Cameroon is a country facing three major humanitarian emergencies: the Anglophone Crisis/Ambazonia Civil War, conflict with the terrorist organization Boko Haram in the Far North, and a massive refugee crisis. All of this is coupled with the impact of COVID-19. Recently, a non-state armed group imposed a lockdown on Anglophone (English-speaking) regions and forced UN agencies and aid organizations to suspend the delivery of aid to over 200,000 people.
The widest sweeping conflict of the three events is the Anglophone crisis, which is rooted in institutionalized inequality that is prevalent between the French speakers (Francophones) and English Speakers (Anglophones) in the country. The linguistic divisions imposed by colonial rule in Cameroon are directly responsible for the Anglophone crisis. As a former colony of Britain and France, the root of divisions in Cameroon, specifically about the current civil war and government corruption, can be directly connected to the long-lasting scars that colonialism has left on the country.
For years, there have “officially” been two official languages, two educational systems, and two legal systems, but the Anglophones in the western part of the country have been the clear minority. It is time for the international community to make a more concentrated effort to stabilize Cameroon and put an end to the violence that has killed over 4,000 people and forced over 700,000 citizens to flee their homes since 2017.
History and Colonial Rule
Cameroon is characterized by its diversity of people. Linguistically speaking, Cameroon is home to over 250 official languages under a massive umbrella of over 600 indigenous languages in the country. Despite its diversity, English and French are the only official languages in Cameroon. A former German colony, Cameroon was divided into French and British rule after World War I. French Cameroon became independent in January 1960. British Cameroon was divided into two pieces, with half unifying with Nigeria and half voting to join Cameroon. Eventually, this half of British Cameroon and the larger French Cameroon merged and eventually became a unified independent state on May 20th, 1972.
The aftermath of European colonial rule has carved deep divisions into the country and presently is the source of a staggering amount of violence, war, death, and instability. The source of today’s civil war is due to linguistic and identity divisions in post-colonial Cameroon. Instead of one nation of people speaking multiple languages in Cameroon, the influence of colonialism in the country created an artificial division through the heart of Cameroonian culture.
Civil War: The Anglophone Crisis
Since 2017 and up until the present, Cameroon has been experiencing a violent militant conflict surrounding the division between Anglophones and Francophones. This conflict is often referred to as the Ambazonia War or the Anglophone Crisis. Today, almost 20% of the population of Cameroon is Anglophone, but they are consistently treated as second-class citizens. The central goal of Anglophone separatists is to establish an independent Anglophone state called Ambazonia.
The violence and human rights abuses that have led to so much bloodshed have been staggering. In March 2021 there was a stark increase in the usage of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by Anglophobe separatists to target the Cameroonian Army. The Cameroonian forces have also been accused of violence. They have reportedly resorted to measures such as forcing civilians in the North West to act as human minesweepers.
Entrenched Linguistic Divisions
Schools represent a point of contention in the Anglophone Crisis. There is a reliance on French in the classroom, perpetuating an erasure of Anglophone voices. Calls for French-speaking schools to shut down began in 2017 in the Anglophone region as separatists sought to boycott education. In recent years, there has been a dramatic spike in attacks on schools and education centers in the North and South-West of Cameroon. Both sides of the conflict are responsible for this recurring violence towards schools. In early 2020, 35 attacks on schools were recorded by the United Nations. Of these, 30 attacks were carried out by Anglophone separatists, while the other 5 were done by Cameroonian government security forces and included the “accidental discharge” of weapons near schools. Schools in Cameroon are caught in the crossfire between separatists and the government, with both sides unwilling to compromise or protect civilians who are killed in the conflict.
Responsibility of the International Community
Since the beginning of the Anglophone crisis in 2017, the international community has been reluctant to intervene. There have been renewed calls for the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, to take concrete action to end the Anglophone crisis. The government of Cameroon uses its soldiers to essentially fight a war on terror in West Africa “on behalf” of the Global North. France remains hesitant to pursue President Biya over his human rights record because of Cameroonian efforts to suppress Boko Haram.
While President Macron has made occasional statements denouncing the violence, his criticisms have largely served to anger Francophone Cameroonians and the government of Cameroon. In 2019, Cameroon granted “special status” to its Anglophone regions in the hope of appeasing the separatists, but the vast majority of the nation viewed the measure as illegitimate and boycotted the peace talks. Other measures have included Switzerland attempting to mediate peace talks, but these conversations have reached a stalemate.
A Sense of Urgency
As the violence seems to escalate every year, more Cameroonian citizens are caught in the crossfire. To date, more than 1.1 million children are out of school in Cameroon. Tensions in the country, especially as they are tied to indivisible aspects of identity and culture such as language and governance, are not easily resolved. This crisis is a clear example of majority rule overshadowing the minority.
The Anglophone Crisis has been described by some as “Rwanda in slow motion,” referring to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 which left large swaths of a minority group killed by extremists. Notably, Rwanda was also a former German colony, like Cameroon. When Cameroon was transferred to Britain and France after Germany’s defeat in World War 1, Rwanda was simultaneously transferred to Belgium’s control. The similar histories between Cameroon and Rwanda should serve as a signal to the international community that, unlike Rwanda, now there is time to intervene.
Cameroon’s last presidential election was in 2018, and the next is not scheduled until 2025. With this in mind, this conflict will not be solved with another election or a different president in power. Instead, the drivers of the Anglophone Crisis must be addressed, and a solution must be negotiated before the country moves past the point of no return.
Image Attribution: Lambisc, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Image Subject: Pro-Ambazonia Protestors in Cameroon, displaying their proposed alternate flag.
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