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The Road to Ambazonia: The Language Crisis in Cameroon

1. Introduction

Contrary to common misconceptions, the African continent, with a population of over a billion, is not homogeneous. It is not possible for generalizations about a continent with such a large population and cultural diversity to be accurate. A single image of Africa is created through generalizations that do not take into account factors such as the dominant Arab population in the north, the different culture in the south, and the colonial past in the west and east, which are seen as similar but have differences. Such readings fail to make sense of the differences that lead to tensions, conflicts and even wars between the countries that gained their independence. When we look at the causes of conflicts between African countries, we see that the most prominent reason is border disputes. The colonial powers of the continent were forced to withdraw from the regions they exploited due to the strong resistance movements they faced in some regions, the burden of the cost of exploitation in some regions on the treasuries and the dynamics of the Cold War period after the Second World War. The main factor in these conflicts was the fact that most of the borders drawn with the effects of this withdrawal were established without taking into account demographic and sociological conditions. So much so that in some regions today, people belonging to the same tribe live in different countries and the only thing that separates them is country borders.

Border disputes have both material and moral causes. The material causes are mostly the sharing disputes caused by the fact that many parts of Africa are endowed with underground riches. Apart from this, there are also maritime territorial disputes, which also affect material returns. Moral causes can be broadly categorized as identity conflicts. It would not be correct to claim that identity conflicts are completely separate from material causes. Internal and external identity crises have often been over religion in Nigeria and the Central African Republic, ethnicity in Ethiopia and Rwanda, and language in Cameroon. There are, of course, other causes that feed all of these crises, and different offshoots that reinforce them. For example, it is a mistake to read the terrorist attacks in Somalia solely in terms of different interpretations of religion. The intertwined causes can be seen together when we look at the position of Somalia in the Gulf once it has achieved a stable structure in its current position.

Similarly, the problem in Cameroon is an interesting case that starts with language and shows how similar ethnic groups are differentiated through different western languages. First of all, it should be noted that the number of local languages in many African countries is more than twenty. This number is estimated to be around two thousand across the continent (Bamgbose, 1991).

Language is not only a means of communication but also a means of identity formation. Since language is the most important factor in the mutual relations of community members in a country, it permeates every aspect of national life and becomes an identity for the survival and progress of the nation. In addition to its communicative function, language is closely linked to a nation's culture, religious activities, administrative and legal systems, political and geographical organization (Opeibi, 2012: 272).

In the case of Cameroon, it is clear that in a geography where two hundred different languages are spoken, it is not unlikely that there may be conflicts over language. In fact, in a country where so many languages are spoken, questions such as what the common language should be and how a nation identity can be formed through a common language come to mind. The identity crisis in part of Cameroon is related to these questions. A part of the country, where French is the dominant language, does not speak French, cannot identify itself with this language and demands independence due to the sense of belonging that cannot be achieved through language. The source of this problem, which is more on the agenda today, actually goes back much further. In order to better understand the source of the problem, it is necessary to focus on the processes that the region went through before and after independence.

2. Beginning of the Identity Crisis

West Africa is a region as rich in underground resources as it is culturally rich. This wealth has been a means of prosperity not for the people of the region, but for the powers that occupied the region. The process of exploitation by different states has left not only material losses but also a humanitarian drama in the region. Cameroon, a German colony, was divided between the British and the French after the defeat of the Germans in the First World War.

After the transfer of the territory, which had been ruled by the Germans since the Berlin Conference (1884), to the other two powers, some disputes arose. In 1919, Cameroon was divided into two parts to be administered by the French and the British. The French took the majority of the German-administered territories, while the British took the rest of the territory and some parts of Nigeria. The French retained the region called Northern Cameroon, while the British retained Southern Cameroon.

Both regions became independent with the winds of independence in the pre-sixties, with French-controlled Northern Cameroon gaining independence in 1960. Southern Cameroon joined it a year later (Le Republique du Cameroun) and became independent. The 1961 Foumban Conference was the conference where the foundations of unification were discussed. Southern Cameroon participated in the Foumban Constitutional Conference of July 17-21, 1961, under British leadership and a UN guarantee. The delegates at Foumban adopted the motto of the Republic of Cameroon, the national anthem and the flag for the Federal Republic of Cameroon (Article 1, 1961). Until 1972, Anglophones did not enjoy the various promised rights. On May 20, 1972, a new constitution was adopted and it was decided to move from a federal to a unitary state. The Federal Republic of Cameroon was renamed the United Republic of Cameroon. Developments overshadowed by objections from the Anglophone region led to the constitutional amendment in 1984. Under the leadership of Paul Biya, who is still in charge of the country today (2021), the name United Republic of Cameroon was replaced by the Republic of Cameroon with the constitutional amendment. The flag change, which is more than a symbolic change, gives an idea of the country's current situation and the denial policy that will develop from now on. Biya made the following statement after the change:

"The transition from a federal republic to a united republic and eventually to the Republic of Cameroon demonstrates the desire of the Cameroonian state to resolve the quarter-century-long political problem caused by the colonizers" (Awasom, 2020: 17).

Looking at the processes of independence, federal state and return to a unitary state, it is seen that the common denominator necessary for nationhood has not been established. The two English-speaking regions of the country, which are divided into ten regions, do not see themselves in this harmony of nationhood.

After independence, many countries have opted for a new political, economic and social policy based on a centralized unitary system. Cameroon was similarly established with a structure that strengthened the center. In fact, the newly established structure can be considered as an alliance of elites. Considering the importance of ethnicity-based tribalism in most African countries, it can be said that this process bears similar traces with other countries. The elites in the system designed by Ahidjo, the country's first president, are not only politicians and businessmen, but also regionally powerful tribal chiefs. Thus, it can be said that a coalition of elites was formed at both national and regional levels.

This system, which is based on a coalition of elites, may be acceptable in a region where representation of different ethnic groups is mandatory in order to establish a national identity more easily and to keep the central government stronger.

In Ahidjo's system, we see the representation of three different ethnic identities. The first of these is the Fulbe ethnic group, where Ahidjo's identity is also represented. This group of Muslims controls the Garoua region. The second group is the Betis, a Christian ethnic identity. This group of Francophones from the south of Cameroon, in coalition with the Fulbe, have become influential in the governance of the country. The third group is the Bamilekes, who today live in the western part of Cameroon (Warnier, 1993). As an advantage of the system, representatives of these groups enjoyed all privileges at the level of obedience to the president. Access to state resources, non-repayable bank loans, inflated salaries compared to the earnings of the rest of Cameroonians, free housing, and many other benefits were used within a rent monopoly (Konings & Nyamnjoh, 2003: 5).

By 1982, when Paul Biya took over from Ahidjo, it can be argued that this group became more influential because he was a Beti himself. Apart from the change of president, the country's economic predicament has also damaged the elite coalition that has been in place since independence. Within this balance, those who wanted to exist in Anglophone regions with an Anglophone identity were encouraged by the promises of reform in the first years of Biya's rule, but the solution to the crisis of the fracturing coalition was more centralization. As the rate of centralization increased, so did the problems between the English-speaking part of the country and the center. In the climate of political turmoil caused by the discomfort caused by Beti dominance, the Social Democratic Front was formed to defend the rights of Anglophones, who were treated as second-class citizens in the eyes of the majority of Francophones (Konings, 2004: 3). The founder of the party, John Fru Ndi, made a short speech at Ntarikon Park in Bamenda on May 26, 1990, the day Martin Luther King made his famous "I have a dream!" speech:

"Today is the most important day in the struggle for democracy for Cameroon. Democracy was never given to the people on a golden platter. We have set as one of our goals to liberate Cameroonian society from a system that deprives people of being free or punishes them for daring to think freely, come together peacefully and freely. We call on you to stand up and be among those who share our democratic ideal. As freeborn citizens, you have nothing to lose but the plain jacket you wear." (Gwellem, 1996: 12).

Twenty-six people lost their lives in the clashes that broke out after the speech. The Anglophone demonstrations were accused by the ruling party of being Nigerian propaganda in Cameroon (Konings, 2004: 3).

The party received support from Francophone members in the following period, but it lagged behind the ruling party at some points due to the necessity of taking sides between Anglophones and Francophones on the administrative staff. The good performance in the 1992 elections led many of its supporters to believe that they had been cheated out of power. All these political moves failed to bring about the necessary transformation in the ruling party. If the criticisms of the opposition had been heeded by the Biya administration at the time, a significant progress could have been made in resolving the national identity crisis.

Abiem a Tchoy explains the source of the problem in six points. According to him, the problems are the centralized state, the relocation of decision-making centers to Yaounde, which is far away from Anglophones, non-compliance with commitments and violation of cultural and traditional jurisdictions, unrealizable promises, the change of the country's name, and the lack of respect for the bilingual system in public life (Okereke, 2018: 8).

All these reasons are not accepted by the Cameroonian state. According to the state mind, the main reason for the Anglophone crisis is that the order created by the colonizers has permeated into the present. Within this perspective, it becomes quite easy to categorize the English-speaking population as directly anti-state. During the formation of the problem, French support for Francophone Cameroon continued after independence.

3. Onset of Violence

Nowadays, most social events are covered on social media before print or broadcast media. Indeed, images of the crisis in Cameroon have occasionally appeared in news agencies. However, the most high-profile material was a video circulated and spread on Twitter of a mother and her baby being gunned down by a group wearing military uniforms. While the footage is still available, it was initially denied by the authorities. It was later claimed to have been planned to weaken the army in its fight against Boko Haram. In 2018, Amnesty International published a report on the civilian toll of actions by both sides, reporting that at least four hundred civilians had been killed (Amnesty International, 2017).

On May 9, 2015, the lawyers sent a warning to President Biya to raise the country's situation. The letter went unanswered, and a year later they convened for a second conference, this time in Beua, and reiterated their demands. At the end of 2016, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, led by activist lawyer Felix Agbor Balla, itemized their demands. It called for Yaounde's interventionist tendency and marginalization to be avoided. In particular, for the future of public affairs, it called for a return to a two-state federation, which would mean a return to the 1961 plan. Related to this, the legal and educational systems of Anglophone Cameroon were to be preserved. The release of the hundred or so people arrested during the protests was another demand. The consortium's final demand is that the internet problem in Anglophone Cameroon be fixed as soon as possible (Tchoyi, 2017). The last demand in particular, when considered together with the fact that many African countries restrict the internet in almost every social event and post-election protests, can be considered as an objection to a decision taken to prevent conflicts in the region from being reflected on social media. The fact that such a demand is on the agenda is important to ensure the transparency of bilateral statements on the events. After unanswered calls, peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins began. Later, the scope of the protests against the transfer of Francophone judges and teachers to Anglophone courts and schools expanded. In the first phase, the state made statements that some reforms would be made, but then the demands shifted to another phase with the arrests of moderate dissidents and the killing of some protesters.

The arrests and killings provided a fertile ground for separatists. On October 1, 2017, Southern Cameroon, which refers to Anglophones, declared its independence from Cameroon as Ambazonia. This, of course, radicalized both sides' views on the issue, and violence mutually escalated. In the 2018 conflict, separatists launched attacks against the Cameroonian army, the army responded and the Anglophone population was caught between two fires.

4. Parties to the Crisis

It is not enough to read the process in Cameroon in terms of two actors, the state and the Anglophones. As a result of the efforts of both sides, the issue has become more than a domestic crisis, but one in which international factors are also involved. In this context, both the Cameroonian state is trying to contribute to its international image by talking about various terrorist organizations, and the representatives of the Anglophone struggle are addressing the international community through the injustice and persecution they have suffered.

4.1. State of Cameroon

Prioritizing the preservation of the status quo since the onset of the crisis, the Cameroonian administration is in an alliance with both regional and international actors. It is a member of international institutions such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth Community, the International Francophone Organization, the Economic Community of Central African States, and the African Union.

Apart from these, it has close diplomatic ties with countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America. The ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement Party has ruled the country since 1985. This is why Cameroon is one of the examples given when talking about the impact of long-term governments in many African countries. In line with countries such as Zimbabwe and Uganda, the long-term rule of Paul Biya creates a perception of stability for the region (IPSS, 2020: 6).

The main reason for the country's abundant support from its allies is its fight against the Boko Haram organization on its border. The fighting force, composed of elite troops and based in the north, is supported by many countries and organizations fighting against terrorist movements in the region. It should be added that these elite troops are also fighting against armed groups in Anglophone regions.

4.2. Civil Society

Civil movements have made important attempts to resolve the Anglophone crisis. Efforts to demilitarize and demilitarize the crisis and to facilitate a civilian solution were particularly sustained throughout 2016 and part of the following year. Initiatives led by the Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, together with lawyers, teachers and trade unions, put forward clear demands to address the problems in the English-speaking regions of the country. Peaceful demonstrations in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, combined with support from the academic community, have led to boycotts in the economic, legal and social spheres.

The arrest of the leaders of the peaceful demonstrations has greatly diminished the chances of the crisis being resolved through civil society representatives. At the beginning of the crisis, efforts to bring together representatives of different faiths to find peaceful solutions were not very effective.

4.3. Armed Groups

Armed groups, one of the parties to the problem, found a suitable space for themselves after various civilian initiatives failed, the government failed to deliver on its reform promises and peaceful demonstrations were harshly suppressed. Unable to find excuses for their armed attacks when various dialogue channels were open, these groups found reasons to justify their attacks after the failure of dialogue.

Especially with the ideological support of Cameroonians in the diaspora, the Ambazonian Defense Forces were formed in 2017. This group, together with its armed forces, announced their independence under the name of Ambazonia. Another armed group established in Anglophone regions is the Southern Cameroon Defense Forces. Founded in the same year, this group also strives for the independence of the southwest region. Armed groups such as the Ambazonian Self-Defense Council, Manyu Tigers, Red Dragons, Swords of Ambazonia, established in 2018, also serve the same purpose (IPSS, 2020: 9) These groups, which are in conflict with Cameroonian soldiers, are estimated to have around two thousand five hundred to three thousand militants together with smaller groups.

4.4. African Union

The African Union has been criticized for its passive position towards resolving the Cameroon crisis. In 2019, the African Union Commission's call for dialogue with Cameroonian leader Paul Biya was ineffective. The Biya-led government believes in a military solution to the conflict and characterizes other solutions as weakness. In early 2020, Cameroon submitted a one hundred and ninety-page report to the African Union, which condemned the violence in the country in 2018, stating that it had complied with its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. However, the report of the party that measures its own performance has been criticized by international human rights organizations (Nkongho & Tinsley, 2020).

The African Union has been an institution that has seen declining support due to its indifference to social movements that have turned into conflicts across the continent and its inability to sanction governments that have turned authoritarian in many countries. Nevertheless, the Union remains the closest international party to this crisis. It is expected to remain the most important party in monitoring the violence, maintaining dialogue between the parties and keeping the issue on the international agenda.

4.5. Other Actors

If the state, civil society and armed groups are considered the primary parties to the crisis and the African Union the primary international observer, other actors can be defined as third parties. The United Nations, Canada, France, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and even the Vatican have been involved at certain points after the onset of events.

In 2016, as peaceful demonstrations turned violent, the United States called on Cameroon to respect the rights of Anglophones and fundamental human rights. In 2017, the UN Representative for Central Africa visited Yaounde and met with the jailed leaders of the consortium. He demanded their release, the establishment of a dialogue table, and access to the internet. These are also the demands of the consortium from the Cameroonian government, as mentioned earlier. In 2021, after the Pope's meeting with Biya in 2017, the Vatican's pressure to resolve the Anglophone crisis continues (RFI, 2021).

It should be added that China, which has a commercial interest in Cameroon, supports the current government policies and the European Union, fearing that the country's fight against Boko Haram will be disrupted, has remained silent (ICC, 2017: 17).

5. Conclusion

The disagreements and conflicts in Cameroon should not be perceived solely as a matter of identity. Of course, building a new structure around a common identity in the process of nation-building and experiencing problems related to various sub-identities in the process of this construction are processes with similar characteristics in other countries.

In the case of Africa, the pain of the transition to independence was felt in some regions that were caught unprepared for the wind of independence that blew through the sixties. In regions that had not been able to dream of independence for a long time and were governed entirely by the reflections of general decisions taken in other capitals, this transitional pain cannot be explained by identity alone. The regions, which had been deprived of all their rights and wealth until then, had economic problems as important as identity in the process of returning to independent states. In fact, it would be correct to say that the problem of identity and the dichotomy between sub- and super-identity is an outcome of the economic bottleneck in many countries.

Independent countries have had to deal with two different economic problems. The first one is the neocolonial continuation of unofficial exploitation after the formal independence. The fact that the colonial powers, which had benefited from all the opportunities of the continent until then, simply walked out of the countries they were in the day after independence does not mean that the order of exploitation has ended. Therefore, the newly independent countries were born dependent in many respects. This situation brings with it the fact that the internal political issues of the countries still cannot be resolved without indirect reference to the former colonial powers. In other words, the identity crisis is a direct legacy of the colonial era.

The second issue is the problem of who gets what share of the pie in the newly established states. This problem has varied regionally and has been attempted to be solved through distribution based on religion, ethnicity, language or tribe. Although this type of distribution is likely to save the day, it is clear that it will not help to establish a solid system for the future. As a matter of fact, in the following years, the result of coups, coups d'états or changes in power through western-adjusted democratic elections meant that the distribution of resources in countries had to be redone. The processes of nation-building and the search for a homogeneous identity have been disrupted in line with economic interests, often as a result of associating the search for rights with western imperialism. In the crisis in Cameroon, it is possible to see elements of all of these causes.

The segregation of society through language and the negative view of others outside the perceptions of the nation formed through language extends from simple actions in daily life to the ordinary functioning of public institutions. Francophones brand others as traitors, while Anglophones see Francophones as unable to do anything without the help of France (Konings & Nyamnjoh, 2003: 141). The beginning of the problem dates back to Cameroon's independence. There were two solutions offered to the Anglophones' quest for independence at that time. Either the Anglophones would have autonomy in Nigeria under the control of the Igbos or they would merge with Cameroon. With the plebiscite in which it was agreed to form a federal structure with Cameroon rather than being under Nigerian control, the problem began. As the promises mentioned in the previous chapters were broken and the dispute turned into a conflict, optimistic thoughts of national unity gave way to state-centered repression and separatist violence on the other side.

The reason for the strengthening of separatist movements over time in the domestic political environment is the devaluation of the moves of civil society. In addition, the fact that the methods used in other similar cases across the continent, which have been successful, are usually based on military victories has also strengthened these secessionist movements intellectually. The Eritrean case remains a reference for secessionist movements in different parts of Africa. Eritrea's desire to secede from Ethiopia started with civil movements raising their voices due to its capacity for self-governance and its demands in accordance with international agreements. After the attitude of international institutions towards these demands, the civilian movement was replaced by military mobilization. Eritrea became independent through a referendum after its military victory against the Addis Addis Ababa administration. This is how the Ethiopia-Eritrea crisis, which resembled the federation in Cameroon in its inception, was resolved.

A similar issue that was resolved in this way, not by war but by agreement, was between Senegal and Gambia. The Gambia is an enclave within Senegal due to its location. Like the two groups in Cameroon, Senegal is Francophone and Gambia is Anglophone. In order to increase the commercial activities of the two countries and to strengthen them, they united under the name of Senegambia Federation in 1982. The Gambia left the federation in 1989 due to the Francophone Senegalese side's similar demands and advocacy of unification under the Senegalese state as a whole. Of course, it can be seen that this example does not entirely fit the Anglophones in Cameroon in the sense that Gambia was independent before the federation. The fact that such a secession would result in the independence of a previously non-independent region as a new state is likely to be a problem not only for Cameroon but also for Nigeria, another factor in the region. It is anticipated that Anglophone regions in Cameroon that own valuable underground resources will continue to demand autonomy through international institutions. Eliminating the radical views of the Cameroonian state and the Anglophone side is the first stage of the solution. The second stage will be the reactivation of civil society and both sides looking to civil society for a solution. Just as it is impossible to reach a solution to a problem where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced without de-escalation, it is equally impossible to de-escalate without civil initiatives. A Balkanization of the process would not be a solution, but a step towards a bigger and more intractable problem. Therefore, it should be kept in mind that every step that international institutions do not take because of the risk of a new failure in the international arena will make the region more turbulent. At the same time, the resolution of the Cameroon conflict is a crisis that can serve as a model for various identity crises in different parts of the continent. The peaceful resolution of identity crises, which have previously been tried to be resolved with weapons and military struggles, in a peaceful way and independent of neocolonial interventions will be a roadmap for the resolution of a wide range of problems from Somalia to Ethiopia, from Nigeria to Central Africa.


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