The First of October & A Tale of Two Countries

Saturday, October 1, 2016 was celebrated as the 56th birthday of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and like in previous anniversary celebrations, President Muhammadu Buhari used the occasion to make some public statements. These were impregnated with achievements made so far since he came to power in 2015, as well as future challenges. However, it is only in Nigeria that this day was given a pride of place amongst other days in the year; it is a day that Cameroonians– especially Anglophone Cameroonians– would never forget.

While President Muhammadu Buhari was speaking to his countrymen, his colleague of neighbouring Cameroon, Paul Biya was out of state. The latter was still sojourning abroad even though the 71st UN General Assembly (which took him out of the country) had ended, and all other Heads of States seem to be back in their countries.

In Cameroon, October 1 is usually a day for members of the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) to become a point of focus to most media organs–except for the state run media. As the military comes out to celebrate in its brightest colours in Nigeria, in Cameroon the military is unleashed to chastise members of the SCNC. This is the price for publicly denouncing the marginalization of Anglophones by pro-Francophone regimes in Cameroon, which started on October 1, 1961 when former British Southern Cameroons (Anglophones) gained independence by joining La Republique du Cameroun. Celebrated writers like Francis Nyamnjoh and Piet Konings have argued that October 1 was the beginning of frustration for Anglophones while the All Anglophone Conference (AAC) of 1993 came out with the following words:

“We have been disenfranchised, marginalized and treated with suspicion. Our interests have been disregarded. Our participation in national life has been limited to non-essential functions. Our natural resources have been ruthlessly exploited without any benefit accruing to our territory or to its people. The development of our territory has been negligible and confined to areas that directly or indirectly benefit Francophones. Through manoeuvres and manipulations, we have been reduced from partners of equal status in the Union to the status of a subjugated people.”

In as much as Nigerians are celebrating, all is not well as the Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) has resurrected with the same demand: independence for Igbo. Radio personalities like Nnamdi Kanu have become the new “liberator”. It was this same demand that led to the Nigerian civil war between 1967 and 1970, which left about 2 million persons dead–yet lessons are still to be learned.

In 1967, after unsuccessful negotiations a certain Lt Col Chukwumeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared independence of the Eastern region under the name of Biafra Republic. Fighting broke out and like many African conflicts, it was merely suppressed. The underlying causes– marginalization of the Easterner, degradation of their environment by oil companies under the watchful eye of the Federal Government, the demand for oil royalties to be used to develop their area, amongst others–were ignored. Another opportunity for dialogue came up when Ken Saro Wiwa’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) complained about the degradation of their environment by oil companies. They were instead rounded up and executed after a very murky trial. Then in the mid-2000s, the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta engaged the government and oil companies militarily, based on the same protracted demands. Rather than the government treating the underlying causes of the violence, it erroneously paid off some members of the group while the real situation on the ground remained unchanged. Through the amnesty in 2010, the government of Goodluck Jonathan focused on the militant individuals and not the underlying causes of the conflict. This merely postponed the conflict, which has been regurgitated today by others like Nnamdi Kanu and his cohorts as well as the Niger Delta Avengers.

Even though the government of Nigeria talked with some of the warring factions, that of Cameroon has remained on the pedals of the argument of force. Every October 1 members of SCNC are beaten, teargased, some arrested, while some die in jail because they were peaceful making their voice heard. The case of Cameroon has never gone to the level of open violence but as the government is refusing to dialogue; impatient voices amongst Anglophones may copy the Nigerian example. Former UN Scribe, Kofi Annan advised the government of Cameroon to dialogue with SCNC members, the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights also reechoed this call for dialogue while passing its ruling in 2009.

Nigeria and Cameroon are not just neighbours, but share a common history. Former British Southern Cameroon (which is now Anglophone Cameroon) was previously a part of Eastern Nigeria and many of its politicians held political positions in Nigeria prior to independence. But in a UN-organized referendum on February 11, 1961, it voted to join an independent La Republique du Cameroun and this marriage was sealed on October 1, 1961, which marked the first anniversary of independent Nigeria. Nigeria was divided into three under a common President: Western, Eastern and Northern region. Cameroon remained a federal Republic–West (Anglophone) and East (Francophone) Cameroon– and it is from the mismanagement of these unions that both countries are where they are today.

A conflict never dies until it is well managed, and unless these governments keep their pride and egocentric ambitions aside, go down to the field and face the realities not militarily but amicably, successive generations will not just live the conflict but act upon it, and October 1, with a similar meaning to both Nigeria and Cameroon will, however, not be a Happy Birthday to all.