By Mwalimu George Ngwane*
Since May 9th 2015 the media in Cameroon have been awash with conversation on what is now simply called ‘The Anglophone problem’. These narratives have been fuelled by the resurgence on this statehood reclaim or linguistic minority issue which based on the Press Release of Common Law Lawyers Conference of 13th February 2016 seems to be getting more radical and volatile. Another Press Release sent to me by the Cameroon Education Forum on 4th March 2016 titled ‘Reflection on the Anglophone sub-system of Education in Cameroon’ justifies the Anglophone marginalisation argument on ‘the role the political systems play in the minority Anglophones’ education structures, processes and outcomes, the growth and economic development, the status differentiation, the social mobility and other factors of the minority Anglophones’.
Even though Cameroonian revisionist scholars and Anglophone militant activists still lack a converging point on whether the Francophone-Anglophone union in Cameroon is rooted in illegality or not, history has it on record and forgive me if I now sound like a broken record, that on 11th February 1961, the former British colony of Southern Cameroons decided through a United Nations Plebiscite to gain her ‘Independence ‘by joining with the French colonial territory known as La Republique. This merger took form under a Federal structure in October 1st 1961 in which the former Southern Cameroons assumed the statehood of West Cameroon and La Republique assumed that of East Cameroon. It was indeed a merger of equal states as stipulated in the 1961 constitution.
But on 20th May 1972 this federal structure was abolished through a Referendum in which the numerical majority from East Cameroon foisted a unitary structure over the numerical minority of West Cameroon. Then in February 1984, the name of the country was changed from United Republic of Cameroon to just ‘Republic of Cameroon’-a name that the Francophone Cameroon had before the 1961 Plebiscite.
Since then, Anglophones continue to articulate their direct and indirect discrimination on the basis of the colonial language (English) and are undergoing a process of forced assimilation. The use of the English language in the judiciary system and educational system has been a thorny issue much against the spirit of the country’s bicultural heritage. The members of the Anglophone Cameroon pressure group (SCNC) are often arrested and detained and at this moment one of the members Maxwell Oben is in detention.
Like most governments, Cameroon power elite have the misconception that minority rights in all its dimensions are divisive, can lead to the breakup of the state and can send a precedent that would spiral into war. Of course conflict is about management and it is important to note here that the Ethiopian government realised as early as in November 1994 when Eritrea opted out of the union in 1993 that facing the facts of diversity and coming heads on with all threats of self-determination were antidotes to internal strife. Ethiopia then went ahead to institute the right to self-determination in the constitution. The solution is therefore about facing rather than ignoring the fact that Anglophones have unfinished business that needs settling.
Most governments continue to regard sometimes at their peril, protest orature and literature from foot soldiers of liberation as mere ranting of self-seeking martyrs. Only a few weeks ago Dr. Ebenezer Akwanga of the Southern Cameroons Youth League made a TV appearance in London in which he opined that a working agenda between the Biafra secessionist group whose leader Nnamdi Kanu is presently in jail and Southern Cameroon Liberation groups could not be ruled out. This rhetoric sometimes more muscular than what is on the ground often feeds into the psyche of a vulnerable people and sometimes resonates in the character of their struggle.
Professor Joseph Owona who masterminded the 1996 ‘one and indivisible’ constitution is shifting ground to propose a rotational Presidency among regions even if popular reason talks of power oscillating between Anglophones and Francophones.
Another misconception about minority rights is for government to believe that by including Anglophone elite within power circles as it has been the case recently where state corporations that used to be headed solely by Francophones and even authoritative rather than decorative Ministries are being increasingly headed now by Anglophones. While this is a step in the right direction as it speaks to the principle of special measures for minority rights, it limits its impact only to the family and clientelist survival strategy much against the holistic and constitutional grievances of a marginalised group.
It is on record that one of the outcomes of the Banjul Court a couple of years ago was for the Biya government to dialogue with the Anglophone liberation groups. That opportunity was missed first when in 1991, the government announced plans to fashion a new constitution and called on citizens to make their contributions to a Constitutional Committee. More than 5000 Anglophones met in a conference on 2-3 April 1993 to discuss and submit their views of the constitution that should take on board the grievances and special measures needed to address Anglophone minority concerns but the Committee snubbed the issues and went ahead to engineer a 1996 constitution which Anglophones argue has instead devalued their pre-1972 status as they are now treated as an ethnic group or mere regional expressions rather than persons who came to the union as equal partners under their own statehood.
Prime Minister Philomen Yang’s prescription during the 50th anniversary of Reunification in Buea in 2014 for Anglophones to seek redress by creating a political party was received with trepidation and apprehension by most Anglophones. But above all, what has been President Biya’s public position on the Anglophone problem?
The endgame is difficult to decipher partly because of government’s lack of jaw-jaw policy and lack of unanimity even among the major Anglophone advocacy groups. Are they advocating an exit option in order to assert and reclaim their statehood or clamouring for a more inclusive architecture that would address and redress their minorityhood?
The option for most civilised countries today facing threats from the micro to the macro level is to use Referendum as a scientific tool for allaying old fractures or forging new fusions. The Australians needed a referendum in 1977 to change their anthem, the Scots had it in 2014 to determine their future in the UK, Catalonia organised anon-binding Referendum in 2014 to determine their future in Spain the British shall determine their in-or-out fate in the European Union on June 23 2016, and New Zealand held one in 2015 and is planning to hold another Referendum in 2016 to change their flag. Of course the result of such Referenda may also be a backlash to any of the parties as it is with the pathetic cases of Eritrea which is moving into a rogue state with most of her citizens running back to Ethiopia or going on voluntary exile or South Sudan which barely five years into Independence is tottering on the borders of a semi-failed state with internal power struggle and an increasingly economically pauperised population.
If the new voices within the Anglophone community (law, education, high profile personalities, pressure groups and the media) articulating the Anglophone problem and finding a consensus on a zero-sum option are anything to go by, then the need for a robust domestic remedy rather than tokenisms is imperative. In times like these when the country has Boko Haram insurgency to address it needs national synergy born out of internal catharsis and diplomatic savvy not to downplay Anglophone problem whose irredentism risks giving the subregion and by extension the continent media sound bites albeit for the wrong reasons. Therefore President Biya and his government need to move from their sandy comfort zone of cemetery silence to the Anglophone problem and minimal incremental perks and patronage to some Anglophone elite to the solid courage zone of an Anglophone redemption song born out of the diverse chords of a national orchestra.
*Mwalimu George Ngwane is currently a 2016 Commonwealth Professional Fellow tenable at the Minority Rights Group International London, United Kingdom and funded by the UK government