To speak English fluently in a world where the language is the lingua franca of trade and diplomacy is usually a big win in the lottery of life except in Cameroon where English as a mother tongue has become a curse, thanks to a colonial conundrum that made Anglophone underdogs in a union with overwhelmingly French-speaking Cameroon. Paul Biya For four months in 2016, the two English-speaking regions of western Cameroon rose against decades-long assault by the Francophone elite on their ways of life, staging a campaign of general strikes, demonstrations and the occasional riot.
There was a ruthless response by the government in forms of killings of protesters and a two-month internet shutdown in English-speaking regions, throwing the country into a serious crisis and raising questions about its continued unity. In the midst of the growing secessionist’s mutterings, Britain became active in attempting to defuse the confrontation. Brian Olley, the British High Commissioner to Cameroon, met Paul Biya, the country’s then 84-year-old president and called on him to end the use of force against protesters. Colonial traditions “We have raised our concerns with the government of Cameroon and will continue to raise these issues, including allowing access to the internet,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said But British quiet diplomacy did not make many impressions on some Anglophone activists, who accuse Britain of abandoning its responsibilities in the former British Southern Cameroons, which united with the much larger French Cameroons in 1961. “Britain made us what we are and now most people in Britain don’t even know we exist,” an activist involved in the demonstrations said.
Despite the anger, Anglophone Cameroonians, who make up less than a fifth of the county’s 23 million people, remain fiercely loyal to their colonial traditions. To the amusement of French speakers, they insist on forming orderly queues, referring to bars as “off-licences” and dressing up their judges and lawyers in powdered wigs. Both British common law and the GCE O-and-A-level syllabus remain deeply cherished. It is a loyalty that Britain has not reciprocated. Britain wanted little to do with the place.
William Gladstone turned down a plea for annexation from local kings in 1884, allowing Bismark to take it for Germany. After the First World War, Britain turned over five-sixths of the territory to France, agreeing to an artificial borderline drawn up by Francois Georges-Picot, the French diplomat jointly responsible for the Middle East’s controversial modern boundaries. Heartbroken local kings, like the Sultan of Bamum, protested in vain. “I wish to follow the King of England and to be his servant, together with my country, so that we may be freshened with dew,” the sultan wrote in a letter to George V “who puts the evil men to flight and the troublesome to prison”. After independence in 1960, the British Cameroons were wooed into union with the much larger French Cameroons by a promise that they would be equal members of a federal, bilingual state – a pledge was broken when the federal constitution was abandoned in 1972 six years after Nigeria jettisoned its federal constitution. Since then, English speakers have been shut out of jobs, denied fair political representation and deprived of revenues from oil, much of which is extracted from former British territory.
Matters came to a head in November 2016 when a group of lawyers staged a protest outside the courthouse in Bamenda, Cameroon’s largest Anglophone city, to demand the withdrawal of judges who spoke no English and had no understanding of British common law. The protest was broken up with tear gas. The authorities assumed that the protests would thin out. Instead, the movement grew, drawing in Anglophone teachers, angered by state attempts to replace them with French speakers with knowledge of neither English nor the GCE syllabus. Students joined in too, only to see their halls of residence raided and female students were beaten and sexually abused by the police. One unapologetic voice that has risen from West Cameroon is Joseph Wirba who interrupted the Speaker of the Cameroon Parliament in 2016 to deliver a powerful address which is currently trending in Nigeria because it was as if he was speaking to our situation here.
He declared unequivocally “a slave has risen in the master’s house”. His voice was heard – and is still ringing loud – in a speech which spoke the minds of every bitter Southern Cameroonian citizen, in the presence of Cavayé Yéguié Djibril, president of the National Assembly of Cameroon and other members. He kicked against the molestation and violence the armed force of La Republique meted on unarmed civilians of Buea and Bamenda who were making their voices heard in a peaceful protest which turned out to a bloodbath. Peaceful protest and demonstration is the people’s legitimate right, he stated. “There are two Cameroons that came together. If you are telling us like a state minister stood here last year and told us that what happened in Cameroon is like dropping a few cubes of sugar in a basin of water. Then tell us who is the sugar and who is the water?”
He further went ahead to say: “Our ancestors and forefathers trusted you to go into a gentleman’s agreement. That two people who consider themselves brothers could go to live together. If this is what you show us after 55 years, then those who are saying that we should break Cameroon are right. They are correct! The people of West Cameroon Cannot be your slaves. The people of West Cameroon, are not, you did not conquer them in war. If this is what you’re saying, that we should leave, then I say No!” Wirba Joseph, who has the charisma of Luther King Jr and the forceful presentation of Malcolm X, clearly narrated how his own people are treated like dogs in a place they call home. “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes a duty,” was the take-home from his eloquent speech.
His audacity and courage to speak for the people of West Cameroon give hope to the marginalised section of Cameroon, to the two regions and indeed all ethnically oppressed people around the world. He spoke eloquently about what injustice could do to the future of Cameroon and true to his words, Cameroon has not known peace because it rests on the foundation of injustice.
His eloquent testimony of soldiers when as a true representative who went to seek the release about 100 members of his community who were detained and battered was so moving and encouraging. “A soldier drew a line and dared me to cross. Unfortunately for him, I come from a warriors’ lineage and no one draws a line before me. I crossed it and asked him to shoot me. My people were released 12 hours after.”
Wirba was an active participant and advocate for the freedom of the people of West JOSEPH Wirba was the first Cameroonian parliamentarian to raise the 2016 – 2017 Cameroonian protests, which would later escalate into the Anglophone Crisis. Fearing for his safety, he fled to Nigeria in early 2017. He briefly returned and reappeared in parliament, but soon fled the country once again, this time to the United Kingdom.
In January 2019, he published a book called Wirbaforce, which is his personal tribute to those who had lost their lives in the Anglophone crisis. He is a shining example of true representation who knows that someone elected by a people under siege to represent them has a duty to speak to the conditions of his people and not just to collect fat allowances, doing fashion parade in the chambers and bowing “yes sir to the oppressors” I have not said anything about some people you know. Glosa for Wirba, a universal voice against marginalisation and impunity.