C Gopinath

Colonial legacy

C Gopinath | Updated on November 13, 2018 Published on November 13, 2018

Turmoil in Cameroon as linguistic divide widens

Paul Biya, President of Cameroon, was re-elected with 71 per cent of the vote for his seventh term early November. This makes him, at 85, Sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest leader. Isn’t it lovely to be such a popular leader? But there is trouble in paradise.

Cameroon has an interesting history. The country was a German colony, and after Germany’s defeat during WW I, France and Britain were invited to share the spoils. After French Cameroon got its independence in 1960, the two non-contiguous parts of British Cameroon had a plebiscite the next year and one part joined their French brethren to become the current Republic of Cameroon (the other part joined Nigeria). Colonisation split many ethnic groups around the world and not many celebrated such fraternal relations on independence.

Given its history, both French and English are official languages and English speakers now account for about 20 per cent of the 25 million population. But Cameroon is experiencing the turmoil that happens when the majority does not pay sufficient attention to its minority. Language and culture have as much a role to play in disaffection as political power and economic benefits.

Indigenous language

Unfortunately, the absence of a dominant indigenous language has led to the people clinging to the languages of their colonial past and the baggage it has left them. About three years ago, the Anglophone residents began complaining that their language and culture was being marginalised by the majority French speaking government and legislators. Educational opportunities were shrinking and jobs in government were becoming difficult to get if you were not good in French. Official documents were often only available in French.

Initially, the lawyers protested that the government was appointing judges who spoke no English and did not understand how the common law (as against French civil law) operated in the Anglophone regions. Then the teachers protested that the teachers being appointed could only speak French and the students could not understand them.

The Anglophone region saw this as a not-so-subtle way of imposing the majority French culture. The government, which learned its policing techniques from colonial masters, responded to protests with a heavy hand banning strikes, jailing others and killing people. What began as a demand for equality and fraternity has deteriorated to a demand for separation. The roots of the desire also goes back in history. The Anglophones resent the fact that the British did not give them a choice of independence during the plebiscite.Sections of the people have begun raising a flag of independence (Ambazonia). This only gives the government the justification for even more ruthless response. Remember Bangladesh? The Punjabi/Urdu dominance of the west could not accommodate the Bangla language and culture of the east. Remember the anti-Hindi agitation in South India during the 1960s?

Cameroon’s other problems, like the infiltration of Boko Haram terrorists, diverts attention. Cameroonians try to escape for a better life in Europe while also hosting refugees from neighbouring countries. President Biya being a good ally of the West, fights terrorism and the US keeps a base in Cameroon. The EU provides good aid.

President Biya, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, loves to travel and one of his favourite spots is at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva in a suite overlooking the lake. Next time he is there, he may want to learn how Switzerland is able to manage its diverse linguistic groups (French, German and Italian) so amicably. Or even better, he may want to spend time in Canada to learn how the French and English speakers get along. After its own brush with separation initiated by disgruntled Quebecois, the Canadians have successfully managed the integration.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston.

Published on November 13, 2018
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