For the past two weeks, the North West and South West regions of Cameroon have been the theater of violent confrontations between protesters seeking to draw attention to the sorry plight of the country’s Anglophone minority and the forces of law (lessness) and (dis) order who still think that intimidation and violence can stop the people from complaining. Their strict adherence to old violent ways as a problem- solving tool seems more like pouring gasoline into a burning house. Most of these uniformed men and women do not even understand why the Anglophone lawyer, student, teacher and taxi driver are taking to the streets. Complaining has never been a crime. It is a way of expressing a need. It is always good to listen to a complaining people. If humans have to understand each other, they have to listen to each other and they must seek to have frank and fruitful discussions rather than hold that the complaining party is just a nuisance.
Over the last fifty years, Anglophones have been caught up in a socio-political relation that looks and smells like a bad marriage; a marriage wherein the man holds that because of his superior physical and financial strength, his wife has no right to complain. But complaining and doing it the polite and peaceful way is not an issue. It helps the country to take a look at the union and see if new ways could be designed to bring more peace and prosperity to Cameroon which is the largest economy in the Central African region.
However, to engineer such a path, it will be necessary to take a long and hard look at the issues that are poisoning the relationship between the Anglophone minority in Cameroon and the country’s political authorities. It should be underscored at this juncture that the demonstrations currently taking place in Cameroon have nothing to do with the ordinary Francophone who himself is a victim of a system that has worked very hard over the last 34 years to leave him in abysmal ignorance and poverty. He has not been duly educated on the history of his country and being part of the majority, he does not understand why a bunch of English-speaking compatriots are engaged in running battles with an uneducated police force.
To gain a better understanding of the frustrations of the English-speaking minority, it is important to take a look at the country’s legal system. Cameroon has the devil’s luck of inheriting two Western legal systems – the British and French legal systems – because different parts of the country had been under the trusteeship of different European countries following Germany’s defeat in the First World War. This therefore implies that Anglophones inherited the Common Law system while their French-speaking counterparts inherited France’s Civil Law system. Over the years, there have been efforts at harmonization which has unfortunately implied deleting the English Common Law system in Southern Cameroons and replacing it with the French Civil Law system that has been a source of confusion and frustration in English-speaking Cameroon. Harmonization in this regard has been like colonization and imposition of bruising and punitive sanctions on the defeated. That is why Anglophone lawyers have been up in arms against the government which for a long time has turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cry of these men of law. While no concrete decision has been taken in this regard, Prime Minister Yang Philemon’s visit to the North West Region to have a frank discussion with the lawyers has been welcomed in many quarters, though nothing concrete has come out of this meeting. This simply implies that it is good to listen and listening is an idea whose time has come.
But the issues presented by the lawyers are not the only issues that have been hanging around the necks of most Anglophones like a millstone. The country’s dual educational system is one of the many things inherited from the various colonial masters, but efforts by the Yaounde government to harmonize educational systems have only created huge frustrations among Anglophones. In 1982, the government attempted to delete the Anglophone general educational system and replace it with the Francophone system which would have implied Anglophones would have been doing French courses in English. The Anglophone minority displayed its unity and stood up against such attempts at harmonizing parts of the educational system. But the Anglophone technical educational system did not stand a chance. Today certificates delivered to graduates of Anglophone technical colleges bear the hallmarks of a systematic effort to delete anything English. The names of the certificates themselves speak to the determination to make everything French. The grading system has been a millstone around the neck of many Anglophone Cameroonian graduates. It is hard for these graduates to get admission in other Anglophone countries because of the grading system and even the names of the certificates themselves constitute a huge problem to many Anglophones. Until recently, certificates in most graduate schools in Cameroon were called, Diplôme de Traducteur, Diplôme d’ingénieur, diplôme d’enseignement technique,etc. These certificates have stunted the intellectual and academic growth of many ambitious Anglophone Cameroonians and this has been a source of huge frustration. This has however been addressed as many schools around the world have adopted the Anglo-American system. Cameroon has not been an exception in this regard, but the country’s educational system still leaves much to be desired.
If you think this is frustrating enough, take a look at the administrative constitution of the country. It is normal to have a heavily French-speaking Cameroonian to be the governor of the North West or South West regions of Cameroon. Some of these administrative officers get to their duty stations without an inkling of English and they have to deal with an Anglophone population that has no knowledge of French. A lot of time and effort are wasted in meetings as both parties hardly understand each other. In certain cases, there has been a lot of misunderstanding and sometimes the administered do not even understand their own officials. This is a huge impediment to development and it is time for the government to start taking a look at some of these issues. Many Anglophone Cameroonians have been jailed by French-speaking magistrates and judges just because of poor communication. While the judges are proficient in French, the suspects are sometimes only proficient in English and even when they understand French, their knowledge of French has been approximate and rudimentary. It is very painful to see your loved one jailed just because the judge is not proficient in the language your relative understands. It is time to take a look at this harmonization efforts to see where they are hurting the people they are supposed to help.
While violent demonstrations are unacceptable, it is time for the government of Cameroon to start listening. It does not hurt to listen. The people of the two Anglophone regions want to be heard and the right authority to listen to them is the government of Cameroon. Dispatching heavily armed policemen and gendarmes to rape and brutalize armless and peace-loving demonstrators only radicalizes the protesters. This unfortunately plays into the hands of extremists, some of whom are already calling for secession. The Cameroon government has to ensure that it does not create a monster that will push the entire sub-region into an abyss of a long conflict. Denying a people the right to complain can trigger other issues. Cameroonians can live together in Cameroon if only the leaders of the country come down their ivory tower to gain a better understanding of the people’s plight. In many parts of the world, listening to the population is normal. Cameroon cannot be an exception. If the government accepts to listen, the calls for secession can be easily dealt with and the country’s integrity and cohesion can be preserved. It is time for the government to understand that it is worthwhile preserving the two systems the country inherited from its colonial past. But this can only be achieved if Anglophones are not made to feel like strangers at home.
By Dr. Joachim Arrey