After years of neglect and marginalisation by the francophone majority in Cameroon, the Englishspeaking enclaves are pushing back. The government’s response to intellectual-led protests has been hardline, and in the near-deserted streets of Bamenda there
Bamenda blues After years of neglect and marginalisation by the country’s francophone majority, the English-speaking enclaves are pushing back
Since late last year, Mondays in Bamenda are a ‘ghost town’ – shops are closed and most people stay at home. On a bright day in mid-june, the city stretches out in a valley amidst dull green hills in North West Region as a big white coach from Douala arrives at its outskirts. A pidgin-speaking man selling a herbal cure-all tries to whip up customer interest as the bus leans from side to side through some rough potholes. The bus passengers dutifully get out for an ID check just outside the archway welcoming you to Bamenda.
Before the bus arrives, a woman who works in the tourism industry in Douala, who is returning to Bamenda for a funeral ceremony, offers some advice: “Do not take any photos when you see soldiers or government buildings.” She warns that travellers might need to stay until midweek because of the ghost town. As the bus descends the hills that surround Bamenda, another woman chats animatedly about the discrimination anglophones in Cameroon are subject to: “If you cannot express yourself in French, you will be crushed. When you speak English in a hospital, they tell you to wait for your ‘Bamenda brother’. We just want to be respected for what we are, our culture, our language. We simply want improvements to our living conditions.”
Welcome to Cameroon’s ‘anglophone crisis’. It flared up late last year when teachers and lawyers went on strike. In big, violently represse§d street demonstrations, they protested the neglect of the anglophone education system and British-inspired common law practised in South West and North West regions under the Cameroonian constitution. “It is a case of total mismanagement,” says Paulin*, a secondary school teacher. “They are sending anglophone teachers to francophone schools and vice versa. They are messing up the children’s futures.” For their part, lawyers are furious about Yaoundé appointing judges with little or no training in common law to judge cases. Cameroon’s histor y as separate territories once ruled by the British and French means the constitution upholds legal and educational systems inspired by the two different colonial legacies. But the bilingual heritage has been a difficult one for the government to manage. Lawyer Bernard Muna says francophone judges are sent to Bamenda because “Cameroon is a corrupt country”, and because of bribes at the magistrates’ school. President Paul Biya’s government may sport an anglophone prime minister, Philémon Yang, but his presence does little to address the everyday concerns of anglophones. There are no official statistics available on how many Cameroonians are functionally bilingual. Roger, a native of a small town near Bamenda who works for a non-governmental organisation in Yaoundé, says that in practice anglophones are the ones who have to make the effort and speak French, and that his colleagues speak little English and do not see much reason to try. James, a taxi driver who grew up in Bamenda but did some of his schooling in Yaoundé and drove a taxi there too, says: “I never really learned French. I just spoke taxi language to get by. I lived with anglophones too, so did not have the opportunity for much French.” The late 2016 protests led to negotiations between civil society groups and the central government in Yaoundé. Opinion varies throughout the anglophone regions – and also in the active diaspora – over the best solution to maintaining the region’s linguistic and cultural identities. Various groups are calling for dialogue and negotiation over improving conditions, while others say that Cameroon should be a federal state with more powers devolved to the regions and more radical groups like the Southern Cameroons National Council seeking independence. While it is unclear which idea commands the most support, perhaps a political solution is not the most pressing issue. Many people said there would be no protests if the government improved people’s daily lives with better hospitals, more reliable electricity and steps to reduce the marginalisation experienced by anglophones, a minority estimated at about 20% of Cameroon’s 23 million people.
A HEAVY HAND
Complicating the anglophone cause is the fact that it is fragile and loosely organised. The Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, teachers’ unions and lawyers’ groups were initially involved in negotiations with the government about the problems in the legal and educational systems. But talks eventually broke down after the government arrested anglophone leaders and put them on trial in Yaoundé (see box on page 48). That move has crystallised the conflict, which shows no signs of nearing a resolution. In December, President Paul Biya spoke about the troubles, saying: “Problems must be fixed within the framework of the law and by dialogue.” A member of the religion-run education system in Bamenda says in return: “There is no dialogue.” The government does not want to be seen as appeasing protesters and
has delivered piecemeal initiatives to address some concerns. It has created a commission on bilingualism and multiculturalism, set up a common law section at the Ecole Nationale d’administration et de la Magistrature and launched the recruitment of 1,000 bilingual teachers. But the government’s hand is heavy. Evidence of its no-holds-barred approach to snuffing out threats – real or perceived – can be seen in the April handing down of a 10-year prison sentence for RFI journalist Ahmed Abba for failure to denounce acts of terrorism, and the same punishment in November for three young people who shared a joke via text message about Boko Haram. In response to the recent protests, the government cut off the regions’ internet from early January until mid-april. For Rebecca Enonchong, who helped run the campaign to force Yaoundé to switch it back on, it shows how out of touch the administration is. “Some people in the government believed that the internet [itself ] caused the demonstrations,” she says. “But more worrying, international investors will now see Cameroon as a place that shuts down the internet. Our risk profile is automatically increased.” Beyond their purely anglophone preoccupations, residents of Bamenda criticise government in the same ways that can be heard in Yaoundé, Douala and other parts of the country. Bryan, who sits on a stool next to a colleague and runs a clothing shop a stone’s throw away from Commercial Avenue, says that corruption and mismanagement are hurting business: “We pay taxes and for what? Corruption here is the worst, and police and other officials are here just to make money.”
How could the conflict be resolved? Samantha, who runs a small restaurant near the centre of town that serves eru and other traditional dishes, is categorical: “Separation would be good for me. The francophones have stolen all of our resources and treat us like slaves.” Nevertheless, though much of Cameroon’s oil is located in the Rio del Rey area of South West Region, and the area has little to show for it, secession remains a minority view. For now. Samantha adds: “The government sends people who only speak French to control the border with Nigeria. I go there often to buy products to sell here. If they hear you speak English, they treat you badly. If they hear pidgin, they go crazy.” Her sister Cecile is working with her now because she could not finish her last year of university courses in economics due to the recent troubles. “We love her, so we kept her at home. They are cutting off the hands of people who go to school. You can see videos of it on the internet.” James, the taxi driver, says he is perplexed by the possibilities : “I would just like everyone to work together. I am confused about it but I do not think secession would work.” He says that he wants to leave Bamenda and go back to Yaoundé because he is making less than half of the money he used to earn.
The problems caused by the crisis are rippling through Bamenda in visible and less visible ways. Samuel, a university professor, says: “What is happening in the hospitals is devastating. Young girls who are not going to school are getting pregnant and ending up in hospital when they try to get rid of it on their own.”
Other Bamenda youth struggle to survive. Two young boys dressed in light jackets look at the ground and back up against a car in need of repairs when approached in a small passage off of Nkwen Street. “For one month now, we are panel beaters,” says a 13-year-old out-of-school boy. “I like studying math […] but there is no school because of ghost town.” Many students in town are working as hawkers and looking for other ways to make money. As The Africa Report went to press, it was still not clear if there would be classes in the next school year as the troubles in Bamenda dragged on after the 2016/2017 school year was a washout. The economy of Bamenda is also in a dire state. The food market, hit by one of the fires that have plagued the city in recent months, has more sellers than customers in the middle of June. Clothes seller Bryan says that since last year “the market is very bad. Before I could not go minutes without someone coming by to ask what I am doing here. Now I sit here for hours with nothing to do.” The receptionist at the mid-sized Clifton Hotel says that at this time of year, normally the place would be booked out but it has just five guests. Suspicions are high and people talking about the conflict often look around to see if anyone is listening. The fire at the Top Star Hotel in early June and another recent one at a bar on Nkwen Street are seen as a sign that those organising ghost towns will punish those who do not respect the business boycott. At her restaurant, Samantha says that she closes down on Mondays. “No one knows who is setting the fires. They say they are in a group called Black Spider. They will threaten you first and give you a warning or slip a note under the door. But then they will come back to burn it if you do not close down on a ghost town.” To fight the insecurity, the red berets of soldiers are now a common sight at points throughout Bamenda. Even a member of the elite Bataillon d’intervention Rapide was seen on a night in June sitting in a noisy bar near a central transport hub in the city, dressed in fatigues and BIR baseball cap, surveying the crowd. Their presence is set to continue as the community’s resolve seems unweakened in its fight for anglophone traditions, development and better governance, in the face of the government’s game of hardball with anything that it sees as a threat to stability.
Following recent protests Bamenda was cut off, internet included
Clockwise from left: lack of investment has left Bamenda’s roads in a poor state of repair; customers are in short supply at the market; fires at a bar on Nkwen Street and at the market are seen as a sign that those who do not respect the business boycott will be punished
In state-run schools pupils were forced to sit end-of-year exams after a year without teaching