11 October 2017

Cameroon: Why English Speakers Are Demanding Their Own Country

Photo: Video screenshot
Member of parliament for Kumbo, Wirba Joseph, has become an Internet sensation after he castigated the government for its handling of both the student strike in Buea and other strike actions engulfing the country.

Cameroon's anglophone crisis reached a new low last week, when 17 people were shot dead by security forces and 50 wounded, according to Amnesty International, but local media put the death toll at more than 20.

Protesters had gathered in towns across the country's two English-speaking regions to mark a symbolic declaration of independence, and were confronted by police firing teargas canisters and live ammunition.

There has been an 11-month strife between the authorities in the majority francophone country and English-speaking protesters, who allege discrimination and the marginalisation of their two regions - Northwest and Southwest Cameroon.

The agitation has deepened from a demand to return to a long-abandoned federal system, to increasing calls for secession. In the confrontation last week, protesters hoisted the blue-and-white flag of the self-styled Republic of Ambazonia.

The crisis began last year, with protests by lawyers and teachers over the influence of French in courtrooms and schools.

The root of the grievances is anger over the region's under-development, its lack of political representation, and the perceived erosion of an anglophone cultural heritage.

The government has labelled the demonstrators terrorists. It has tried to snuff out dissent with hundreds of arrests. Earlier in the year it cut Internet to western Cameroon for three months, arguing that social media was being used to fan the unrest.

'Ghost town'

The response from the protesters has been to declare a weekly one-day business stayaway as part of a broader civil disobedience campaign, which has included school boycotts. Those tactics have served to further impoverish the west.

The so-called "ghost town" stayaways are also increasingly being enforced by violence.

President Paul Biya, 84, who has been in power for 35 years, has described anglophone activists as "extremists" and any division of Cameroon as non-negotiable.

As positions harden, there is narrowing space for dialogue. A day after the latest clashes, shots could still be heard, with the government declaring a day-time curfew in the city of Bamenda, the capital of the North West Region.

The country's linguistic divide dates back to 1961, when the British-administered Southern Cameroons united with Cameroon after it gained Independence from France in 1960. It was a federal state until 1972.

Prior to the bloody October 1 clashes, protests took place in major towns and cities of the regions on September 22, as President Paul Biya was about to address the UN General Assembly in New York. The protesters said the aim of the demonstrations was draw UN's attention to the to the crisis.

Crisis point

Amnesty International said the violence witnessed last weekend has now reached a crisis point.

"The use of excessive force to silence protests in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon is not the solution. All deaths related to these protests must be promptly and effectively investigated," said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International's Lake Chad researcher.

In October last year, lawyers started a work boycott after the government failed to respond to a list of grievances they had lodged in 2015. Teachers in the English speaking part of the country joined the work boycott a month later.

Yaoundé initiated dialogue with representatives of the striking lawyers and teachers but it ended in a deadlock after representatives of the unions, who rallied under the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, walked out.

The consortium leaders were arrested in January this year. More than 100 other protesters were already in detention after violent clashes on December 8, 2016.

The jailed leaders named an interim leadership with Brussels-based activists, Mark Bareta and Cameroonian student in the US Ivo Tapang to run the activities of the consortium. Through social media, the activists flooded English-speaking Cameroonians with messages calling for civil disobedience and street protests.

In trying to quell the protests, the government deployed troops to the regions and shut down Internet for three months.

In a recent Facebook post, President Biya said he has not forbidden anyone to voice concerns in the republic.

"However, nothing great can be achieved by using verbal excesses, street violence and defying authority. Lasting solutions to problems can be found only through peaceful dialogue," he wrote.

Social Democratic Front (SDF) leader Ni John Fru Ndi said the president is responsible for the escalation of the crisis.

National and international bodies have called for restraint from both parties. Stephane Dujarric, spokesman of the UN Secretary-General said the UN is "deeply concerned" with the situation and "strongly condemns" the acts of violence reported.

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