By Joseph M. Ndifor
One of the challenges facing my parents’ generation was the reunification of our native country of Cameroon following its breakup at the end of the First World War. When Germany was vanquished at the end of that war, Cameroon, one of its African colonies, was seized and partitioned by France and Great Britain, two of the wartime allies. Mandated by the League of Nations in 1922, Cameroon was divided into three regions, East Cameroon, Northern Cameroons and Southern Cameroons. The mandate decreed that France preside over East Cameroon, while Britain, already an established colonial power over Nigeria, would govern Southern Cameroons—the area whose population today identify themselves as “Anglophones” —and Northern Cameroons, as integral parts of Nigeria.
That 1922 Division, which tore apart Cameroonian families, friends and tribes, stirred up sentiments for reunification from all sides of the divide. But so strong were the voices for reunification in Southern Cameroons that, in February 1961, following a plebiscite (in which the two British-controlled regions of Cameroon would each choose either to be fully integrated into Nigeria or to merge with the newly independent East Cameroon), Southern Cameroons voted overwhelmingly to reunite with East Cameroon.
Having triumphed over the plebiscite, John Ngu Foncha, Southern Cameroons Prime Minister at the time—and its colossus for the reunification campaign—then met with El Haji Amadou Ahidjo, East Cameroon’s president, at the Foumban Conference in July, where they agreed to form what became known as the Federal Republic of Cameroon. The FRC, like modern day Canada, was envisioned, based on its colonial experiences with France and Britain, to be one country but with two separate government systems. (At the end of the conference, the minority English-speaking Southern Cameroons and the majority French-speaking East Cameroon each had their own separate government within the Federation.)
One of the hallmarks of the FRC’s Constitution was that Southern Cameroons, which was renamed “West Cameroon” following the Conference, was guaranteed to retain its inherited British institutions in education, judiciary, and legislature.
President Ahidjo’s East Cameroon majority, his strong-arm tactics at the July Conference, and having led East Cameroon to independence in January 1960, were all factors that propelled him into the presidency of this new Federation.
Considering the raging civil wars that were ripping apart several African countries in the 1960s following their independence, reuniting their old country—as President Ahidjo and Prime Minister Foncha did almost 40 years after it was sliced into parts—was hailed in many quarters as a masterstroke.
The New York Times, in an article dated January 30, 1970, lauded the impact of these two leaders’ effort at nation building. In the article “Cameroon Young but Mature”, they stated, “While neighboring countries—Nigeria and the Congo—have been wracked by regional and tribal strife, the Cameroon has become a model for African unity.”
The Times further singled out Ahidjo for high praise, saying, “The Cameroonian chiefly responsible for pulling the federation together and playing down tribal frictions is Ahmadou Ahidjo, a calm northerner who as President has gained strong southern support.”
Today, however, the reunification experiment, whose bilingualism was once touted as a “hidden asset in Cameroon’s trade growth”, is in ruins. Anglophones are aghast at what they see as their marginalization within the country. They also allege that Cameroon’s central government is pursuing assimilationist policies that target Anglophone institutions, citing, for example, French-trained Cameroonian bureaucrats being posted to their region to run schools, cities, colleges and the judiciary.
I was in middle school in the fall of 1982, when the current president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, came to power. He promised, during a much-heralded visit to the Anglophone region, that he’d find a way to bridge the chasm that had emerged over this issue during his predecessor’s reign.
But just two years into his presidency, Biya’s orders to arrest and imprison Gorgi Dinga, an Anglophone human rights lawyer following Dinga’s publication of “The New Social Order”, an indictment of Biya’s government over the Anglophone issue, sent chilling signals to the Anglophone people. However, with the lifting of press censorship in the 90s, Anglophones are now Biya’s most rabid critics within the country. They’ve also borne the brunt of his reprisals, including the 1992 siege of Bamenda—a city noted as Anglophones’ arsenal of democracy.
Today’s so-called “Anglophone Problem” dates back to 1972. In that year, Amadou Ahidjo surreptitiously called for a referendum that abolished the Federation, replacing it with the “United Republic of Cameroon”, a strong, central system of government in which Ahidjo wielded enormous presidential powers. Anglophones felt conned and betrayed by Ahidjo’s action. The referendum fueled their rage, which was made worse in 1984, when the subsequent government of President Paul Biya—oblivious to the Anglophones’ long quest to remain separate in a federation—imposed educational reforms that many felt undermined their institutions.
At this writing, Anglophones are out in the streets protesting. Their on-going protests, which are meant to fend off government’s continuous efforts to send Francophone lecturers into English-speaking universities, have also revived talks about a return to a federal system of government.
Author’s contact information:nmungu03@Gmail.com