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Why we must end the suffering in English-speaking Cameroon

By Obadiah Mailafia

THE recent unrest in the English-speaking region of Western Cameroon caught the attention of the world media as well as that of the UN, EU and other international agencies. It is threatening to become part of what Wole Soyinka famously termed “the open wound of a continent”.

Southern Cameroun leaders addressing refugees in Abuja… before their arrest

Cameroon is a low-income country with a population of 23.4 million people. It has a GDP of US$30 million and per capita income of US$1,217. It belongs to the Central African Economic Community, one of the weakest in the continent, alongside shambolic countries such as DRC, Central Africa and Chad.

I am often grateful to the ancestors that we were colonised by the British rather than by the French or Portuguese. While they were all bastards, the British were more enlightened bastards. They were more interested in stealing our natural resources while leaving us to our devices; the French, by contrast, were not content to steal our patrimony but also to rob us of our very humanity.

Cameroon was first colonised by the Germans, who ruled from 1884 to 1916. Their historic defeat in what Lenin termed the First Imperialist War forced them to hand-over their colony to the French and the British. The French took the lion-share in the East while the British had a third of the territory in the West.

The approaches to colonial administration in both territories sowed the seeds of some of the problems of nationhood that have afflicted modern Cameroon. The French ruled through the policies of direct rule and assimilation.

They introduced a system of forced labour. They also gave preference to catholic missionaries who established schools and clinics. The colonial legal system was anchored on the civil law tradition which limits the prerogatives of judges to what is codified, with more investigative and prosecutorial powers given to the magistracy. Everything was geared to glorify France as the acme of human civilisation. Both the elites and the masses have remained the mental slaves of their French masters.

By contrast, the British introduced the indirect rule system in their territory. Protestant missionaries predominated. They also built schools and clinics. British colonial law accorded respect and dignity to the Africans. Forced labour was abolished in preference for wage labour. Many Africans sought colonial jobs in the plantations and colonial infrastructures as an opportunity for higher income and greater upward mobility.

When Cameroon became nominally independent from France on 1st January 1960, a plebiscite was carried out to determine if the Westerners wanted to be in Nigeria or in Cameroon. The north opted to join Nigeria, thanks to the indefatigable campaigns waged by Sir Ahmadu Bello, late premier of the Northern Nigeria.

The south, on the other hand, opted to rejoin Cameroon. My Cameroonian friends have told me that their parents recounted to them tales of humiliation and arrogance by the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria. They did not need to be persuaded to rejoin Cameroon.

Following the plebiscite Cameroon under its first president Ahmadou Ahidjo adopted a federal constitution in 1972. The new constitutional arrangement accorded a special autonomous status to the English-speaking region. When Paul Biya succeeded Ahidjo in November 1982, he abolished the federal constitution and replaced it with a unitary system; centralising power and revoking the regional autonomy arrangement that the English-speaking region had enjoyed.

The current crisis in Cameroon should not be reduced to an “Anglophone-Francophone” problem. It is far deeper than that. It touches on the anatomy of dictatorship in a corrupt, rapacious, incompetent, extractive neo-colonial apparatus that has treated its citizens with such contumely. The grievances of the English-speaking Cameroonians centre on the fact that they have been deprived of opportunities for advancement while infrastructures and public goods are largely concentrated on the French-speaking East.

The two largest cities in Cameroon are Yaoundé, the political capital, and Douala, the commercial capital, in the coast. The main national rail line links Douala and Yaoundé, while the seaports are in Douala, Kribi and Limbé. The bulk of administrative and economic power is thus concentrated on the French-speaking side.

While Cameroon is constitutionally a bilingual country, the government has barely tolerated the use of English in preference for French in all matters of public administration. I recently watched a news clip of English-speaking barristers demonstrating against imposition of French language in the courts. The westerners are gradually being reduced to the status of servitude as “drawers of water and hewers of wood”.

I have visited Cameroon several times. I love the country and its people. On the surface, it appears to be a tranquil place. Beneath, there is a seething volcano. Ask the Bamileke who have been hounded and persecuted for decades — ask the intellectuals and professionals who have fled abroad in droves. It is, in reality, a wretched country under the stranglehold of Paul Biya and his French Masonic brethren who have ruled with an iron hand for 35 years. We are told that the man lives mostly in Switzerland and hardly ever convenes cabinet meetings; an absentee-landlord whose misrule has crippled this great country and its wonderful people. Not too long ago he was alleged to have taken 43 rooms for himself and his entourage at the five-star L’Hérmittage Barrière resort at La Baule in southern France. It was rumoured to cost US$35,000 per night.

Recently, English-speaking dissidents unilaterally declared an independent “Ambazonian Republic”. The state responded with such violence that the EU was compelled to plead with the authorities to apply only “proportionate force” as a rule of engagement. The government also blocked internet accessibility for several months, crippling business and communications. More than 50,000 Cameroonian refugees are in our country. The federal government has been careful not to rock the boat. Cameroon under Ahidjo staunchly stood with the Gowon administration, refusing to aid secessionist Biafra. They helped us win the war.

But there has also always been the sticky issue of Bakassi; an international complot to cede off a huge chunk of our coastal territory to sinister French oil and commercial interests. Cameroon, like many so-called “Francophone” countries, is a satellite of a Leviathan that calls itself France-Afrique. France controls their money, their economies, their banking system and their infrastructures and public administration.

When the Bakassi case came up for hearing at the international Court of Justice in The Hague, the fact that the presiding judge was a Frenchman meant we had lost the case ab initio. Under the Green Tree Agreement, the indigenes of Bakassi are supposed to be free to live and pursue their livelihoods as they have done since time immemorial.

Alas, the regime in Yaoundé has observed the agreement more in the breach than anything else. The gendarmes have moved in, killing people, pillaging, capsizing boats and extorting humongous amounts for fishing rights. They have shown that it was never theirs in the first place. In a judgement that is unenforceable and whose terms have been violated, we have a duty to revisit it. Winston Churchill warned that borders are never negotiated – they are only defended.

It would be rather premature to accord recognition to the soi-disant Republic of Ambazonia, but we should provide humanitarian succour to the people of west Cameroon. Enough is enough. Silence at this stage amounts to complicity in genocide. We should engage with the regime in Yaoundé and compel them to restore the federal constitution and the autonomy that the westerners had enjoyed hitherto.

We should also push for a consociational arrangement that ensures that western Cameroonians are represented at all echelons of leadership, government and the administration. Cameroon is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. If the regime continues to violate the rights of its citizens in such a callous and flagrant manner, we must take steps to ensure that they are expelled from the Commonwealth.


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