A nation divided: tensions mount in Cameroon as English speakers marginalised by Francophone majority

Adrian Blomfield
Cameroon's capital city Yaoundé

To be born an English speaker in a world where the language remains the lingua franca of trade and diplomacy is normally to draw first prize in the linguistic lottery of life.

But in one corner of Africa, having English as a mother tongue has proved a curse thanks to a colonial anomaly that left a seething Anglophone underclass in a slither of overwhelmingly French-speaking Cameroon.

For the past four months, the two English-speaking regions of western Cameroon have risen up against a perceived decades-long assault by the Francophone elite on their language and British traditions, staging a campaign of general strikes, demonstrations and the occasional riot. 

A ruthless response by the government, characterised by the killing of protesters and a two-month internet shutdown in English-speaking regions, has hardened antagonisms, pitching the West African country into deep crisis and raising questions about its survival as a unified state.

Amid growing secessionists mutterings, Britain has become more active in recent days in attempting to defuse the confrontation. Last week Brian Olley, the British High Commissioner to Cameroon, met Paul Biya, the country’s 84-year-old president, and is understood to have called on him to end the use of force against protesters.

“We have raised our concerns with the government of Cameroon and will continue to raise these issues, including allowing access to the internet,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.

Protests in Cameroon in December 2016

But such quiet diplomacy has also angered some Anglophone activists, who accuse Britain of abandoning its responsibilities in the former British Southern Cameroons, which united with the much larger French Cameroons in 1961.

“Britain made us what we are and now most people in Britain don’t even know we exist,” an activist involved in the demonstrations said.

Despite the anger, Anglophone Cameroonians, who make up less than a fifth of the county’s 23m people, remain stubbornly loyal to their colonial traditions. To the bewilderment and often the derision of French speakers, they insist on forming orderly queues, referring to bars as “off-licences” and dressing up their judges and lawyers in powdered wigs. 

Both British common law and the GCE O-and-A-level syllabus remain deeply cherished.

It is a loyalty that has rarely been reciprocated by Britain.

Cameroon's head of the Supreme Court

The British Cameroons were made famous by the writings of naturalist Gerald Durrell, who visited in the Forties to search for the elusive hairy toad. He was memorably assisted by an uproarious Anglophone king, the Fon of Bafut, a gin-and-bitters-swilling pidgin speaker with a large retinue of drum-playing, bosom-jiggling wives whom Durrell taught the Conga. 

But Britain generally wanted little to do with the place. William Gladstone turned down a plea for annexation from local kings in 1884, allowing Bismark to take it for Germany.

After the First World War, Britain turned over five-sixths of the territory to France, agreeing to an arbitrary border line drawn up by Francois Georges-Picot, the French diplomat jointly responsible for the Middle East’s controversial modern boundaries.

Heartbroken local kings, like the Sultan of Bamum, protested in vain.

“I wish to follow the King of England and to be his servant, together with my country, so that we may be freshened with dew,” the sultan wrote in a letter to George V “who puts the evil men to flight and the troublesome to prison.”

After independence in 1960, the British Cameroons were wooed into union with the much larger French Cameroons by a promise that they would be equal members of a federal, bilingual state — a pledge broken when the federal constitution was abandoned in 1972.

Since then, English speakers say they have been shut out of jobs, denied fair political representation and deprived of revenues from oil, much of which is extracted from former British territory.

A woman in northern Cameroon Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Matters came to a head in November when a group of lawyers staged a small protest outside the courthouse in Bamenda, Cameroon’s largest Anglophone city, to demand the withdrawal of judges who spoke no English and had no understanding of British common law. The protest was broken up with tear gas.

The authorities must have assumed that, as in the past, the protests would peter out. Instead, the movement grew, drawing in Anglophone teachers, angered by state attempts to replace them with French speakers with knowledge of neither English nor the GCE syllabus.

Students joined in too, only to see their halls of residence raided and female students beaten and sexually abused by the police, according to activists.

The government admits to six protester deaths, though activists say the true toll is much higher.

With force alone appearing to fail, Mr Biya has since January attempted to seal off Anglophone Cameroon from the outside world by cutting off internet access to the two regions.

An absolutist gerontocrat who has clung to power through a series of controversial elections, there are signs that even French-speakers are finally losing patience with a leader who spends so much time in Europe his people view him as an absentee landlord.

Last October a Cameroonian stood outside the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, where the president is said to have spent most of the Summer, and hurled insults at Mr Biya through a loud-hailer.

Cameroon's President Paul Biya Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Since then the president has shown signs of increasing paranoia. He was mocked by even French speakers after the present Miss Cameroon was stripped of her crown in January, allegedly for calling on the government to listen to Anglophone concerns.

So far, however, there is little sign that Mr Biya will relent. Most of the leaders of the protest movement have been arrested in recent weeks and charged with “terrorism, hostility against the fatherland, secession, revolution, contempt of the president… group rebellion, civil war and dissemination of fake news.”

Facing the death penalty, their trial before a military tribunal has shown Cameroon’s problems in microcosm. Bewigged defence lawyers, seated across the room from bare-headed Francophone prosecutors, struggled to follow proceedings conducted in French. When an interpreter was eventually provided the translation was so poor that few were any the wiser.

It is a sign, Anglophone Cameroonians say, that they will never be understood or accepted by the French speaking majority.

“The Anglophones are a people,” Henry Ngale Monono, a barrister, wrote recently in a Cameroonian newsletter. “We have a common culture, a common language. The Francophones want is to think like them behave like them, act like them — which is not possible.”

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