Since October 2016, protests and strikes in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon have escalated into a crisis over the economic and political marginalisation of Cameroon’s Anglophone minority. This article examines the response of the government in its efforts to maintain national unity and peace. Report by Christine Holzbauer.
Since the end of 2016, Cameroon has been facing a sociopolitical crisis. The crisis has its roots in protests initiated by teachers and lawyers from the Northwest and Southwest, the country’s two Anglophone regions.
Violence has escalated in the Anglophone regions as the original protests have been used as a platform by separatists looking to break away from Cameroon. This has been accompanied by Boko Haram terrorism in the north of the country since 2014. Meanwhile, armed militia from the Central African Republic have been making incursions in the east. Complicating matters further, the 2018 presidential election is drawing near.
One of the first events of the current Anglophone crisis was a strike held by lawyers from the two Anglophone regions lasting from 10 to 21 October 2016. They were protesting about Cameroon’s failure to produce English versions of certain laws and what they saw as general encroachments on the common law legal system inherited from British rule in that part of Cameroon, fearing that a Frenchstyle civil code could be applied in Anglophone jurisdictions.
The lawyers subsequently sought support from traditional chiefs from the Southwest and called upon trade unions and local officials to abandon their duties in their electoral districts, arguing that failure to do so would amount to compromising their position as representatives of the local people.
A consultation meeting was held with the Ministry of Justice on 22 November 2016 to discuss application of certain laws, the management and training of apprentice lawyers, the scope of the profession within Cameroon and the founding of a legal training institute.
During these discussions, the lawyers called for the reestablishment of the lawyers’ associations in the Northwest and Southwest that had been dissolved or outlawed by prefectural decisions, and the release of all prisoners who had been arrested in Bamenda during the strikes and transferred to Yaoundé.
Unrest on campus
Early October 2016 also saw the first rumbles of dissatisfaction among the temporary lecturers working at the University of Bamenda. Although teaching at the university’s faculty of health sciences was due to start on 17 October, a group of 10 temporary lecturers refused to commence the new academic year with their salaries still in arrears, and claimed the payment due to them for the prior academic year.
A month later, there were clashes with security forces as students at the University of Buea called for payment of grants, the withdrawal of the CAF10,000 ($19) penalties imposed by the vice chancellor for late online payment of tuition fees, and the removal of French lecturers teaching only in French.
Prime minister Philémon Yang and the ministers involved took the threat seriously, asking to meet with nine teaching trade unions, representing teachers of all levels, as well as the Coalition of Civil Society Organisations. The meeting took place on 18 November 2016. Twentyeight points were discussed, and five of them were highlighted as key points that could serve as a starting point for negotiations.
Following the meeting, the participants agreed that the best course of action would be for the academic com munity to return quietly to their duties so that the 2016 Africa Women Cup of Nations could be held in peace. The president decided to release CAF2bn in grants for both religious and nonreligious educational establishments. He also authorised a oneoff recruitment of 1,000 young bilingual Cameroonians with degrees in teaching, in particular those specialising in science and technology. These young teachers would be first and foremost brought into educational establishments in regions with a significant shortage of teaching staff offering these subjects.
A meeting of the new interministerial ad hoc committee for finding solutions to the grievances of the Anglophone teachers took place on 27 December 2016. Following this meeting, the government reiterated its determination to have academic courses in the Northwest and Southwest resume in time for the second term.
The authorities’ response
President Paul Biya spoke publicly about the crisis twice: during his endofyear message on 31 December 2016, and in a speech to young people on 10 February 2017. Each time he reiterated his commitment to democratic dialogue. Welcoming the national football team – the “Indomitable Lions” – after their victory at the Men’s African Cup of Nations he declared that “Cameroon only wins when all of its children are working together for the same ideals.” He also observed that the Lions’ victory was possible thanks to a team of players from all over the country, before declaring, to great cheers, that the Cup of Nations trophy should be paraded through all 10 regions of the country.
Other national and international sporting events were still held in spite of the crisis. This was the case with the Africa Women Cup of Nations in 2016, with some matches held in Limbé, in the Englishspeaking area of the country, as well as the Mount Cameroon Race of Hope, the Tour du Cameroon, and the FENASSCO games. Cameroon was only able to host these events because the Northwest and Southwest provinces make up an integral part of the country.
The president’s speech at the UN General Assembly also extolled the virtues of civil peace. Biya met with Pope Francis at the Vatican and the UN Secretary General in New York. The international community and the Cameroonian diaspora have received the government’s clarifications during highprofile diplomatic missions. The president has also personally received ambassadors from France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia and Canada on a number of occasions. Even with the protests and the army forcing students to go to classes, the government did not cancel examinations in the 2016–17 academic year. In fact, the government even took special measures to allow resits. These “accommodations” made to students continued into the 201718 academic year.
In order to deescalate the situation, the prime minister, Philémon Yang, and a number of members of the government headed to the Northwest and Southwest regions to open dialogue. In May 2017, the president authorised connection to the internet to be re-established after it had been cut off for more than two months. The majority of Anglophone prisoners were also allowed to go free at the start of September. The others remain in custody, as they are seen as the prime suspects for the violence that had been carried out. The authorities promised that they would be given due process “as enshrined in Cameroonian laws.” As a further measure of appeasement, the charges against Christian leaders were dropped.
Appointment of Anglophones
In addition, Anglophones have been appointed to various strategic posts, including governor of the Centre region, university vice chancellors, president of the Elecam electoral council, president of the RDPC parliamentary group in the Senate, and director general of the Academy of Football. Contrary to the rumours, SDF deputy Joseph Wirba, who was actively involved in the Anglophone movement, was not prosecuted, and was permitted the right to free speech in the media.
One final and impressive political action by the authorities has been the creation of the National Commission on the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. Not only is this a boon to the Anglophone communities in and of itself, but they are also heavily represented among its members. The commission includes members from all over Cameroon, respecting balance between the regions of the country. The Anglophone regions and the Centre region have more members than any other, with the Northwest and Southwest regions having three members each. “This shows that the Anglophone crisis has heavily influenced the choice of appointees,” explained the government.
The Southwest region also has presidency of the commission, with the role given to Peter Mafany Musonge, considering that the tensions in this region are less marked than in the Northwest. The Centre region has two representatives, and the remaining regions have one each. The vice president is from the Adamawa region, while the secretary general, Chi Asafor, hails from the Northwest region.
Ngwane George, known for being an intellectual with close ties to the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, and leading barrister Nico Halle, who has defended the lawyers’ demands, were also appointed. It is now up to this commission to take actions on behalf of the people in all regions to finally start putting an end to the crisis.
Moreover, on 5 March 2018 the prime minister began appointing new members to the government and adjusting the responsibilities of others as part of a cabinet reshuffle ordered by President Biya. Appointment ceremonies focused on three key ideas: close cooperation, devotion, and unflagging loyalty.
Among the 13 new ministers was one woman Pauline Egbe Nalova Lyonga, who, as minister of secondary education, will be responsible for ensuring that school exams and graduations take place as normal in the Anglophone regions, as well as putting the president’s aims into practice. The prime minister’s appointment of this former vice chancellor of the University of Buea to a role overseeing secondary education in Cameroon is one that will surely win over not only the Anglophone communities but also Cameroon as a whole.
Another indication that the crisis is being resolved is the award of highprofile positions to politicians from the Anglophone regions for the first time, such as Paul Atanga Nji’s appointment as minister of territorial administration.
One of his first responsibilities will be ensuring internal security, eradicating or defanging the Islamist threat posed by Boko Haram, working to convince prosecession Anglophones that Cameroon is better unified, and ensuring that the upcoming general elections can be conducted peacefully throughout the country.
“The protests of Anglophone activists about never having been given a key ministerial post can now been put to bed,“ reads an official statement.
Philémon Yang’s determination to infuse “a mindset focused on carrying out their tasks promptly” into his new team is likely to grease the wheels of Cameroon’s administration.
It is also worth underlining that, as mentioned above, the prime minister is requiring “devotion” along with “close cooperation”, not only between ministers and their staff but also among the ministers themselves.
“With the way responsibilities are divided among ministries, there are certain areas of interdependence. These should not be sources of friction, but rather bridges between the ministries, fostering cooperation and synergy”, he explained.
Will this request for greater discipline at the highest levels be enough to harmonise government activities and deal effectively with the crisis? The concept of unflagging loyalty, as advocated by the prime minister casts fresh light on the difficulties that come from having a group of “poor sports” who don’t respect the hierarchy in place.
On the other hand, some ministers who enjoy closer ties to the president have the problematic habit of going to him directly. In essence, for things to work, the whole government team needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet.