The recent developments in the crisis that has engulfed Cameroon, particularly the English speaking region of the country, have shown that the crux of the battle goes beyond language. It is a battle for survival where a largely marginalised people are challenging a western import that has abused them and seen them pushed to the periphery since the unceremonious solemnisation of the union in 1962. It is a battle for recognition, for equality, and for survival. Hence, a fix of just the language, if it does happen, might just not be the ultimate solution.
It all started in November when the people of Bamenda, which if southern Cameroon were to be a country, will be the capital of the English-speaking region, took to the street to protest the continuous marginalisation by the government. Days before the protest, policemen went into a school where students were protesting the use of French in English regions to harass the students and teachers, hit them with police batons while dragging career lawyers by their clothes. In the aftermath of the physical assault, the people fearing for their lives at the hand of the police, who had now become instruments of oppression, announced a stay at home to protest the continuous oppression. The strike which has seen schools and courts closed has now entered its third month.
The English-speaking Cameroonians are protesting what they describe as political and economic marginalisation, in which language is being used as the ultimate weapon. The Paul Biya-led government in June 2016 started posting French-speaking teachers and lecturers to schools and tertiary institutions in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon. The act was not limited to schools, as French-speaking judges who had no knowledge of English common laws, which operates in the English-speaking region, were posted to adjudicate and preside over court sessions. This was done, I believe, to force the people, who would not want to remain incommunicado, to pick up French if they would want to remain relevant in their own country. The plan, however, failed to score its goal as the people took to the street in November 2016 to protest it, while also calling for the implementation of de facto and de jure bilingualism and federalism in the country.
If the intentions of the government are true, implementation of a federal state should not be hard. However, the continual denial of the existence of a people marginalised in two of the ten regions of the country shows that the government is only interested in achieving a ‘One Cameroon’ of their own vision, and they are prepared to do that by any means possible.
For one, the government does not see the use of French-speaking judges in English-speaking regions as an anomaly, let alone an imposition. Speaking in November 2016, the Cameroonian Minister in charge of special duties in the presidency, Atanja Nji reportedly said there was no Anglophone problem in Cameroon. This view was also corroborated by the Minister of Communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakary while speaking on Aljazeera’s AJstream. Apparently, the imposition is only normal, while in contrast, an English-speaking judge cannot preside over a court in any of the French-speaking regions. How normal is that?
While the importance of achieving a country of one people cannot be overemphasised, there is also the place of respecting a people’s right to self-determination. As a matter of fact, monolingualism is not the way, the only way to unify a country. Canada is officially a bilingual country which is excelling and the people are living as Canadians – not English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians.
English speaking Cameroonians are not demanding an imposition on the French-speaking regions of Cameroon, they are only demanding that they be treated as a people with yearnings and aspirations. That they be given jobs that belong to them not discriminated on the basis of their language, and not be made slaves in their own community.
In reply to their demands, the government for the past two months has shut down internet connections over the English speaking regions, while assaults continued on the frontiers of the resistance, and every other English-speaking Cameroonian the lawless policemen fall upon. Untold carnage and crime against humanity have being perpetrated by Paul Biya while the world watches on. The UN being widely regarded as the watchdog of world politics sits by as well while a people’s right to self-determination is violently violated.
In spite of all this, the government of Paul Biya has continued to maintain and deny the existence of a problem –not even a language problem – in the region. They are, by that way, lending credence to the atrocities of the police, showing that their actions are backed by the government. What is happening in Cameroon is basically a recolonisation of the English-speaking people by the France-backed French speaking regime of the country. Even though the constitution of the land clearly spells out French and English as the official languages of the country, official documents continue to be rendered in French, with no English translation.
This already shows that the government does not recognise a people different from the majority. For all they care, there is only one Cameroon, there should be only one Cameroon, and there must be only one Cameroon. Cameroon today is a product of a union between the French-speaking Republique de Cameroon and the English-speaking Southern Cameroon who opted to join the republic in a federal union while the northern English-speaking Cameroon opted to join Nigeria.
The plan to unify Cameroon cannot be realised with the use of force. A people cannot be kept in a union against their wishes. And their wish here is simple. The government should either recognise them as a people and a part of a Cameroon that houses two different people that can be made one or allow the people have their own state. Self-determination is a fundamental human right.
The Cameroonian government has two options: federalism or a two-state solution. However, Paul Biya is having none of that. The reactions of his government so far have shown that they are far from accepting anything that tends towards independence for southern Cameroon. For one, they would have to acknowledge the existence of a problem between the two regions which until now they have failed to do. Nothing can be done in that regard. And with a pact signed with France to invade in the wake of any perceived break or crack in the unholy union, a defiant push for a two-state solution might turn out into a full-blown civil war.
However, given that the idea of a two-state solution appears expensive, not necessarily in terms of money, and too farfetched as it remains foreign to Africa, the closest and efficient solution would an establishment of true federalism in Cameroon. A federalism which allows both regions to develop at their own pace, able to control the majority of resources in their region. This solution will allow for the propagation of preferred language in every setting within both regions without any problem. It would also mean that the Cameroon constitution would not only recognise English as an official language, as it presently does, it will also enforce the use of both languages of English and French in any and all official settings.
This would enforce the teaching of both languages at schools, which means every Cameroonian child will grow up to be competent in both English and French. And since this proposition is also contained in the very agreement that brought these once separate peoples together in 1962, the best thing for the government to resolve the lingering crisis in to honour the agreement, or allow the English speaking region to form a country of their own.