odds with the international human rights law and standards that Cameroon has committed to upholding,” Amnesty’s Ilaria Allegrozzi said.
Cameroon is an oil-exporting country and the sole oil refinery happens to be in the English-speaking region.
Although the oil sector has not been directly touched by the protests, there are fears that pipelines might be destroyed and attacked, as some have suggested online.
However, the economies of both regions have been adversely affected by the strike and a boycott organized by the Anglophone diaspora.
The absence of the Internet has stagnated many businesses that depended on it, including banks. The international NGO Internet Without Borders estimated losses from the first few weeks of Internet disconnection at $1.5 million.
The government, however, seems less concerned about these losses and has been concentrating on getting the school system functioning normally under pressure from UNESCO.
Relations between Turkey and Cameroon have been very cordial, with their presidents exchanging visits and establishing diplomatic missions.
However, Turkish businessmen have complained about the cumbersome processes involved in getting a business started in Cameroon due in part to tight centralization.
Cameroon’s 1996 constitution decentralized the country’s administration and this has not been respected. The Anglophone fight has aimed at getting more control over the affairs in their region, which will then allow them to negotiate with foreign partners without passing through the state.
This, if achieved, could ease business connections between the two countries and enable Turkish companies to explore other areas of the country away from the main cities Douala and Yaounde, where they are mostly based.
In addition, since the crisis began, government has been talking of speeding up the decentralization process, which will be a major achievement for foreign partners.