Language Barriers In Cameroon: Anglophone And Francophone Forces Continue To Clash

On Friday 13 February 2020, a violent incident in Ntumbo, the north-west Anglophone region of Cameroon, claimed 22 lives. The victims included 14 children and one pregnant woman. Though separatist opposition groups have pointed fingers at the army, a military official has told the AFP that such allegations are “false”, instead of deeming the event an “unfortunate accident”. The English-speaking regions Ntumbo and Yaoundé, in the south-west, have suffered from chronic hostility and violence since 2017, as Anglophone forces have engaged in socio-political struggles against the majority French-speaking Cameroon.

This month has been particularly disruptive given the local and parliamentary elections, which took place on 9 February 2020. Separatists attempted to boycott elections by enforcing a lockdown on Anglophone provinces and kidnapping up to 100 people, Human Rights Watch reports. Amnesty International noted the increased killings and burnings by the army in the lead up to the elections. Such hostile activity from both parties caused 8000 to flee from Cameroon to Nigeria during the first two weeks of February, according to UNHCR records.

The current wave of conflict in Cameroon, known as the Anglophone Crisis, has its immediate roots in Anglophone protests in late 2016, during which activists campaigned for the use of English in legal, education and public administration sectors. Government security forces responded harshly to the protests, killing many and jailing hundreds. This only served to intensify Anglophone sentiments, which subsequently manifested in the establishment of mainstream separatist groups. A collective movement of separatist groups, the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front, declared the independence of Ambazonia on October 2017 and has since been substantiating this declaration with military action.

Tensions between the English and French-speaking regions stem back to the colonial carvings made by British and French imperial powers in the early 20th century. In 1919, 80 per cent of Cameroon was apportioned to the French, and 20 per cent to the British. French Cameroon gained independence in 1960 and was consequently merged with British South Cameroon following a referendum. British North Cameroon, meanwhile, joined with Nigeria. Given the distinctive colonial legacies of the two regions, relations between Francophone and Anglophone communities have been undoubtedly tenuous. Anglophone Cameroonians have been vocal about discrimination and mistreatment as the linguistic minority, including the favourable treatment of the French language and French-speakers in the education system, and the degree and frequency of police brutality in English-speaking regions. One separatist fighter told The New Humanitarian reporter, Emmanuel Freudenthal, that the treatment of Anglophones under the Cameroonian government is the equivalent to being “slaves” and emphatically concluded that “[they] don’t want to be slaves anymore”.

The conflict has forced many local civilians into dire circumstances. Since the beginning of the conflict, over 500,000 Anglophone Cameroonians have fled their homes. Education has also faced extreme setbacks, as schools closed for the fourth consecutive academic year, as of September 2019. UNICEF reports that 80 per cent of schools in the Anglophone regions remain shut, affecting over 600,000 children. The halt on education has severe implications for the rates of abduction, teenage pregnancy, and recruitment of child soldiers.

Maurice Kanto, leader of the opposition party, Cameroon Renaissance Movement, has spoken of “inclusive dialogue” as a step towards reconciliation between the government, secessionists and the wider Cameroonian diaspora. This proposal somewhat materialized in the Major National Dialogue held in September 2019, during which ideas of special status for Anglophone regions were discussed. However, continued violent activity throughout the period of Dialogue blunted the impact of any possible progress. Whilst the government remains firm in its “non-negotiable” stance towards secession, Anglophone separatists have continued to celebrate Ambazonian independence on 1 October since 2017.

The historical complexities of linguistic identities render the Anglophone crisis an intricate problem to solve. Nonetheless, greater efforts must be exerted towards inclusive discussion and negotiation between all concerned parties for the sake of restoring peace and human rights for local civilians. Solutions built on tolerance and respect, instead of antagonism and violence, will surely bring greater hope for all.

Naomi K L Wang