There are few times in life when one is faced with a fundamental issue that reaches to the very core of their being, challenges the essence of their existence and their role in community and the world. For myself and many others, this is exactly what the Anglophone problem in Cameroon represents.
It is interesting that, today, the vast majority of Cameroonians seem to accept that there is actually an “Anglophone” problem in the country. Contrary to many attempts to label it as a quest for secession, this problem is centered on the systematic marginalization of English-speaking Cameroonians by the government, and the deliberate attempt to extinguish the core cultural, legal and administrative systems in these regions. The current manifestation of this problem, as presented by the teacher’s trade union and Common Law lawyers and the autocratic responses from government have left me crying for my beloved country. A problem that could be easily acknowledged and addressed has, instead, escalated into a ticking time bomb because of serious government ineptitude and the blatant disregard for fundamental rights.
How Not to Manage
The Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (Consortium) that was created by English-speaking Cameroonians to table their concerns to government has pursued dialogue. When these leaders did not accept government bribes, an executive order from the State Minister for Territorial Administration and Decentralization, Rene SADI, banned the group and designated it a terrorist organization. Now, how does a government, my representatives, sit down and negotiate with a group and, when at an impasse, turn around and label it a terrorist group? This decision, unfortunately, will likely go down as one of the worst decisions in the 34-year of presidency of Paul Biya. If the government seriously thought that banning the Consortium and arresting its leaders would solve the problem, it is clear that they could not have been more wrong, as their actions have only hardened the determination of regular citizens in their quest for equality. For the very first time, I have seen English-speaking Cameroonians nearly 99.9999% united and speaking with one voice. The only people who are not openly in support of the Consortium are “Anglophones” in today’s government, as well as many politicians. Groups like the SCNC which, previously, did not have the benefit of even 5% support, are now very popular. May be this was the government’s plan all along … to justify the arbitrary arrests and brutalization of law-abiding citizens. I would caution very strongly that this strategy will backfire.
The current protests have “liberated” English-speaking Cameroonians in ways that many cannot begin to fathom. Of their own volition, parents have refused to send their children to school until the demands are addressed. In Buea, store owners have made plans to close shops on Mondays and Tuesdays as prescribed by the banned Consortium. In fact, people do not even seem remotely angry about closing up their shops, but instead are saying, “Enough is Enough.” The sequence of events is eerily similar to the African National Congress (ANC) struggles in South Africa, a fact which has not gone unnoticed by many. ANC leaders were widely popular with Black South Africans. Consortium leaders today are extremely popular with English-speaking Cameroonians. We all know that ANC leaders were arrested and jailed. Consortium leaders have been arrested and are currently jailed. ANC leaders were tried in repressive courts and sentenced to life in prison. Likewise, Consortium leaders are being tried in special courts and will be sentenced to …. This may sound like déjà vu, but the reality is that most Consortium leaders have already accepted their fates. And that is a very scary thing. The English-speaking population, both in Cameroon and abroad, knows that they are fighting for something much bigger than themselves.
They are fighting for the right to be treated equally and with respect, just like their French-speaking brothers and sisters. They want to preserve their culture, maintain their legal system and have an equal stake in their country. That’s why Consortium leaders have refused any and all government bribes. Justice Ayah Paul Abine, Attorney General of the Cameroon Supreme Court, was recently arrested without an arrest warrant, as stipulated by the law. Yet, I have not seen English-speaking Cameroonians shedding a single tear over his arrest. Instead, trade unions members are offering themselves up for arrest. If the government thinks that this problem will disappear through brute force, I would suggest that they seriously reconsider. The determination amongst Cameroonians is unprecedented and palpable.
One and Indivisible
There is a great deal of talk that Cameroon is “One and Indivisible.” That any other administrative structure is tantamount to “dividing” Cameroon. I believed Cameroon was “One and Indivisible.” Throughout my life there has been one president – Paul Biya. I believed Cameroon was bilingual so I did my best to learn French in Secondary and High School. Today my wife and I head a non-profit foundation that is headquartered in Yaounde and we ascertain that every team member hired understands both English and French. We encourage each of them to speak the language of their choice. This is the Cameroon I believed in. As others have highlighted before, being an English-speaking Cameroonian in today’s Cameroon is extremely difficult, painful and demoralizing.
How do we explain the fact that an English-speaking Cameroonian who has spoken English all her life but fails English at the G.C.E Ordinary Levels cannot be accepted into the University of Buea; but a French-speaking Cameroonian is allowed to enroll in the university after completing a short six-week course of English language? What is the explanation? I was strongly advised to register my new car in the Littoral or Center region because vehicles with Northwest or Southwest matriculation plates are harassed by gendarmes on the Douala-Yaoundé highway and at other police checkpoints. That is the reality. Additionally, has the Cameroonian government ever appointed an English-speaking Cameroonian to a top-level position if that individual is unable to speak French? Yet the current Minister of Basic Education requires an official translator in order to negotiate with Consortium leaders. These are real issues that have nothing to do with lack of jobs in Yokadouma or the rarity of roads in Kousséri. However, individuals are marginalized and discriminated against simply because they hail from the English-speaking regions, irrespective of the historical foundations of the present Cameroon construct.
As it stands today, and without any meaningful dialogue, it is hard to imagine a situation in which 11 February will be celebrated in the English-speaking zones. And given the deep anger in the streets 20th May celebrations are highly unlikely. Will Cameroon remain “One and indivisible” without these regions’ participation? What will prevent these regions from celebrating a very special 18 July (MANDELA Day) or 1st October (Independence of British Southern Cameroons)? There is talk that the Northwest and South West regions may not participate in the 2018 elections. Will Cameroon remain “One and Indivisible?” What happens when members of Parliament and ministers from the English-speaking regions are forced to step down from the government by their people? Will we still be “One and Indivisible?” The reality, my brothers and sisters, is that we need a political solution and we need it fast.
It is estimated that Cameroon loses at least 20 billion FCFA every day during ghost towns and that these strikes are depriving the treasury of 195 million FCFA every day in lost customs revenue alone per estimates by Eyembe and colleagues. The South West region alone generates 45% of Cameroon’s foreign exchange earnings. This is a very significant daily loss, especially given the very low commodity prices internationally and the decreasing revenue from oil rents. Revenues for 2016 were already significantly lower compared to 2015 and the external debt is at an astounding level of 27% of GDP. There has already been severe pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to devalue the currency. The lack of free movement of goods and peoples eliminates daily revenues from tolls. Every Cameroonian knows that the vast majority of toll revenue ends up in private pockets; even if only 10 percent made its way into government coffers, the result would be significant. The ghost towns only make it more likely that government will run out of money to meet its basic obligations, a situation that nobody wants. We need level-headed, clear thinkers to start solving this problem before we go down a path of no return.
Many Cameroonians, both English and French-speaking, strongly advised me against publishing this article because, as they argued, it would put many lives in danger and give the government an open reason to arrest, torture and imprison our foundation employees. I have tried to convince them otherwise, highlighting that the President, through his Twitter account on 22 January 2017, declared that “It is not forbidden to voice any concerns in the Republic,” and that there have been recent publications from other people; one author called for the President to resign. However, they are not convinced. As the co-founder of the Foundation and given that I was born in the English-speaking region they are convinced that the Foundation will be designated a terrorist organization or an affiliate of terrorist groups. Now, think about that for a minute. A Foundation, funded through our personal contributions in the millions; a Foundation committed to helping Cameroonians in all ten regions, that organized the first STEM Prize last year and is providing teachers for displaced children in Yagoua – Far North region will likely be listed as a terrorist group simply because the “Anglophone” co-founder points out that 17-year-old university students were raped while illegally arrested and in custody. Labeling the foundation as a terrorist organization will only lead to 20 Cameroonians losing their jobs, the majority of whom are from French-speaking regions. This is our reality today. This is the Anglophone problem. We hope it is not the same tomorrow.
The revered Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa once said that “if you are neutral in the face of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” and that “if an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.“
The Anglophone Problem in Cameroon is not a problem between “Anglophones” and “Francophones” but, rather, between English-speaking Cameroonians and the primarily French-speaking ruling class. If Cameroon is “One and Indivisible” what explains the almost complete silence from our French-speaking brothers and sisters in the face of
- arbitrary arrests
- severe militarization
- the blocking of the internet to the Northwest and Southwest
- the raping of young girls
- the dumping of those killed in open streets and
- many more atrocities
Why are they this silent?
There are rumors that in the coming days the government will not only cut the internet but will cut electricity, water supplies and other necessities to “punish” the population and break their willpower. Cameroonians from all walks of life should hold the government accountable to make sure it does not go down this path, which would represent a permanent stain in our nation’s history.
Many French-speaking Cameroonians have argued that these issues could be easily solved through an effective decentralization of administrative affairs. What they fail to understand is that the Ministry of Territorial Administration was changed to the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization after the law of 18 January 1996 was passed. What amount of decentralization has this Ministry readied or completed in the last 20 years? Why should Cameroonians believe that an effective decentralization would now be implemented? Is this not the same Ministry that, instead of performing its duties, has proceeded to “ban” the Consortium and arrest the leaders who have been saying that the process is not working? Creating commissions when the leaders who brought up the issues are under arrest is simply a ploy to persuade many French-speaking Cameroonians that the government is trying to do something. French-speaking Cameroonians are tired of these commissions and will not buy into it. The Eseka railways Commission that was due to report on 25 November 2016 has not yet been published. The current issues are extremely serious. No ill-conceived or short-sighted solutions should be acceptable.
I am extremely worried about the direction the government is pursuing because I am confident it is counterproductive. The government cannot tell people how to think and what to think about. The National Communication Council (NCC) cannot ban discussion about federalism or any other form of governance. Likewise, NCC cannot ban news media from discussing the critical issues that are ravaging the seams of our social fabric. Doing so will be at the government’s own peril.
For the benefit of all Cameroonians, the government needs to face the fact that the people are legitimate and resolute in their demands. It is imperative that the Consortium provides a face-saving gesture that allows the government to return to the negotiation table. The way forward can only come through meaningful, direct and frank dialogue. Not baseless Commissions. Both sides must be ready to make the necessary concessions. I am on my knees begging the government to dialogue. Should they continue the current military strategy, I fear a bloodbath is inevitable.
Dr. Denis Foretia
Dr. Denis Foretia is a surgeon and the Co-Chair of the Denis & Lenora Foretia Foundation. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Nkafu Policy Institute.