The Anglophones of Cameroon, 20 per cent of the population, feel marginalised. Their frustrations surfaced dramatically at the end of 2016 when a series of sectoral grievances morphed into political demands, leading to strikes and riots.
The movement grew to the point where the government’s repressive approach was no longer sufficient to calm the situation, forcing it to negotiate with Anglophone trade unions and make some concessions. Popular mobilisation is now weakening, but the majority of Anglophones are far from happy. Having lived through three months with no internet, six months of general strikes and one school year lost, many are now demanding federalism or secession. Ahead of presidential elections next year, the resurgence of the Anglophone problem could bring instability. The government, with the support of the international community, should quickly take measures to calm the situation, with the aim of rebuilding trust and getting back to dialogue.
Generally little understood by Francophones, the Anglophone problem dates back to the independence period. A poorly conducted re-unification, based on centralisation and assimilation, has led the Anglophone minority to feel politically and economically marginalised, and that their cultural difference are ignored.
The current crisis is a particularly worrying resurgence of an old problem. Never before has tension around the Anglophone issue been so acute. The mobilisation of lawyers, teachers and students starting in October 2016, ignored then put down by the government, has revived identity-based movements which date back to the 1970s. These movements are demanding a return to the federal model that existed from 1961 to 1972. Trust between Anglophone activists and the government has been undermined by the arrest of the movement’s leading figures and the cutting of the internet, both in January. Since then, the two Anglophone regions have lived through general strikes, school boycotts and sporadic violence.
Small secessionist groups have emerged since January. They are taking advantage of the situation to radicalise the population with support from part of the Anglophone diaspora. While the risk of partition of the country is low, the risk of a resurgence of the problem in the form of armed violence is high, as some groups are now advocating that approach.
The government has taken several measures since March – creating a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism; creating new benches for Common Law at the Supreme Court and new departments at the National School of Administration and Magistracy; recruiting Anglophone magistrates and 1,000 bilingual teachers; and turning the internet back on after a 92-day cut. But the leaders of the Anglophone movement have seen these measures as too little too late.
International reaction has been muted, but has nevertheless pushed the government to adopt the measures described above. The regime in Yaoundé seems more sensitive to international than to national pressure. Without firm, persistent and coordinated pressure from its international partners, it is unlikely that the government will seek lasting solutions.
The Anglophone crisis is in part a classic problem of a minority, which has swung between a desire for integration and a desire for autonomy, and in part a more structural governance problem. It shows the limits of centralised national power and the ineffectiveness of the decentralisation program started in 1996. The weak legitimacy of most of the Anglophone elites in their region, under-development, tensions between generations, and patrimonialism are ills common to the whole country. But the combination of bad governance and an identity issue could be particularly tough to resolve.
Dealing with the Anglophone problem requires a firmer international reaction and to rebuild trust through coherent measures that respond to the sectoral demands of striking teachers and lawyers. There is some urgency: the crisis risks undermining the approaching elections. In that context, several steps should be taken without delay:
The president of the republic should publicly recognise the problem and speak out to calm tensions.
The leaders of the Anglophone movement should be provisionally released.
Members of the security forces who have committed abuses should be sanctioned.
The government should quickly put in place the measures announced in March 2017, and the 21 points agreed on with unions in January.
The government and senior administration should be re-organised to better reflect the demographic, political and historical importance of the Anglophones, and to include younger and more legitimate members of the Anglophones community.
The National Commission on Bilingualism and multiculturalism should be restructured to include an equal number of Anglophones as Francophones, to guarantee the independence of its members and to give it powers to impose sanctions.
The government should desist from criminalising the political debate on Anglophone Cameroon, including on federalism, in particular by ceasing to use the anti-terrorism law for political ends and by considering recourse to a third party (the church or international partner) as a mediator between the government and Anglophone organisations.
In the longer term, Cameroon must undertake institutional reforms to remedy the deeper problems of which the Anglophone issue is the symptom. In particular, decentralisation laws should be rigorously applied, and improved, to reduce the powers of officials nominated by Yaoundé, create regional councils, and better distribute financial resources and powers.
Finally, it is important to take legal measures specific to Anglophone regions in the areas of education, justice and culture.Cameroon, facing Boko Haram in the Far North and militia from the Central African Republic in the East, needs to avoid another potentially destabilising front opening up. If the Anglophone problem got worse it would disrupt the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018.
Above all, it could spark off further demands throughout the country and lead to a wider political crisis.