Cameroons Colonial Legacy: is it time for Independence?

Over the past few months there has been rising tension in Cameroon regarding the perceived marginalisation of the English speaking minority. Since October 2016 there have been a series of actions launched by this minority, with the latest taking place on the 8th of September. This linguistic tension revolves around the English-speaking citizens claims of French dominance in society.

Today’s situation exists as a product of colonialism, originating with the German annexation of Cameroon during the 1800s, as well as  war fought between European Powers in the early 20th century. Germany’s ex-colony became the property of Britain and France.

The British controlled the now English-speaking regions and the French controlled the now French-speaking regions. At the time these regions were separate, with the English speaking areas being referred to as the British Cameroons or Southern Cameroons. Modern Cameroon is split into 10 regions, 8 of which are French speaking and two of which are predominantly English-speaking.

In 1961 there was a combination of these regions during independence to create the Cameroon we know today. Therefore, since 1961 there has been a linguistic split in Cameroon between English and French speakers, much like what we see in Canada. Only two men have ruled Cameroon since independence, the first being Ahmadou Ahidjo and the other being the current President Paul Biya. Both were and are French-speaking.

The current protests amongst the English-speakers began with a strike by lawyers during October 2016 with regards to key legal texts being translated into English, as well as English speaking magistrates being appointed. Since then teachers have joined in, striking over the perception that French is being forced into education within English-speaking areas.

From this point the protests have continued and the government response has been controversial. The internet was suspended and some journalists were arrested in English-speaking areas. Markets have been burned down and there have also been calls for the English-speaking regions to declare independence.

This recent tension leads one to question why the English  and French speaking regions were  combined to create the current state of Cameroon.

On the 11th of February 1961 the British Cameroons voted in a plebiscite. The plebiscite, organised by the United Nations (UN) under resolution 1608, gave the Northern Cameroons and the Southern Cameroons two options, either join Nigeria or join Cameroon. Independence was not on offer, due to the UK representative to the UN, Andrew Cohen, arguing that it was not a viable option. Northern Cameroons voted to join Nigeria while the South voted to join France.

Therefore it could be argued that calls for independence should be ignored, as surely the Southern Cameroons could have  simply  joined Nigeria, an English speaking country. Yet self-determination was never on offer, only the offer of joining other states.

Those arguing for independence have argued that resolution 1608 was never carried out.  The resolution required the UK, Cameroon proper and the Southern Cameroons to engage in talks about annexation, which never took place. The problems resulting from the lack of talks were exacerbated when the country moved from a Federal system to a unitary one in 1972, which changed the relationship between the regions and central government.

Whether independence is granted or not, what the situation in Cameroon does highlight is how decisions made by European powers, either German, French or British are still having an impact on countries today. Decisions made during the 1800s, followed by a world war fought between European powers has led to a West African nation existing in a state of tension.

This upheaval comes at an interesting time for West Africa. In neighbouring Nigeria there have been renewed calls for Biafran independence. Could one influence the other? If the English-Speaking regions of Cameroon were to gain independence would this inspire more to join the calls for an independent Biafra? Perhaps this would also ignite further calls for independence throughout the continent.


Featured image | The Reunificaiton Monument (“le monument de la Réunification” in French) in Yaounde, Cameroon | flickr 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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