Protests in Bamenda, Cameroon’s third largest city, which started after school teachers embarked on an indefinite strike this week, have roots in the peculiar bilingual colonial history of the central African country.
The Bamenda protests, which turned violent, were staged by aggrieved English-speaking Cameroonian youth, part of a building uprising against what is seen as the neglect of people of the southwest and northwest regions of Cameroon—former British colonies. Protesters mounted barricades and burned tires along major streets, and armed security forces responded with teargas and live bullets. One person is reported dead and many others have sustained injuries.
Cameroon’s government, education, and legal systems are dominated by the larger French-speaking region. In recent years tensions have mounted as people from the Anglophone regions have complained about being marginalized by the Francophone-led establishment. The Anglophone regions account for just under 20% of the Cameroon’s 23 million population.
While in many African countries regional tensions typically arise from disputes based on ethnic or religious differences, in Cameroon its history as a creation from colonial deal-making between Britain and France (and at one stage, Germany) has left a long-term division between Cameroonians.
What is present day Cameroon, along with some neighboring regions, became a German colony on July 5, 1884. But after the outbreak of World War I and the defeat of Germany, the territory was split between Britain and France in 1919 and was to be administered as a League of Nations-mandated territory. While France got the lion’s share of the territory and called it French Cameroun, Britain got about a quarter and called it British Southern Cameroons and British Northern Cameroons.
French Cameroon in the late 1950s became recognized as a state, and it took the status of a French-associated territory after a popular uprising. And on January 1, 1960, French Cameroun obtained independence as La Republique du Cameroun.
At the time, the British Cameroons were still being administered from Lagos, Nigeria by Britain as trust territories.
In the wake of the struggle for independence in British Cameroons, the regions’ politicians were campaigning on three options: gaining independence as an independent state, joining the Federal Republic of Nigeria, or association with La Republique du Cameroun. But on February 11, 1961, the United Nations organized a plebiscite in British Cameroons with only two options of integration with Nigeria or association with La Republique du Cameroun. While British Northern Cameroon gained independence by integrating with Nigeria, British Southern Cameroons joined La Republique du Cameroun on October 1, 1961, to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon.
Over the years the former French and former British colonies have maintained their respective versions of Francophone and Anglophone governmental and legal systems, meaning the country has been split based on its colonial history. While many Cameroonians celebrate the bilingual nature of the country, an increasing number of people in Anglophone Cameroon have grown frustrated with what they see as being sidelined by their own country.
Ndengu Francis Epie, a veteran Cameroonian journalist who lived through the reunification experience, says the Anglophone trouble started with the July 1961 Foumban conference which was held to discuss the terms of the union. According to Ndengu, while John Ngu Foncha, the architect of independence by forming a federation with La Republique du Cameroun, had a confederation in mind, the then-president Ahmadu Ahidjo of the already independent La Republique du Cameroun had a unitary state in mind.
Over the years, decisions have been taken without proper consultation of West Cameroon officials, prompting the people of the region feel dominated in the union which was supposed to be of equal status.
In 1972, a referendum changed the constitution to a unitary state, as well as the name of the country to United Republic of Cameroon. The name of the country was later changed to Republic of Cameroon, reverting to the name of former French Cameroun, La Republique du Cameroun.
President Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982, has been accused of an indifferent attitude toward Anglophones in a country that is bi-cultural and bi-jural, with English and French of equal status as stated in its constitution.
The president rarely makes any public statements in English, and even then usually for very short statements. In addition, most official documents, including those coming from the presidency are published in French before English translations are sought after, in violation of the country’s constitution.
Most official recruitment examinations are set in French and poorly translated into English, to the detriment of Anglophone Cameroonians, as pointed out in 2015 by the Cameroon Teacher’s Trade Union, CATTU.
People close to the government believe the Anglophone system will eventually be merged into the French system in a government-run harmonization scheme. When the harmonization started at the level of primary education, the Anglophone seven-year system was reduced to six in favor of the French system.