Cameroon: Northwestern Cameroon Explodes in Peaceful Protest, Government Repression: The Language Question. Part Two of a Series.
North American Cameroonians Organize
In two weeks, on Friday, March 3, 2017 Cameroonians from all over North America will converge of New York City to protest the wave of intense repression which has blanketed the English-speaking regions of the Cameroon and go to the United Nations to present their case. Since mid November of last year as the repression grew, in their different communities throughout the United States and Canada, North Americans of Cameroonian origin, citizens or more recent immigrants have been calling for an end to the wave of arrests, censorship and purges that have covered large areas of Western and Northern Cameroon. Hopefully human rights, peace, religious groups will join them.
As Hippolyte Asah, now a Toronto resident put it in the January 23, 2017 edition of the Toronto Star,
“The situation in Cameroon is getting worse by the day. The marginalization of the anglophone people has caused so much civil disturbance…They feel like they are being colonized by the French. Lawyers and teachers (in English regions) go on protests and they are kicked, stoned, tear-gassed and manhandled…There are no opportunities left for those speaking English staying in Cameroon.”
The 2010 census puts the figure of U.S. citizens of Cameroonian origin at more than 16,000, while Canada claims to be hosting 6,500. But for the U.S. at least, the numbers are woefully underestimated as the American Community Survey notes an additional 33,181 Cameroonian-born immigrants in the United States, concentrated in Los Angeles, Houston and Pittsburg. They are concentrated in Illinois, Southern California (in cities such as Los Angeles), Houston (Texas) and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania). The Pittsburg Cameroonian Community is considered one of the better organized. In Canada, there are concentrations of them in Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal.
Interestingly, many Afro-Americans have more than a passing connection to Cameroonians. Recent advances in DNA analysis indicate that many Afro-Americans are mainly or partly descended from slaves arriving in North American from Cameroon. As Wikipedia Notes:
“According to DNA testing records, the ethnicities of the Cameroonian slaves in the modern United States were those of Tikar, Ewondo, Babungo, Bamileke, Bamum, Masa, Mafa, Udemes, Kotoko, Fulani and Hausa from Cameroon; however, many Hausa also came from other places, such as Nigeria). In what is referred to as “the whole of the Americas“, we find that the majority of captured Africans, sold to the European slave merchants, on the Cameroon coast, came from the inland places; where they were captured by other ethnic groups, through the invasions of these zones, and sold to the Europeans. They came from the people Batagan, Bassa, and Bulu. So, most of the slaves carried out of the River and from Bimbia in those years, were from Tikari, Douala -Bimbia,Banyangi and Bakossi. Most of them were Bamileke (who accounted for 62 percent of the people).
The predominant slave-trading middlemen in modern Cameroon was Douala, but most of the slaves of modern Cameroon who were delivered to Europeans, regardless of the specific origin of them, were sold to the Fernando Po collection center, from where the European merchants took them to the Americas.”
Four Months of Turbulence in Cameroon Western and Northwestern English Speaking Regions
After four months of the arrest, torture and imprisonment of thousands of Cameroonians in the country’s predominantly English-speaking regions, it is only in the past few weeks that the English language mainstream press has finally concentrated on the story. Until now there has been a media black out with internet and social media sites shut down, a number of local tv and newspaper outlets forced to close their doors and foreign journalists barred from the region.
This kind of press censorship is not new to the Cameroon. In the 1950s and 1960s France managed to stifle major press reports of the fierce repression it was carrying out as a part of Paris’ effort to deny the country its own independent path of post-colonial development. Instead a kind of patsy administration, essentially run by Paris with the trappings of independence minus its essence was put in place. Independence in 1960 camouflaged a system of repression and aggressive corporate exploitation, mostly by French companies which continues to the present.
Independence in 1960 camouflaged a system of repression and aggressive corporate exploitation, mostly by French companies which continues to the present.
While the casualty toll remains largely unknown, it is possible that several hundred thousand Cameroonians lost their life in this French-led genocidal campaign to maintain control of the country and its resources. The rebellion’s leaders executed, whole villages, communities were wiped out a la My Lai. A half century later, these same elements are still in control.
But in 2017, it is more difficult to squash news of repression, war crimes and torture, in Cameroon or anywhere else. In part it is a result of the globalization of information. Somehow, somewhere, the news begins to filter out despite government efforts to stifle it. But the main factor driving the exposure is simply in the sustained struggles of the peoples of the affected regions not to give up their struggle, a struggle which is really no different in its major aspect from that which triggered the Arab Spring: a demand for dignity, for greater democracy, for greater and more equalized economic opportunity.
What has evolved in a few months is nothing less than a full-scale rebellion within Cameroon’s English-speaking regions, and as such, cannot be ignored, even by France’s senior partner in maintaining the status quo in Africa – the United States. The situation has begun to be reported in the American media, in Canada and the U.S. As usual, the Canadian media – for all the interests that its mining companies have in Africa, including the Cameroon, is more honest, objective. But eventually CNN, The New York Times – and in its wake other media outlets in the USA have picked up the story which by now is approaching the level of incipient civil war.
In Cameroon, like Tunisia and Burkina Faso before it under the thumb of long running corrupt dictators, the social base of those in power is razor-thin and could easily collapse. Given the pervasive poverty, lack of democracy throughout the county, Paul Biya’s underlying fear is that the uprising in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions creating a spill over into the rest of the country creating an uncontrollable situation. This would be similar to Tunisia in 2010, when the social rebellion in the poor and ignored interior regions around Gafsa spilled over from the interior to the coastal cities forcing Zine Ben Ali and his ilk from power
The first crackdown by the Yaoude government in the region did not crush the repression – as has often been the case – it only stiffened the opposition, made it even that much more determined, radical. Having failed to crush the opposition by the original crackdown, Paul Biya’s government – heavy with its French advisors – again turned up the heat through mass arrests, censorship, suspension of civil, free speech rights. Opposition leaders were arrested, indicted, “disappeared” as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, only to be replaced by a new wave of determined and largely youthful agitators who mastered a sizable organizing learning curve with the speed of light.
The Language Issue in the Cameroon: An Integral Part of the Colonial Heritage
Yes, of course, cultural, language features in this case – the imposition of the French language in largely English-speaking areas – are a key factor, but the language issue only an integral element in a whole series of other socio-economic factors. Still linguistic issues are not insignificant.
In fact the discussion over “French” and “English” speaking Cameroon is a hold over from the colonial period. Over the course of the 20th century three European colonial powers vied for control of Cameroon: Germany, France, Great Britain. Germany lost its possession as part of its surrender in World War One. Interestingly enough, a century after losing control of Cameroon, the German language remains popular. Cameroon belongs to the African countries with the highest number of people with knowledge of German with 300,000 people there able to speak the language.
France and Great Britain took over with France controlling large sections in the center and east, the British dominating portions in the west and north adjoining the border with Nigeria.
In both zones – completely arbitrary in terms of previous African political, cultural-linguistic traditions in the region – the two colonial powers installed their colonial administrations based upon the language of the two centers of power, English in the western regions, French in the rest. African languages took distant second places. Of course neither English nor French had any historic place in the Cameroon.
Indeed, a much more accurate linguistic picture of the extraordinary linguistic diversity of the country should not be ignored. Cameroon is home to nearly 250 languages. These include 55 Afro-Asiatic languages, two Nilo-Saharan languages, 4 Ubangian languages, and 169 Niger–Congo languages. This latter group is divided into one Senegambian language (Fulfulde), 28 Adamawa languages, and 142 Benue–Congo languages (130 of which are Bantu languages).
As a result of this great linguistic diversity, in many African – and Asian countries (think India, Nigeria) – the language of the former colonizer often emerges as a kind of lingua franca in the post colonial period.
This has both cultural benefits and drawbacks.
Use of languages like English and French (and Spanish, German) etc. permit a country like the Cameroon to enter into more effective dialogue and communication with the broader world, something of a necessity given the structure of the world economy. It also provides a bridge for different language speakers within the country. Coordinating 250 languages is no easy thing.
On the other hand, a colonial language brings with it colonial baggage so to speak and downplays or ignores local linguistic, cultural and political history and tends to isolate the speakers of the foreign colonizer tongue from the population as a whole. How to manage the relationship between colonial and indigenous languages – and not just in Cameroon – is more than a linguistic or even political issue. It often becomes a profound issue of defining cultural identity.
The 1960 Merger of English and French Cameroon
Like the rest of Africa, Cameroon at the moment of its independence found itself caught up in the geo-political struggles of the early post WW2 decades. When it came to sub-Saharan Africa, France was still competing with its long-term colonial adversary Britain (and behind London, the United States) for influence. Keep in mind that for Paris, the stakes were very high in sub-Saharan Africa. Without control of its former colonies and their extraordinarily rich supplies of mineral and raw materials, to be gotten as in the colonial period with very cheap prices, quite frankly France would have devolved into a third or fourth-rate power, with little or no influence on the global level. Paris – De Gaulle and his African strategist, Jacques Foccart, the Darth Vader of the neo-colonial system known as Francafrique, still alive and ticking now some seventy-two years after the end of the war – were insistent of maintaining as much informal but real control over its former colonies as it did during the colonial period. This goal was largely achieved, including in Cameroon.
As discussed in some detail in their fine volume La Guerre du Cameroun: L’Invention de la Francafrique (by Thomas Deltombe, Manuel Domergue and Jacob Tatsitsa), during the 1950s and early 1960s, under the surface, there were sharp tensions between Great Britain and France over the fate of Cameroon. At its core, the British hoped to annex the English-speaking Cameroonian regions into Nigeria, with which western Cameroon borders. Previously, the Britain had succeeded in annexing the French colony Togo into Ghana and France feared that it would do likewise, seizing western Cameroon for Nigeria. Although, at the time at least, Ghana, led by Kwame Nkrumah was something other than a British agent, this mattered little to the paranoid French.
In 1961 a referendum on the fate of Western Cameroon (it is often called “Northern” although this is inaccurate; if you look at a map, the main English regions of Cameroon are not so much on the north but on the west) was organized. People in the zones controlled by Great Britain were asked to choose between joining Nigeria or Cameroon. Interestingly enough the choice of independence from either neighbor was not put forth. The vote clearly favored union with Cameroon and, to the great relief of Paris, the region was immediately incorporated into Cameroon. Before the ink was dry on the merger agreement, the central government in Yaounde forgot its commitment to respecting the English language rights of the newly incorporated districts.
From the very beginning until the present, things went badly for the English-speaking regions. While the country’s constitution defines the country as formally bi-lingual with English language rights respected, in fact, such linguistic democracy was never instituted, not in 1961, not today. Very quickly the English-speaking regions were overwhelmed with “things French” – be it the educational and legal system, the military, the political institutions.
Since its incorporation and annexation into Cameroon, the western English-speaking regions of the country have undergone a half century of linguistic cultural oppression and socio-economic neglect.
When the New York Times finally got around to focusing on the Cameroonian conflict, like the French press, it concentrated on the language issues and went much lighter on the socio-economic crisis. Here is how the current conflict was described in recent article (February 9, 10, 2017) – written nearly four months after protests had erupted:
Last fall, after another new law, regarding business transactions, was not translated, the lawyers here in Bamenda, a bustling city in Cameroon’s northwest, decided they’d had enough. They organized a demonstration to protest a government that they believed had long slighted their English-speaking region by failing to uphold a constitutional promise of a bilingual nation. The demonstrations grew, as teachers vented their frustration that the government in Yaoundé – dominated by the French-speaking majority – sent teachers with shoddy English skills to schools in their area. Hundreds of citizens joined in, carrying banners and chanting against what they said were longtime injustices against their region.
By December, the protests had turned violent. Security forces used live ammunition to disperse demonstrations in Bamenda. At least two unarmed protesters were killed and others were injured, according to human rights groups. News media reports said as many as four protesters died. As the violence and calls for secession in English-speaking areas rise, the issue is quickly becoming a big problem for the central government. In recent days, protest organizers have called on businesses in Anglophone areas to stop paying taxes.
This description is, generally speaking, accurate.