History books are rich with examples of conflict that derives from ethnic, religious, or tribal divisions. In the case of Cameroon, language should be added to the list. On October 1, in Cameroon’s Southwest and Northwest provinces, Anglophones protested what they feel to be linguistic discrimination in the majority Francophone country. The day also marked the independence of Anglophone Southern Cameroon from Britain in 1961. It later merged with its French-speaking neighbor.
The protests, which included a symbolic declaration of independence, turned violent as security forces cracked-down, leading to the death of at least 17 civilians. Additionally, the government limited internet access and electricity in the days following the unrest as a way to stifle dissent. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the killing of protesters and called for an investigation.
Even as government pressure increases, protesters seem unfazed. The protests, whose members want anything from increased access to resources to full independence, have gone on for months and seem unlikely to relent. At the October 1 rallies, protesters waved the flag of Ambazonia, the incipient independent state for Anglophones. While the international community has thus far condemned the government’s use of violence, calls for Anglophone secession have fallen on deaf ears.
The linguistic divisions are a legacy of colonialism when most of modern Cameroon was a French colony, but today’s restive regions comprised British Cameroon. As a result, Anglophones make up 20 percent of the population of the country, and grievances linked to this minority status have been bubbling since the two colonies merged in 1961.
In the days following the protest, longtime President Paul Biya called for dialogue with the protesters. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was quick to echo the conciliatory tone. However, with the government asserting that the unity of the country is non-negotiable, the success of dialogue seems slim. In a region of Africa bedeviled by Boko Haram to the west and Congolese instability to the east, Cameroon must tread carefully to mend the deep social rifts that the recent spate of violence has highlighted.