The crisis in the western provinces of Cameroon comes as no surprise. For years it was known that the English speaking peoples in this area were dissatisfied and felt marginalised by the central government. This malcontent was known and it was feared that sooner or later it would explode.
Probably the central government in Yaounde underestimated the risk and, when it decided to act, its harshness unleashed an equally harsh reaction on the part of the local people. The result has been an increase in tension with clashes leaving many dead among both the English speaking citizens and the security forces.
To understand the crisis we must go back in time. The Berlin Conference in 1884 which divided Africa in areas of influence (and had in fact divided the continent between the European powers) and assigned Cameroon to Germany. The country had become a colony of the German Kaiser, like Namibia, Tanzania and Togo.
At the end of the Great War, Germany defeated, France and Great Britain, the victorious powers divided its colonies between themselves.
Cameroon was split in two. The western region was annexed to Nigeria ending up under British influence.
Wheras rest of the country became a French colony. This balance held until 1 January 1960 when French Cameroon gained independence from Paris. In the face of this independence , the English speaking part of Cameroon broke in two. One part remained with Nigeria, the other, with a referendum, chose to reunite with Cameroon. The annexation was based on an agreement which foresaw the creation of a federal state that would allow each of the two components of society to retain its own cultural and linguistic autonomy, but within the country’s unity. And in fact in August 1961, the parliament in Yaoundé approved a federal Constitution which became effective in the September of the same year.
On paper it appeared that integration, or at least co-existence, was feasable. In actual fact, already in the first years after independence the central government began to pass policies of forced unification, centralization of the structures of power and forced assimilation. Policies which culminated in 1972 with the suppression of the federal system, and with it the birth of the United Republic of Cameroon which became in 1984, the Republic of Cameroon.
The annexation process continued and the English speaking citizens felt increasingly marginalised. With time many areas of their autonomy were eroded. And they succeeded in maintaining a certain degree of independence from Yaounde only in educational and juridical matters . In schools English continued to be taught and the courts applied a system of law similar to the British method. An ulterior blow to English speaking autonomy came in October 2016. The government sends a few French speaking teachers to the English speaking provinces and decides to curtail common law.
Strong protests ensue, repressed by just as strong reaction from the police. “President Paul Biya, who has led the country for 35 years, is unaccustomed to dialogue – we are told by Fr Ludovic Lado, a Cameroonian Jesuit and political analyst -, responded to the protest by sending police and army reinforcements. This led to a ferocious repression which, in many cases, exploded in open violation of human rights. Leading members of the English speaking community were sacked suspected of backing the protesters. Some of them were arrested and taken to Yaounde, to be tried on the basis on anti-terrorism laws”.
To respond to the iron fist method a separatist movement was formed and in recent months has become radicalised, polarising further the English speaking and French speaking positions. The grievances of the English speaking citizens are no longer limited to the educational and judicial systems, instead they have gone further to the point of declaring autonomy on 1 October on the part of English speaking regions and the establishment of the Republic of Ambazonia.
A republic which, at the moment is still only on paper. However protests have been intense and the reaction of the security forces even stronger. Tens of people have been killed.
The Yaounde authorities (Cameroon) have issued international warrants of arrest for the fifteen leaders of an English speaking separatist party, the South Cameroon National Council.
According to a local web site, Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, self-proclaimed president of the autonomous region, is among the wanted persons.
In a statement released at the beginning of October , Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations Comissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern about the reaction with which the government handled the peaceful demonstrations of the English speakers. He has asked for an independent inquiry to investigate the number of dead. “We urge the authorities to ensure that the police force prevents the use of force on the part of its officers– he added -. People must be able to exercise their right to assembly peacefully and speak out freely, also through uninterrupted access to the internet”.
The government has in fact blocked the flow of information, restricting or in some cases preventing access to the social networks (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc.). Following the Arab Spring, social networks played a fundamental role in transmitting the password of every revolt . Yaounde, like many African governments, decided to block the server fearing that demonstrations might find a sounding board. Members of the government themselves admitted that the block was ordered to prevent social media from being used “actively to transmit false information to incite members of the public against the state institutions”.
However, what was intended as a temporary measure became permanent. Both provinces are isolated from the social network. The United Nations defined the move an act which tramples the right of freedom of expression. “These restrictions – a UN reports affirms – must cease immediately and the government must guarantee in-depth, impartial and independent inquiry regarding all the accusations of violation of human rights perpetrated during and after the events of 1 October. The government must adopt efficacious measures to pursue and punish all those responsible for these acts of violation”. Condemnation of the violence came also from the African Union, the European Union and the United States of America.
In the face of tension in the English speaking regions the Catholic bishops of the province of Bamenda denounce ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ on the part of the authorities. The local bishops point the finger at the government for in their opinion, “irresponsible use of firearms against disarmed civilians”. “Our people – the Bishops say – have been chased into their homes, some have been arrested, other mutilated and others still beaten to death. We voice our grief for the dead, for the sufferings of the wounded, for those who have lost their homes because of looting and torching and for those concerned about their loved ones who are dispersed or kidnapped”.
Strong words are to be found also in a statement issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Cameroon. “No one has the right to kill – We denounce the violence used and we do so with all our energies”. However according to the Bishops of Cameroon, the solution is not secession, but instead greater attention for the diversity which exists in the country. « Cameroon – says archbishop Samuel Kleda of Duala – has a population of 23 million and some people want to create two different states. But many Cameroonians think this is not the solution. There is a situation of injustices which must be addressed by means of dialogue “.
According to Ludovic Lado, the solution to the crisis must be found in international dialogue with international mediation working for a decentralisation of the structures of government. «There is also need of a change of leadership –Lado observes -. The lengthy regime of Biya (35 anni) and its policies are part of the problem in the English speaking provinces. The solution, or part of it, could come from resignation at the end of the mandate (2018). Free elections could favour a renewal of the political class. If he clings to his position, there is a risk of greater tension and more violence ».