Late Sunday night, the United States Embassy in Yaounde sent out its “congratulations to the indomitable Lions” message to celebrate the Africa Cup of Nations victory in Cameroon.
It was an exciting match, and both Christian Bassogog’s MVP award and the the 2-1 victory over Egypt he helped to deliver were well-deserved. Yet just as quick to respond were those who wondered why American diplomats so readily cared about sport but not the ongoing crisis in West Cameroon.
Come Monday morning, football was over, but the “ghost town” strikes in support of Cameroon’s Anglophone population and their human rights campaign continue. The Internet shutdown, the suppression of journalists, the arrests of activists and the reports of rape, extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations do too.
In Anglophone Cameroon, people went shopping on Sunday ahead of this week’s strikes, which are leading up to a national Day of Mourning and a massive call to action on February 11, a significant historic date in the nation.
On Saturday, Cameroon’s state-run CRTV broadcast that the general strikes were over, and teachers and students should return to the classrooms. That announcement is not true, say the interim organizers of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, who are acting in the absence of detained leaders.
“This is the umpteenth time they are doing so,” the consortium said, referring to government efforts to derail Anglophone unity and organizing efforts dating back to at least December.
It’s been even longer since the first protests in recent history, originally organized by teachers and lawyers, began in Bamenda. While the crisis in Cameroon is finally more visible to the international community, the causes and consequences are harder to see.
In part, that’s because of an Internet ban that began three weeks ago in Buea. Barrister Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla, the president of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, and Dr. Fontem Neba, the group’s secretary general, were arrested on the same day; the Cameroon government deemed that the consortium and their activities were illegal in a letter made available to local media.
“All activities, meetings and demonstrations initiated or promoted by the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC), any other related groups with similar objectives or by anyone partisan to these groups, are hereby prohibited all over the national territory,” the January 17 letter said.
Since then, it’s been difficult to access information. As digital rights group Access Now pointed out, the AFCON final match hardly mattered to 5 million people in Cameroon who cannot connect. Worse still, is that the climate of crisis, marked by arrests and violent deaths, gives them little cause for celebration.
A crisis today, with roots in the colonial era
In Cameroon, tensions between French-speaking communities and the Anglophone minority have existed for decades, at times –and again – leading to regional calls for secession. For the past two years, lawyers from Cameroon’s Anglophone Common Law community have sought to address perceived marginalization in the courts, and what they say is interference with the Anglo-Saxon system of law.
Next began the lawyer’s general strike on October 6; they formally created the Cameroon Common Law Bar Association (CCLA) on November 4. Teachers, frustrated by inequities in education, joined them and they continue to keep schools closed, most recently adding many Roman Catholic schools to the list.
After the earlier protests, government officials in the historically Anglophone northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon banned some lawyer associations, and imposed restrictions. The Anglophones resisted, continuing with strikes that doctors eventually joined even as the consortium was banned too.
Yet the cultural rift goes well beyond the language used in certain professions, to encompass the political, economic and social inequalities Anglophones say they experience under President Paul Biya, who has been in power for more than three decades. The Social Democratic Front (SDF), the chief opposition party to Biya, has supported the strike and its demand for social reforms.
As the protests continued to grow, with civilians and in particular Anglophone youth joining, the first clashes occurred. On November 8, tear gas was used in Bamenda. On November 10, in Buea and Limbe, about 1,000 armed police and military personnel came out in a show of force against the Anglophone marchers. On November 26, more than 100 people were arrested.
Although human rights organizations including Contra Nocendi and Amnesty International have appealed for investigations into violations – including the first deaths, reported in Bamenda in December – it has made little difference to Cameroon officials.
By mid-January, when the consortium leaders were arrested and Internet access to the Western Cameron regions was shut off, the reports of arrests and detentions, sexual assault, and extrajudicial killings had escalated.
Last week, the SDF opposition issued a four-page special resolution condemning these and other violations, including the heavy militarization of Anglophone regions and the Internet shutdown. In that letter, the SDF appealed to the African Union and the United Nations to help with Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis.
Now would be the time to do so. Next week’s February 11 national Anglophone action marks the day that, in 1961, the United Nations – within the context of Cameroon’s complicated colonial history – offered a referendum to decide whether the southern regions would join Nigeria or the then-existing Cameroon. Independence for the former British colonies, whose Anglophone legacy remains, was a then-unattainable goal, but at present so is peace in a nation divided by so much more than language.
Image: Contra Nocendi