Cameroon: Northwestern Cameroon Explodes in Peaceful Protest, Government Repression: Part One of a Series.
After educators there announced a strike,on November 21, 2017 hundreds of people, mostly students and youth took to the streets of Bamenda, Cameroon in support. They were met by the Cameroonian police, not known for their training in police-community relations. As usual, the protesters were peaceful, the police/military armed to the teeth and quite ready to open fire, which they did.
When the day was over, according to opposition sources, three demonstrators lay dead, many wounded, hundreds arrested. But the demonstrations continued daily despite the repression. A week later, Le Monde, the Paris-based French paper often compared to the NY Times, ran the first of a series of stories on the incident that opens describing the carnage done that day. Here is my approximate translation:
The scene was horrific; it was shown all over the country’s social media…Young men and women, including youths even younger, chased by police (forces de l’ordre) in every direction…one video captured wounded youth, their bodies writhing in pain
The November 21 protests in Bamenda were neither the first nor the only protests, nor did the repression that day end what amounts to a peaceful uprising. Others were reported earlier throughout Cameroon’s English speaking region in the weeks prior. Further protests have continued in the weeks afterwards up until today, these organized by two of the leading regional opposition movements, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) and Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC). As Le Monde later reported (January 18, 2017) “In The English Speaking Regions of Cameroon, The Crisis Has Hardened.” (Au Cameroun, dans les regions anglophones, la crise se durcit). The day before, on January 17, the two organizations had called for “Operation Ghost Town” (Journee ville morte), one of a series of non-violent strikes and protests against the continued repression and in support of both linguist and social reform.
Ten weeks after the November 17 confrontation, now in early February, 2017, if anything, the repression in the western regions of Cameroon is even worse, with reports leaking out of the country many protesting youth – in the thousands – arrested, tortured, “disappeared” and killed. As has happened repeatedly in the long and sordid history of this country since independence, a news black out from the effected regions is in effect, social media shut down and the government in Yaounde denying that any serious problem exists, blaming what amounts to a regional uprising on “an English plot.” Nonsense.
To date, other than a few European Cameroonian-based news sources, in France and Belgium especially, major U.S and U.K. based human rights organizations (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam) have failed to follow the events. While Le Monde has done so, still their articles, while somewhat informative, suggest that curently, the main problem in Cameroon is the shutting down of the internet. The articles skirt over, hardly mentioning the fierce repression (and France’s advisory role in it) as well as the the deeper socio-economic crisis of which language policy is only one factor.
Only now, (February 3, 2017), in an article entitled “Cameroon goes offline after Anglophone revolt,” CNN’s Africa section has started reporting on the peaceful uprising with what is a somewhat objective analysis and decent background material. Perhaps other media outlets here (USA), fixated on what the newly elected tweeting president, Donald Trump is up to, will pick up the story.
What can be said outright at this point
- The repression should end immediately with all arrested released; the outlawed political parties/movements – the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) and Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) should be immediately granted legal status once again
- There should be an international investigation of the crisis by the United Nations, and here in the United States, a Congressional investigation of the crisis
- A political solution needs to be found both to the linguistic and deeper socio-economic grievances.
While negotiations between the Yaoude government and regional representative were called, again, in classic neo-colonial form, essentially they were not serious, more a case of mock negotiations, of the government negotiating with itself rather than with the legitimate representatives of the opposition, whom they continue to vilify and threat as subversives, terrorists, “outside agitators.” Cameroon, with French “help” has a long history of repressing domestic opposition going back to even before independence, treating them as “bandits,” “subversives,” “Communists” and the like, thus, while at the same time, leaving no stone unturned to crush the opposition. And thus the current negotiations have failed and the situation remains tense and fraught with terror.
Language Policy: Tip of a socio-economic crisis in Northwestern Cameroon
What were Cameroonian youth demonstrating about on November 17 in Bamenda, anyway?
They did so in support of six teachers’ unions protesting the failure of the Cameroonian state to honor the country’s pledge, written into its constitution, to respect the bilingual English-French official languages. Although legally committed to bilingualism, in practice, the English speaking regions are discriminated against. In Bamenda, center of Cameroon’s English speaking region, native speakers with poor English skills are teaching English, legal documents are uniquely in French as is the court system. English language speakers suffer from employment discrimination as well.
If the continued failure of the Cameroonian government to honor its commitments to bilingualism was the spark that ignited teacher union activity and protests, there was much more than that stirring beneath the surface. Cameroon’s English speaking regions bordering on Nigeria, in the west of the country have been treated as a neglected backwater ever since independence in 1960 and the 1972 merger of the English speaking and French speaking zones. Poverty is rife, promised social spending and economic development low to non existent. Repression and government corruption are rampant.
Background to the current crisis
As a result of losing World War One, Germany lost its African colonies, Burundi, Cameroon, Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Togo. These in turn were placed under the authority of the League of Nations to be administered between Great Britain and France between them. In the case of Cameroon, most of the country was administered by France but a region west of Yaoundé next to the Nigeria border fell under British administration.
As with most of the African continent, after the next global carnage ended, World War 2, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, an independence movement took hold in Cameroon led by one of Africa’s unsung great spirits, virtually unknown in North America, Ruben Um Nyobé. Nyobé headed up a multi-ethnic grassroots independence movement called l’Union des Peuples du Cameroun (UPC). Had France not intervened to crush its course, there is little doubt that the UPC would have emerged as the country’s governing body at independence in 1960.
But the post World War II France of General Charles DeGaulle had other plans.
The post WW II independence wave, that swept the entire Third World, could not be stopped. France’s efforts to do so, first in Indochina and then in Algeria had ended in failure. But without the cheap natural resources and food supplies of Africa and Asia, there was no way that France could maintain its role as a great, or even a medium-sized world power. De Gaulle and his team devised a plan that would on the surface result in independence for its former African colonies but as a result of which, Paris would maintain strategic and economic control of as much of the continent’s vast resources as possible.
To accomplish this goal – and it was accomplished in most of what was French colonial Africa – a number of strategies were put in place:
• First among them was to destroy and de-legitimize the legitimate opposition that might lead to a government that would use the country’s wealth and resources for its own socio-economic development, instead of that of France
• This was accomplished by the application of a strategy known as counter-insurgency, developed and tried in Vietnam and Algeria, perfected in places like Cameroon and Madagascar (also a former French colony). Since it is difficult to impossible to separate rebels from their base in the population, it becomes necessary to target the civilian population as a whole. This translates into mass incarceration, torture, mass murder and this is precisely what happened in the Cameroon 1950-1970 there abouts.
• Replace the legitimate emerging leadership with a token one beholden to the former colonial power. So assassinate Lumumba, Sankara, etc., and replace them with Mobutu and Blaise Compaoré. In the case of Cameroon, eliminate by assassination Um Nyobé, Moumié and Ernest Ouandié, utterly destroy the UPC and its social base in Cameroonian society and replace them with a lapdog leader, in this case one Ahmadou Ahidjo
And all this was accomplished and done so with hardly any attention shown from either the French or international press until some forty years after the fact.
There is a quote attributed to Stalin but probably from Napoleon about elections. “’I care not who casts the votes of a nation, provided I can count them.” In a similar spirit, more than likely the UPC won a national election in 1955, but it was the French colonial authorities who counted the vote. Denied an electoral path to power by fraud, the UPC was deemed illegal by the authorities and forced underground where it began an armed struggle against colonial rule.
Under the leadership of one of De Gaulle’s right hand men, Pierre Messmer, the French colonial army, led by French officers whose troops were recruited from other French African colonies in the main, entered into a war of extermination against the rebels. That campaign would even intensify after Cameroon was granted its independence by France, recognized by the United Nations.
A token leadership under Ahmadou Ahidjo was put in its place. He would be president from 1960 through 1982. Ahidjo, once in office, “called on help” from the French army who came to rescue him and French corporate interests in the country. What followed was even worse than before. Over the next decade, until around 1970, somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 Cameroonians lost their lives; large portions of the population were systematically rounded up and placed in relocation camps where they remained for years.
The military campaign included systematic massacres of the civil populations, a la My Lai, whole villages were wiped out, napalm extensively used. Nyobé died in battle; on the order of Jacqes Foccart, De Gaulle’s African man, Moumié was poisoned in Geneva in 1960 by a member of “The Red Hand,” – a paramilitary French assassination team, also responsible for the murder of Tunisan trade union leader Ferhat Hached eight years previous. In 1970 Ouandié was captured, tortured and publicly executed; the resistance never recovered.
In perfect harmony with French corporate interests, but against the interest and will of the Cameroonian people, Ahidjo, who could nicely be described as little more than a French made buffoon, ruled with an iron had until 1982, when the French, understanding that they had long ago, squeezed as much juice out of that lemon as could be had, unceremoniously replaced him with his second in command, Paul Biya, another willing tool of French power. Thirty five years on, today, Biya, an archetypical African tyrant-thug with an idiot former hairdresser trophy wife. Biya proved even more malleable to the French corporate exploitation of the Cameroon than to his constituency. His own people couldn’t take him seriously but ELF and the Total, the French oil companies appreciated him as did Rougier, the French based forestry multinational and other French based corporate powerhouses, Castel, Bolloré. French based finance, BNP-Paribas and Crédit Agricole.
As the global democratic wave that accompanied the democratic upsurge in Eastern Europe and the former U.S.S.R. spread to Africa in the late 1980s, early 1990s, Biya was forced to adapt a multi-party system for the Cameroon. No worries, the fake government now had a fake opposition. In spite of his new political challenges Biya was re-elected to the presidency in 1992, 1997, 2004, and 2011. Term limited, in 2008 he modified the Cameroonian constitution so he could run again in 2011. The holy trinity of fraud, corruption, and when necessary, repression neutered the official opposition. But when he put his hat in the ring for the 2011 contest, the country erupted in opposition, with demonstrations widespread. These were, of course, crushed; more than 100 people were killed, and as many as 2000 arbitrarily arrested, a good many of them youth.