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Managing the Anglophone Problem in Cameroon: Is Cultural Diversity a Threat to National Unity?


Ecrit Par le 10 Mar 2017 Publié dans la categorie: Actualités, Culture, Opinions, Point de Vue, Politique, Société

Sa’ah François GUIMATSIA, sociopolitical analyst and writer

Sa’ah François GUIMATSIA, sociopolitical analyst and writer


For the past 56 years, the English-speaking community in Cameroon has been struggling for its cultural visibility and sustainability in a predominantly Francophone context. This has given rise to the well-known Anglophone problem. But if its message is heard and heeded, well decoded and understood, the Anglophone problem could step up Cameroon’s integration process and end up being, for all Cameroonians, a blessing in disguise.

Since the closing weeks of 2016, the Anglophone regions of Cameroon have been in disarray. It all started with a strike action by Anglophone lawyers and teachers in November; next came the presidential end-of-year public address accusing ‘manipulated extremists’ to create havoc in the Anglophone regions; and there were talks between government ministers and the Anglophone civil society, but in the meantime, schools have remained closed and courts of justice deserted by some lawyers pending the end of the stalemate.

For diehard optimists including this writer, however, the Anglophone problem can and should move Cameroon’s reunification one step ahead. Indeed, since Reunification, the State has always answered mass protests with haughty silence or brutal repression; but this time around, it has initiated a dialogue to quench the burning fire. Even if that could be retrospectively seen as a way of trapping the leaders and get them arrested, the move was lauded across-the-board as a step in the right direction. In fact with the Anglophone problem, Cameroonians rediscover that the nation is bigger than the sum of its parts, and re-assess their cultural heritage in today’s context. But more basically, it recalls three core values of the 1961 Reunification that may have been forgotten: firstly, the union was set up on a tripod of unity, indivisibility and diversity; secondly, with time these interrelated pillars need to be perfected through democracy and good governance; finally, diversity is not as self-evident as unity and indivisibility, because the Anglophones’ sensibility has not been sufficiently integrated into Cameroon’s new culture in the making.

Indeed, respecting the country’s diversity normally does not jeopardize its cohesion. On the contrary, when people feel respected in their regional specificities, they stop seeing the national entity as a blind mammoth or a bull in a china shop. The citizens in any country are just like passengers from different backgrounds travelling on the same boat to the same destination. National unity is not a sort of imposed mechanical uniformity which swallows up all regional differences. As Jean Jacques Rousseau pointed out in The Social Contract, men set up States in the first place to avail themselves of many more rights in contradistinction to what they could have as individuals or families. Cameroonians should feel stronger together as one country, while accepting their diverse colonial legacies and ethnic traditions as a matter of course.

That is the charm and the challenge of nurturing a mixed African culture for the 21st century. But that path is not easy to tread: after more than two hundred years of self-construction in self-government, the US is still struggling to achieve what Barack Obama once called ‘a more perfect union’; in African countries, ethnic polarization makes nation building an uphill task. But when a regional community gives up its most intimate identity traits after joining the national entity, it becomes a rootless group mired in unresolved identification questions. In vast and populous countries like Brazil, Russia, China or India, despite regional differences in terms of cultures, races, languages and religions, the population as a whole shares the same devotion and attachment to their country. They know what they owe to its oneness on the one hand, and to its multicultural heritage on the other hand. The burden of making one country out of many regions is a global challenge to which most nations are or have been confronted. But for Africans to embrace national ambitions and aspirations, the State should first accept and respect their quest for regional specificities, thereby recognizing that community loyalty and national unity are not mutually exclusive.

I – The roots of the Anglophone problem

After a few decades of Reunification, the Anglophone problem comes as a timely reminder that Cameroon is still far from achieving its unity as a nation. It is a cluster of demands made in many ways and on different occasions by the Anglophones. It involves identity claims and language-related frustrations that clearly question the form of the State. As postulated by sociolinguists, when several languages are in contact in a human community, the most powerful segment of the community tends to impose its language to others; for instance, colonial languages were imposed in African countries by powerful minorities. Therefore what matters is not the number but the power of the speakers of a given language at a particular point in time. The Anglophones in Cameroon are first and foremost angered by the economic, cultural and political inequality visible in many aspects of national life, including in the official language policy and practice.

In fact, in 1961 the Anglophones joined the Francophones (then called East Cameroon or the Republic of Cameroon) to form a two-state federation named the Federal Republic of Cameroon, with two stars on its flag; then the 11th of February, the day the Anglophones voted to join their Francophone brothers and sisters in 1961, became the national Youth Day as from 1966; later after the 1972 referendum, the country took the name of United Republic of Cameroon; and in1984, with a succession strife between Ahidjo and Biya, the latter’s supporters imposed the name Republic of Cameroon, with just one star on its flag, to symbolize the country’s political unity behind its new leader. After witnessing all those telling changes, the Anglophones today are just two of the ten administrative regions in Cameroon. Their grievances should be tabled and discussed, either accepted or rejected, like in any democratic setup. The Anglophones cannot be accused of identifying themselves in reference to a foreign tongue, ignored or silenced through repression. Such responses from the State exacerbate frustrations and aggravate tensions.

But to begin with, who are the Anglophones in Cameroon?

This term does not refer to all Cameroonians who use English as their official language, as opposed to those whose official language is French. Things are not so simple. To clarify that tricky point, Professor Simo Bobda (2001) explained that being an Anglophone in Cameroon is a regional, ethnic and cultural concept rather than a mere linguistic categorization. That definition excludes Francophones who have long settled in Anglophone regions, even if they have family ties or economic assets there. That view also excludes Francophones educated in Anglophone schools found in French-speaking areas. Briefly, the Anglophones in Cameroon hail from a specific territory, have a specific ethno-cultural identity, and have gone through a specific historical trajectory. With that clarification in mind, one can better grasp the nature and the scope of the Anglophone problem in Cameroon.

II – A brief historical flashback

When France and Britain took over from Germany in Cameroon from 1916, this created an Anglophone community on 1/5 of the territory harboring about 20% of the population, and a Francophone community on 4/5 of the country with almost 80% of the population. Then for the 44 years that followed, the two parts of Cameroon were submitted to two different socio-cultural influences: the Anglophones were administered (by Britain from Eastern Nigeria) in a relative political and cultural autonomy within the indirect rule colonial system; but in East Cameroon, France imposed a strict administrative centralism compounded by linguistic and cultural assimilation. One can therefore understand the Anglophones’ uneasiness in a centralized State in which they cannot manage their local and regional affairs as they used to do. But for the Francophone first president of Cameroon, the unitary State was ideal for the country’s progress in peace and unity, but also in total intolerance of political dissent and free thought.

The Anglophones, however, have always had a different perception of the country’s realities. The example of the English version of the national anthem is quite revealing. The first stanza of the French version proclaimed “O Cameroun, berceau de nos ancêtres – Autrefois tu vécus dans la barbarie – Comme un soleil tu commences à paraître – Peu à peu tu sors de ta sauvagerie”. Refusing to endorse that view of the past, the English version of that stanza was rather “O Cameroon thou cradle of our fathers – Holy shrine where in our midst they now repose – Their tears and blood and sweat thy soil did water – On thy hills and valleys once their tillage rose”. The obvious gap between the two versions indicated the difference in historical perspective and cultural perception between the Anglophones and the Francophones. Later in the 80s, the French version was modified to become “O Cameroun, berceau de nos ancêtres – Vas debout et jaloux de ta liberté – Comme un soleil ton drapeau fier doit être – Un symbole ardent de foi et d’unité”. At any rate, the lyrics of the national anthem, in French and in English, today still project two different visions of the same country.

But just like a bird uses its two wings to fly far and wide, Cameroon was expected to ensure its integration and step up its development using two official languages symbolizing two major world cultural patrimonies. Indeed, the 260 ethnic groups in Cameroon could interact in French (a language of Latin origin spoken by about 400 million people around the world, highly refined, enriched and defended since 1539 by generations of writers and scholars). They could also take advantage of English (a world language with a dominant position in strategic sectors like science and technology, communication, diplomacy, business, etc.). More importantly, each of the two foreign languages would play a unifying role as lingua franca in a country where myriads of ethnic languages only fostered national disunity. But that French-English official bilingualism, hailed as a blessing at first, has fuelled the Anglophone problem. Why? Because with the passage of time, the dual language policy has run into a number of contradictions: firstly, despite the equal status of the two languages, the law of the majority has conferred a de facto dominance on French; secondly, official bilingualism has never been smoothly implemented through language laws in each sector, like in South Africa for example; finally for individual citizens, bilingualism may be a desirable skill, but it has never been an official requirement in Cameroon. As a result, the Anglophones cannot enrich or impact Cameroon’s mainstream culture. In an article entitled Let’s Make or Mar, one of the most respected Anglophone scholars, Professor Bernard Fonlon, voiced the following complaint in 1964: “After the Reunification, we now drive our cars on the right, the franc has replaced the pound as our currency, the academic year has been aligned with that of the Francophones, the metric system has replaced the British units of measurements, but in vain I have looked for a single institution brought from Anglophone Cameroon. Anglophones’ cultural influence is virtually nil“.

Even when the Anglophones occupy high administrative posts, their cultural visibility still needs to be protected by binding laws and regulations. In his book entitled Ma foi, un Cameroun à remettre à neuf (Douala, 2010), another Anglophone prominent figure, Christian Cardinal Tumi, makes the following comment:”The Anglophone Prime Minister’s daily anguish on certain issues, and the repeated, chronic and open disregard for him from some members of the government just worsen a very embarrassing situation“. By and large, an effective dual language policy based on biculturalism and bi-literacy is still to take root in Cameroon, and the State cannot hide its shortcomings in other aspects of national cohesion under the cloak of official bilingualism.

III – The Worries of the Anglophones

Considering their different colonial legacies and the dubious intentions of some of their leaders, both Anglophones and Francophones in Cameroon should be commended for peacefully reuniting their country in 1961, and for keeping the country together ever since. By way of comparison, two other African ex-colonies of France and Britain – namely Senegal and Gambia – failed miserably in a similar bid from 1982 to 1989: the two neighboring countries formed a confederation called Senegambia in 1982, which started off with a common platform in diplomacy, agriculture, trade and transport. But explicit political resistance due to implicit cultural rivalry from both sides considerably slowed down the machinery of unification. Senegal finally called off the experiment in 1989, thus yielding to the many conflicting interests and structural intricacies involved in the running of that two-state confederation.

In Cameroon, the biggest threat to the 1961 Reunification occurred in 1972.

After crushing the armed opposition led by the UPC, Ahidjo got rid of all democratic opposition with the creation of a single national party (the CNU) in 1966. Then he maneuvered to promote more accommodating Anglophone leaders like Salomon Tandeng Muna, to consolidate his autocratic rule. The last step in Ahidjo’s ascension to absolute power was the creation of a unitary State in which the ‘socio-cultural’ opposition represented by the Anglophones would be virtually eliminated. For that purpose, he engineered the 1972 referendum to end the federal system, so as to have enough leeway to dominate and assimilate the Anglophones, with the overt or covert connivance of France. In that connection, Christian Cardinal Tumi, still in his above-mentioned book, reports (on page 33) that one day a French diplomat in Rome, quite unaware of the fact that the lone Cameroonian cardinal was an Anglophone, told him that France’s aim in Cameroon was to “wipe out the Anglo-Saxon culture of the Anglophone minority“.

Indeed from 1972 onwards, the Anglophones in Cameroon have come to realize, with Ahidjo and after him, all the frustrating inadequacies and inconsistencies that the unitary State had in store for them: the judiciary and legislative dominated by the executive with immense discretionary powers, blatant political marginalization through administrative posts with no decision power, the impossibility for them to head key government ministries (like Finance, Foreign Affairs, Territorial Administration, Education and Defense), Francophone administrators, magistrates, teachers and a host of other civil servants working in French in Anglophone areas, the systematic dilution of the specific Anglophone cultural heritage, disrespect for the Anglophone Prime Minister by his Francophone subordinates, Police and Army training provided only in French, most official texts and documents published only in French, etc. Denouncing that trickery in 1990, John Ngu Foncha – who had led the Anglophones to the Reunification – resigned from all his political positions and asked for a return to federalism.

With multiparty politics back in the 90s, the two Anglophone regions were politically divided. Consciously or unconsciously, these regions had yielded to the divide-and-rule strategy of the unitary State. The situation even worsened after the premiership of Achidi Achu (a north-westerner) from 1992 to 1996, and that of Mafany Musonge (a south-westerner) from 1996 to 2004. Both leaders told the Anglophones, in Pidgin English, that politik na njangi (Politics is a matter of give-and-take), a slogan which convinced the Anglophones that politics was a game of interest: the ruling party takes development only where people have voted for them. That was a perversion of democracy: power thus belonged not to the people, but to the people in power, who used it in their selfish interest; the ruling party did not promote the greatest good for the most people, but as a priority rewarded its friends and supporters with special privileges. The endorsement of that view of politics by those two Anglophone prime ministers amounted to a mortal blow to a number of moral values cherished by the Anglophones in politics, like self-restraint, integrity, transparency, evenhandedness and outspokenness. And later on, nobody was surprised to see Anglophones indulging in corruption and fraud, voting for the highest bidder and not for the best political programme, misappropriating public funds, etc.

Concerning education, a major onslaught against the Anglophone subsystem was the francophonization of technical and vocational education. Indeed, more by design than by chance, technical secondary schools in the Anglophone subsystem since 1972 have been operating like in the francophone zone, with their students writing the same certificates exams as the Francophones (notably the CAP, the Probatoire and the Baccalauréat). And worse, most technical education teachers were Francophones until the first Higher Teachers’ Training College for Technical Education was opened in the North-West in 2009. Since colonial times, the Anglophones had always made it a point of honor to instill in young school-goers the values of good citizenship, patriotism, hard work, obedience, politeness, etc. That was achieved through religious knowledge and moral education diligently taught in public as well as in lay private and denominational schools. When the two subjects were disqualified in 1976 by a presidential decree as criteria for admission to university or to employment, the Anglophones saw in that move a way of chopping off what constituted the cream of their educational subsystem. The State missed a golden opportunity to set up a unique system of education for the country, as suggested in article by Professor Ambroise Kom (1995), tin order o avoid cleavages and wounds, both seen and unseen, while shaping the rising generations in the same educational mould.

Worse, after the opening of Anglo-Saxon universities in the country, the Anglophones were stunned to see Francophone lecturers appointed to manage or teach in those institutions. That was yet another way of tampering with their specific intellectual identity and academic tradition. An aggravating factor was the migration to the Anglophone area of thousands of Francophone students. Indeed, after the creation of the GCE Board in 1993 and Cameroon’s admission to the Commonwealth in 1995, many Francophone students and parents discovered that Anglophone certificates could open more opportunity doors worldwide than Francophone diplomas. Consequently, for the Francophones France was no longer the only destination for higher studies: they also wanted to study in the US, Canada, the RSA, India, etc. For them to get better prepared, the Anglophone school subsystem was (and continues to be) the ready answer. But with these new academic Anglophones steadily growing in number, the cultural and ethnic Anglophones could one day become a minority among all English-speaking Cameroonians.

IV – What the State should Do

Those are some of the hard facts which for decades have infuriated generations of Anglophones, with far-reaching psycho-political implications. But how can the State relieve their anger, frustration and stress? The first measure to eradicate the Anglophone problem is human and tactical: getting credible mediators who can shun duplicity and strive with integrity to build bridges between the concerned parties. That is the most urgent when extremists from all sides are cynically fanning the flames of inflexibility, hatred and disunity. The second step should be legal and constitutional: coming in the wake of the tripartite talks organized in the early 90s to end the riots ignited by the democratization wind, the 1996 Constitution has failed to tackle the Anglophone problem.

Like many countries in the world, Cameroon is culturally and geographically so diversified that it has to combine a strong national integration with a genuine regional autonomy. In other words, our beloved ‘Africa in miniature’ should build its indispensable unity without destroying its enriching diversity. That is how countries like the US, Canada, Germany and even neighboring Nigeria are governed today. That shrewd system, broadly called federalism, aims at strengthening the nation without weakening its constituent parts or wiping out its regional specificities. It is grounded on the belief that a nation is constructed on a sense of solidarity rooted in fraternity, not on artificial uniformity. Federalism nurtures a sense of togetherness through mutual respect and trust in defending common interests. It keeps the whole (the country) and the part (the region) different, but convergent and interdependent. The same type of bond should prevail between the African Union and its member countries to secure continental economic growth and ultimate emergence.

Federalism in its implementation recalls the game of football, one of the most popular team sports in the world: although a football match is tactically planned, psychologically prepared, mentally envisioned, strategically played, and finally won, lost or drawn by a whole team of eleven players, the organization of the game on the pitch leaves much room for individual players’ inspiration, initiative and intuition. In other words, each game is a collective plan executed through individual actions and techniques. That is why a good footballer is both a team player and an autonomous star in his own right. That is also why there are team awards as well as individual awards at the end of a football season or competition. But the team should always have primacy over the individual player, because a constellation of stars with no team spirit cannot win a single match. That is the kind of symbiosis that federalism seeks to establish between the nation and its regions. Simultaneously it fosters regional assertiveness and visibility, promotes a nation’s oneness and indivisibility, and nurtures democratic soundness and power-sharing ability. At a more practical phase, the system allows appointed or elected officials at all levels – local, district, regional, state and federal – to run the institutions in strict respect of transparency, accountability and the rule of law. As the regions cannot be expected to naturally regulate themselves, the central State must retain enough regulatory prerogatives to ensure overall order, coherence and unity of purpose. The end result is a patchwork of booming regional micro-entities fairly competing for development, but congruently fitting into a single national macro-entity.

Furthermore, federalism is neither a panacea for all difficulties nor a one-size-fits-all garment, and needs to be perfected through constant adaptation to local circumstances. In Cameroon for instance, normal population movements in the last 50 years have greatly modified the country’s sociological map. So re-instating the 1961 form of federalism could be seen by many as a step backwards. A novel and better formula might be a thorough decentralization scheme which can provide the benefits of national unity in some domains, and the advantages of regional autonomy in others. Whether we call it decentralization or federalism, what really matters is the degree of power devolution from the centre to the periphery. We could talk of decentralization at country level, and of federalism at continental level just for clarification purposes, but the principle is basically the same. A good indicator of sound decentralization in any country is the percentage of the GDP managed at local level for the benefit of grassroots populations. That proportion is quite large (more than 30%) in Rwanda, Kenya and Ghana, and above 45% in most developed countries. But according to Cameroonian consultant and former minister David Abouem Atchoyi, that portion is barely 2% in Cameroon: in other words, the central State here manages or controls 98% of all national resources. With the backing of a strong political will, experts can design a new institutional architecture able to turn each region into an identifiable and viable development hub. That would be a boon to the Anglophones, but also to the Francophones whose elites for years have been petitioning the State for a better sharing of national resources, a better management of regional specificities, and a better quality of local governance.

But quite apart from that, it is high time we changed our parochial way of looking at things, and started building bridges and destroying walls. Indeed, now is the time we should be constructing a common African future that enables us to stand global competition and forge ahead in a fast-changing world. In that respect, there should be a real paradigm shift: we should stop seeing anglophonization as a threat to some, or francophonization as death to others. It is reassuring, however, to realize that many Francophone families in Cameroon have anglophonized their children for obvious global reasons. This is clear evidence that the issue is socio-cultural and not just linguistic, and also that sociopolitical factors in human groups are dynamic and not static. Our future as a united and indivisible country depends on a judicious blend of cultural elements that may have come to us from France or from Britain. But we should have the courage to disown any tool or system that has outlived its usefulness. If in our national interest we have to adopt new values or acquire new skills from Korea, India or Japan, should we refuse that move just for the sake of our Francophone or Anglophone identity? Our past should not disable or trap us, but rather broaden our minds and light up our way.

After more than 50 years of independence, we must reject the remnants of a failed decolonization scheme. Let us remember that European aristocrats and scholars for centuries spoke and wrote Latin, the language of their former colonial masters; but today Latin is a dead and forgotten language, and Europeans have invented French, English, Spanish, Italian, German, etc.; much closer to us, despite its official language inherited from Spanish colonization, Equatorial Guinea has adopted French as its second official language, in a bid to better integrate the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC); finally Swahili is fast becoming the language of economic integration, alongside English, in many countries in East Africa. Briefly, speaking French or English is just an episode in our history, not a straitjacket to be worn till the end of time.

As a matter of fact, many experts predict that in fifty years from today Cameroonians will have stopped seeing themselves as Francophones or Anglophones, as Africa will have become an integrated and multilingual global player. That is why, as we analyzed in our book Time for Africa’s Emergence? With Focus on Cameroon (USA, 2016), Africa’s emergence depends on the geography of our present ambitions, not on the history of our past misfortunes. Therefore we must strike a balance between our cultural identity and our legitimate quest for modernity.

Cameroon’s task today is to reduce tensions and redress any distortions that can threaten its national cohesion. The Anglophone problem (or any similar set of grievances) is just a sociopolitical thermometer alerting to a high temperature – the urgent need for trenchant measures to construct a greater sense of togetherness and deconstruct a number of cleavages. For instance, after the 1961 Reunification, a number of strategic and structural reforms (notably in education, local governance, political system, socio-cultural life, transport infrastructure, health coverage, industrial policy, business and legal practices, etc.) would have made Cameroon’s unity and harmony move by leaps and bounds. But nothing is irretrievably lost. In the final analysis, today’s multidimensional Anglophone problem, stemming from cross-cultural differences compounded by ill-intentioned politicians, just underscores Cameroonians’ legitimate yearning for more control over their lives today. Instead of indulging in mutual accusation and castigation, Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians, abiding by the exigencies of peaceful coexistence, historical truth and social justice, should synergistically seek ways and means to eradicate the underlying ailment of which the Anglophone problem is just one of the symptoms. At all times on their way to nationhood, they should know where they are, where they want to go, how they want to get there, and in what chronological sequence. And the ultimate message from the Anglophone problem comes out loud and clear: excessive centralization of political and economic power leads to mistrust and crises, but good governance promotes justice and a greater sense of nationhood. The Anglophones’ displeasure is rooted in their specific political sensibility, but quite understandably, a multicultural Cameroon inhabited by more than 22 million people cannot be governed today with the same attitudes and reflexes as in 1972, when the country had barely six million inhabitants.

By Sa’ah François GUIMATSIA, sociopolitical analyst and writer
Email : saafrancis2002@yahoo.fr  Tel : (237) 677 770 971

3 Responses to Managing the Anglophone Problem in Cameroon: Is Cultural Diversity a Threat to National Unity?

  1. Augustine Kondje-Tanikvu

    24/03/2017 at 12:07

    Hello Mr. Guimatsia,

    Just to solicit your permission to publish this very rich article on another platform.
    My Mail address:atkondje@yahoo.com
    Tel: 651348729.
    Thanks for a favourable response.

    Augustine Kondje Tanikvu

  2. Sa'ah François Guimatsia

    25/03/2017 at 10:28

    Feel free to get it published wherever you want. The article has been published for public consumption, right?

  3. Brahim Djibril

    28/04/2017 at 08:22

    This article is very enriching. I wish all The proposed solutions could be practised. I wish those in power and their advisers could reason fruitfully like u did, i wish they see reason in this article if any ever come across it. Thanks.

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