Tensions are high in Cameroon after thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest the continued detention of inhabitants in English-speaking towns while president Paul Biya addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The protests took place despite a ban on demonstrations and internal movement of persons by regional governor Adolphe Lele Lafrique after a bomb attack on Thursday that injured three police officers. The ban came just two weeks after the previous ban had ended on October 3rd.
Protests, which remained peaceful, resumed in the Anglophone Cameroon after few months of quiet. The protesters called for the immediate release of arrested compatriots from previous protests: Felix Agbor Nkongho, an attorney, Neba Fontem Aforteka’a, a teacher, and Mancho Bibixy, a radio host nicknamed “BBC.” These leaders and journalists, and others who had been arrested during the November 2016 protests are charged with conspiracy to commit “acts of terrorism, secession, revolution, insurrection” and “inciting civil war,” which, if found guilty, is punishable by death. The demonstrators demanded that the officials obey the presidential decree published on August 31st calling for the release of those leaders. This decision was met with praise from Amnesty International who regularly criticized the government’s decision to arrest activists who organize peaceful and non-violent protests. Despite the rising tensions in Cameroon, President Biya did not address or mention the Anglophone crisis during his United Nations speech, which added unnecessary fuel to the fire.
The tension within Cameroon is a direct result of colonization. The majority of the country was under the French rule while only one-fifth of present-day Cameroon was under British rule. The two sectors, composed of eight Francophone and two Anglophone regions, unified to become Cameroon in 1961. Since France influenced most of the country, French education, language and legal system have been preferred and imposed despite the constitutional mandate. The constitution states that both English and French are the national languages, but the majority of government and day-to-day transactions are conducted in French. President Biya rarely addresses the country in English.
After decades of failed promises and discriminatory legislation that led to marginalization and harassment, Anglophone Cameroonians are striving for independence. Many of the protesters showed support for independence by waving the Cameroonian separatist flag. Those who oppose the secessionist movement but support the protests call for a federalist system, which would have Anglophone Cameroon govern themselves; this was agreed upon after independence but was later scrapped.
President Biya has opposed both options, and his government has not placed much effort to create a system that would bridge the two types of systems present in Cameroon. He signed a decree establishing the National Commission of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, but no further action has been taken to actualize this order. Instead, as demonstrated by his government’s actions last year, he has chosen to repress all forms of demonstrations and called for the persecution of Anglophone leaders on charges of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. To make matters worse, the government, during the 2016 protests, actively sought to undermine their grievances by shutting down the internet in Anglophone Cameroon for weeks. According to a representative of the French organisation, Internet Without Borders, “This has been the continent’s longest blackout.” Human rights groups and leaders continued to raise concerns regarding the increasingly authoritarian Cameroonian government, whose president has been in power for the past 35 years.
The refusal of President Biya’s government to take the grievances of Anglophone Cameroonians can result in an insurgency. The protesters have the necessary ingredients to wage an insurgency: public support, a strong cause, and a lack of government support for these issues. Some individuals have taken up arms and targeted local security officials, similar to a traditional insurgency. The government should ensure that they make all necessary efforts to remedy the situation rather than providing opportunities for the protesters to organize into a proto-insurgency. President Biya must understand insurgencies are difficult to combat, as proved in the ongoing insurgencies waged by Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia. The use of security forces to suppress the protesters only fuels the fire and creates a deeper divide between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon. President Biya of Cameroon must return to his home country after the United Nations deliberations with a desire to improve the situation.
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