Cameroon: The feud between English and French is no longer a childish thing


Desire Danga Essigue / Reuters

The Republic of Cameroon is located in the western part of Central Africa, in the southwest it is washed by the waters of the Bight of Bonny. The situation in Cameroon is quite stable, unlike neighboring countries. The feature of Cameroon is its mixed population: more than 240 tribes, which belong to three main ethnic groups — Bantu, Semi-Bantu and Sudanese. The number of national languages spoken in the country exceeds 240, but the majority of the population speaks English or French.

The fate of Cameroon is very picturesque: since the 19th century it has been under the control of Germany, Great Britain and France, which struggled to establish influence over the territory. Until the First World War, German was the official language of Cameroon, but since 1916 it has been replaced by French and English. How did this happen?

Between 1916 and 1945, Cameroon was divided into British and French zones of influence, being part of British Nigeria and the French colonial empire, according to the Mandate of the League of Nations.

In 1960 (Year of Africa), when the «decolonization turn» came to Cameroon, the UN intervened and initiated negotiations with French Cameroon and Nigeria on the terms of Southern Cameroon’s association if the results of the plebiscite were in their favor. The plebiscite itself, despite its poor organization, still took place in 1961 amid confusion, discontent and protests. The people of Southern Cameroon were strongly opposed to joining French Cameroon or Nigeria (although geographically it would be convenient). The people of Southern Cameroon were outraged and offended by the refusal to allow them to establish their own state.

Why did this happen after all? Because a certain Sir Philipson, as an independent and UN confidant, stated in his report that Southern Cameroon was not yet ready to position itself as an independent state.

Choosing the best of the worst, Southern Cameroon then voted for association with French Cameroon as a federation of two states of equal status. The Constitution of the Republic of Cameroon then proclaimed English and French as the official state languages.

English-speaking Cameroonians make up about 20% of the country’s population, while Francophones — 41.17%. It would seem, live and enjoy. But no, a conflict has broken out, involving mainly the English-speaking population of the North-West and South-West of the country.

The Anglophone regions of Cameroon are primarily unhappy that the government of the country is dominated by Francophone appointees, that the Francophone population is empowered. When Anglophones first took to the streets in 2016, talk of independence for Cameroon’s Anglophone regions was gently quashed.

What were the reasons behind these protests? The dominance of the Francophone population and the empowerment of the Anglophone population.

This changed in late 2017 when the government of President Paul Biya responded to the peaceful protests with force. The message was clear: the Yaounde government was not going to meet the demands of Anglophone citizens. By 2020, the situation for Southern Cameroonians had become much worse: they were caught between government forces and terrorist groups that control several territories in the Sahel.

Growing separatist tendencies among the English-speaking population and counter-repressions by the government contribute both to the radicalization of the inhabitants of this part of the country and to the recruitment of some of them by terrorist groups.

In the Anglophone «under government» regions, Cameroonians are mostly forced to live under wartime conditions, tolerating the army’s arbitrary rule. Moreover, transportation routes to Anglophone areas are often blocked at the behest of the central government, and residents are cut off from supplies of food and essential goods.

So far, the government has been able to contain the insurgency in rural areas, but there are signs that this may soon change. Cameroon’s diaspora is increasingly funneling resources to Cameroon’s separatist armed groups and turning to foreign nations for support. Rebels frequently enter Nigerian territory to procure weapons and other supplies. This instability generates a large flow of refugees, primarily heading to neighboring countries and especially Nigeria.

What happens if the conflict escalates into serious clashes in the rebellious provinces with the UN and other international organizations wanting to intervene?

First, Southern Cameroon has very fertile land, minerals (bauxite, iron ore, manganese, nickel, etc.), and its population believes that the region can live independently without being exploited by Cameroon.

Second, political and regional disagreements within the Anglophone territories themselves led to a lack of consensus on the desired state structure. Some people would accept autonomy granted under the terms of special status, others want a return to a federation of two states, and a third insist on an armed struggle for independence.

Third, the regional context. The growing terrorist threat, food insecurity and population displacement are distancing the region from a peaceful solution to the conflict. Perhaps one of the most non-trivial causes is social media, through which the parties disseminate information, or more often, misinformation.

The intensification of the conflict is getting closer while a peaceful resolution moves ever farther away. President Biya is 90 years old. Whether he will run for another term in 2025 or not is a question on which the fate of the whole country and its neighbors literally depends. And if something happens to the current president, given his advanced age, it will provoke a strong reaction from the English-speaking part of the population to any candidacy for the post of Cameroon’s national leader.