Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Why Are English Speaking Cameroonians Asking For Independence?

A discharge of bullets, stunted screams and fallen comrades, then the arrests began. By the morning, when the smoke and dust had cleared, the local newspaper headlines screamed: “Tears and bloodshed in NW, SW.”

This is not about Monday’s massacre in Las Vegas. America has a gun-toting addiction, a white supremacist and locally-bred terror problem that remains wilfully ignored: the world need not revolve around their constant hypocrisy and stubbornness.

Instead, we turn our gaze on the events in our own backyard: south-western and north-western Cameroon, where a call for independence at the weekend reached fever pitch, resulting in the unfortunate loss of lives.

Thousands of protesters defied a ban on public gatherings to descend upon the streets of their towns and villages, holding white and blue flags, the symbol of people in southern Cameroon, or as they call themselves, Ambazonia. They called for freedom.

At least 17 people died and scores were injured in a face-off with Cameroon’s military.

It is a peculiar tale.
Why Are English Speaking Cameroonians Asking For Independence?
Almost 60 years after independence, English-speakers in the south-west and north-west regions of Cameroon are calling for “independence” from the French-speaking majority in Cameroon.

While we are demanding the need for further decolonisation in South Africa, there are fellow Africans literally fighting each other for their right over their colonial heritage.

It couldn’t get any more odd.

But like everything else on this dear continent, this issue is a lot more complex: a tale of colonial blunders and post-independence insecurity and authoritarianism.

Today, the Anglophone speakers complain that the French-majority discriminate and prevent them from employment and business opportunities. They use language (French) as a means to dominate and exclude, even though English is meant to be an official language. Activists say French has become the official language of courts and schools.

French penal codes have replaced English common law. English speakers have been pushed into a corner - adapt and assimilate or become obsolete.

As it turns out, these are matters deeply tied to the colonial period in which European countries, greedy for labour and resources, cut and shaved African nations and moulded them at will. First Germany took Kamerun in 1884 and, following its defeat in World War I, the League of Nations divided Kamerun between Britain and France.

As a result, both territories developed with a different currency, political culture, and legal and education systems. In the French-controlled regions, power came directly from Paris whereas the British preferred less-intensive indirect rule.

This is the nature of colonialism; it was an all-encompassing system of social and political life.

But then when independence came, colonial entities still somehow ensured that their divide-and-rule legacy would stick. In early 1960 Cameroon achieved independence from France. In October 1961, the English-speaking regions, also known as the southern and northern Cameroons, achieved their independence from Britain.

Most people in southern Cameroon wanted independence but this option was erased from the referendum; they were told they could either join Nigeria or Cameroon. Northern Cameroon subsequently joined Nigeria and southern Cameroon joined Cameroon.

Almost immediately, Cameroon’s government looked to assert control over southern Cameroon. There was also a move to consolidate a one-party state and rising authoritarianism that culminated in the end of federalism in 1972.

Henceforth all power in Cameroon would be centralised.

Movements for independence rose in the 1970s and 1990s. Just as on Sunday, there were declarations of independence in both 1999 and 2009, none of which have any legal basis but they were carried out anyway.

Recent protests that started the latest call for independence began late last year.

Lawyers in the English-speaking areas took to the streets to call for (British) common law to be used in the justice system. However, they were ignored.

When the protests spread to schools and businesses, and the boycotts grew, so much so that much of these regions were deserted and dubbed “ghost towns”, the intimidation and crackdown on demonstrators intensified.

There were dozens of deaths, hundreds of detentions and arrests. The internet was cut for more than 90 days. The government agreed to open a dialogue but these attempts failed, too.

Yet none of this is particularly surprising for Cameroon. This is a country that has become increasingly antagonistic towards dissent over the past decade. Journalists have been jailed, dissent has been repeatedly quashed. Under the guise of “fighting terror”, this government and its security forces have been able to get away with a litany of dubious behaviour towards its own. Their salient role in the fight against Boko Haram and Europe’s fear of losing business to China has granted Cameroon a reprieve from international scrutiny. So much so that Cameroon’s President Paul Biya just pretends that none of these issues even exist.

The question is not whether a free Anglophone state should exist. This is a debate which Anglophones are having themselves and is not for me to prescribe.

What is clear is that as the people grow more frustrated and feel increasingly ignored, the desire for an independent state or for a return to federalism will only grow. And no amount of repression, curtailing of rights or communication will halt that ... Why Are English Speaking Cameroonians Asking For Independence?
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