Anglophone versus Francophone: The continued legacy of colonialism in Cameroon

“Could Cameroon be the site of Africa’s next civil war?” This was the question posed by the BBC on the 25th of June as they provided updated reports concerning the growing tension between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians.

The question itself seems rather perfunctory. As if to draw attention to the fact that this would be yet another civil conflict to add to the African narrative of political unrest. We need to be reminded, however, that the nature of much of the politics on the African continent is due to unresolved colonial legacies. The current situation in Cameroon is no exception.

At the heart of the conflict is Anglophones’ desire to resist Francophone assimilation and to form their own independent state. The current tension between the minority English-speaking Cameroonians and the French-speaking Cameroonian government dates back to the end of official colonial rule nearly 60 years ago.

Before 1961, Anglophone territories formed part of Eastern Nigeria. However, they elected to join with the Republic of Cameroon by plebiscite at the time of decolonisation

During this time a power agreement was reached which stated that the executive branch of government was to be shared by Anglophones and Francophones. Ever since the unification of the two former United Nations trusteeship territories – French Cameroon and British Southern Cameroons – in 1961, the country has been ruled by the Francophone Cameroonian authoritarian government.

The original agreement failed to be upheld, and over time the Anglophone political representation has steadily eroded

Over the past few decades, Anglophone activists have protested their forced assimilation into Francophone society. However, the crisis came to a head in late 2016 when lawyers went on strike demanding that the government stop appointing Francophone magistrates who spoke no English to preside over courts in Anglophone regions.

These protests grew as teachers came in support of the strikes by raising their own grievances against the employment of Francophone teachers who spoke no English, to teach subjects other than French in Anglophone schools. The strike continued to grow as people from other professions joined the cause, resulting in city-wide shutdowns.

The government response to the strikes was swift, resulting in a 3 month shut-down of internet access and the imprisonment of activists. Government attempts to end the Anglophone resistance have been unsuccessful, resulting in increased violence in the region.

In October 2017 the separatist leader Julius Ayuk Tabe declared the independence of the Republic of Ambazonia. According to Tabe, the current fight would not be necessary if Britain had granted its former colony independence in 1961. This festering conflict represents a major test as preparations are made for the upcoming presidential election in October.

In the wake of the election and upcoming elections President Paul Biya has expressed his willingness to engage in dialogues with the Anglophone region. Furthermore, the government has taken several measures since March 2018 by establishing a National Commision for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, creating new benches for Common Law and Supreme Court and recruiting more Anglophone magistrates and bilingual teachers.

The situation in Cameroon is mirrored by the language debates and protests that occurred in South Africa during and after apartheid. However, unlike the Anglophone Cameroonians who protest for greater recognition of their English language, the South African protesters rejected language policies which benefit the colonial legacy while marginalising African students, and called for decolonisation of the South African education systems. Why is it that Cameroonians continue to fight one another for their respective colonial languages?

According to Fanon, language was, and still is a potent vehicle for cultural and political domination in a colonial context. Language also served to protest and resist colonial rule. In his book Studies in a Dying Colonialism, Fanon discusses the role the radio played in the Algerian revolution for independence.

Previously, the radio was a symbol of cultural familiarity for the coloniser and a cultural affront to Algerians. However, the radio was transformed as a tool of the revolution by through the creation of a new Algerian radio station meant to provide Algerian listeners with true accounts of the revolution. In this way, the coloniser’s language is appropriated and becomes simultaneously a symbol of protest and a rejection of colonial rule.

Being Anglophone or Francophone in Cameroon is not just the ability to speak, read and use English or French as a working language. It is about being exposed to Anglophone or Francophone ways of being, including things like outlook, culture and how local governments are run.

While the current crisis reflects the resurgence of unresolved problems which stem from colonial rule, the future of the country stands on a precipice as Cameroonians need to find local solutions. The revival of identity-based movements reflect the diverse opinions among Cameroonians, as some vie for a return to the 1961 Federal model agreement while others demand succession.

Others argue that this fight is not about federalism or succession, but rather speaks to the need for decolonisation in the African continent (Anyangwe, 2018). Despite the diverse positions, it is clear that Anglophones want an end to annexation and assimilation, and greater respect from the government for their language and political philosophies.

According to Mongo Beti (1991), there is a general absence of identification with a unified nation in Cameroon The divisions between Anglophone and Francophone colonial identities have eroded the social fabric of Cameroonian society and represents a significant impediment to progress within the region.

What is needed is an inclusive national dialogue to harness the desire for change, but also to address the existing colonial divisions in society. The solution to the current conflict in Cameroon remains a complex issue, which seems to escalate as the 2018 election draws near.

The question remains; should Cameroonians strive to rebuild their society by reinforcing colonial identities or should they work towards restructuring and reclaiming an Afrocentric identity through decolonisation?

Fanon, F. (1965). Studies in a dying colonialism. Earthscan.

Kom, A., & Bjornson, R. (1991). Mongo Beti returns to Cameroon: A journey into Darkness. Research in African Literatures, 22(4), 147-153.

Anyangwe, E. Cameroon’s heartbreaking struggles are a relic of British colonialism. Retrieved from:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/12/cameroon-independence-colonialism-britain-nigeria

46 views
  • FACEBOOK
  • TWITTER
  • YOUTUBE
  • AFRICA MATTERS PODCAST
  • LINKEDIN

© AFRICA MATTERS INITIATIVE 2020

Afrika Matters Initiative NPC 2018/033657/08