The Anglophone Crisis -Language as the root cause for conflict, migration, and flight

A few weeks ago, a group of female leaders from Cameroon sent a petition to the UN to put an end to a raging conflict in their country, which escalated in 2017 – the Anglophone Crisis. Despite its far-reaching consequences for the whole region, the Anglophone Crisis has been happening unnoticed by the rest of the world. Media coverage in the West has been lacking, and consequently, not many are aware of what is happening in the country. The crisis is based on linguistical differences, namely the rifts between French- and English-speaking regions and the economic and political discrimination of the latter. These differences have significant effects on the anglophone population in the North-Western and South-Western parts of Cameroon. As a result, violence against civilians is rising, and many people must seek refuge elsewhere. 

This article sheds light on this crisis by explaining how language became the root cause for the conflict, by examining current implications, especially regarding Human Rights violations and the displacement of people, and finally by pointing out the lack of international engagement. 

When language divides: The historical (colonial) roots of the Anglophone crisis

It is crucial to examine the underlying root causes to understand a conflict and its consequences fully. Only like that, it is possible to find solutions, end fighting and avoid a situation in which people must flee their homes and seek a new life. In Cameroon, it is not enough to look at the last four years to comprehend the developments that led to nowadays situation.  One must go back over 100 years, as the colonial legacy is probably the principal underlying cause for the Anglophone Crisis.

Initially, Germany colonized Cameroon in the 19th century. Then after Germany was defeated in World War I, Cameroon was partitioned between France and Great Britain. In a process initiated by the League of Nations, a predecessor to the UN, France got a mandate to administer the big eastern part of the country, and Great Britain got a mandate to administer a small territory in the West bordering Nigeria. After World War II, the country was governed by France and Great Britain under the framework of trusteeships of the UN that should prepare nations for self-governance or independence. 

In 1960 Francophone Cameroon gained its independence and became the Republic of Cameroon. Meanwhile, Great Britain and the UN planned a referendum for the future of Anglophone Cameroon. In 1961, Cameroonians under British administration got to choose between integrating into Nigeria or the reunification with the Republic of Cameroon.  The UN and Great Britain ruled out an option for independence due to the economic fragility of the territory. Eventually, the Northern part of Anglophone Cameroon voted for the integration into Nigeria, whereas the Southern part decided to reunite with the Republic of Cameroon. 

 Due to the partition into a British and a French region, the political culture of both territories, now reunited, had developed utterly different. Both parts of the country had distinct educational and judicial systems due to their former colonial rulers. Western Cameroon, for instance, implemented a Common Law system while the French-speaking part in the East worked with a Civil Law system. Therefore, the new Republic of Cameroon was supposed to be a federal state, consisting of a Western (Anglophone) Cameroon Federation State and Eastern (Francophone) Cameroon Federation State. However, despite the plans for federalization, the first president Ajhdjo began to centralize the power in Yaoundé. His successor Paul Biya, who is still in power today, continued this process.  

Over the last decades, the discriminatory attitude towards the anglophone territories increased. Examples of this development are that the administration in Cameroon prefers French as the working language and that the president holds his speeches exclusively in French. Furthermore, when the state name was changed to “La République du Cameroun”, and the flag was altered from having two stars representing the federal states to one star, the country’s unification was also symbolically concluded. Moreover, the increasing political, administrative and economic marginalization of the English-speaking population led to a feeling of being discriminated against and neglected among English-speaking Cameroonians. Especially when the government started to undermine the educational and legal system of the anglophone parts of the country, the conflict worsened. For instance, president Biya appointed Francophone judges in the English-speaking territories and installed French-speaking teachers in English schools. These actions were perceived as a threat to the Common Law system and the educational system of Anglophone Cameroon and provoked strikes and demonstrations conducted by lawyers and teachers.

In response, the government started to repress those strikes and demonstrations, also violently, and a downward spiral started. On top of that, the government began restricting civil liberties in anglophone territories and even cut the region off the internet to control the situation. However, the consequence of these actions was rising discontent among the population. Hence, the rebel movement was further strengthened, and tension between both sides increased even faster. As a result, separatists became more determined, culminating in the declaration of independence of Ambazonia on 1st October 2017, which can be seen as a trigger for escalation of the crisis. 

Violations of Human Rights 

As a result of the escalation in 2017, both sides increased the application of violence. Also, the number of attacks on civilians skyrocketed, and people were forced to flee. Thus, there has been a growing number of refugees and internally displaced people. The crass violations of human rights, which are still the order of the day in Cameroon and the reason for many to leave their home and seek refuge elsewhere, will be pointed out in the following. 

First and foremost, a person’s fundamental rights to life and security are regularly violated in the Anglophone crisis by all the warring parties. These rights are established in Articles 4 and 6 of the African Charter and Articles 6 and 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).In the last five years, about 4000 people died in the hostilities. According to Human Rights Watch reports, last year, the separatist groups killed soldiers, civilians and humanitarian workers and abducted numerous people. There were even more attacks on civilians than in the years before combined. Furthermore, 30 attacks on military convoys by rebel groups occurred since the beginning of 2021. Also, Human Rights Watch reported several reprisal attacks of government forces in the last two years in which many people lost their lives. A tragic example was a raid of a village called Mautu, in which nine civilians, including a 13-year-old girl, were killed. In another attack on the Ngarbuh village, a pregnant woman was shot dead.  These horrific actions show that both sides do not respect the norms mentioned above that are in place to protect the life and security of the population. 

Article 9 of the ICCPR prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention and protects a person’s right to liberty and security. It also secures procedural rights, like a fair trial before an independent and impartial tribunal in a reasonable time frame. However, especially in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, there is a high occurrence of arbitrary detentions, mostly against dissidents like politicians, activists, academics. One example is the imprisonment of radio moderator Mancho Bibixy who spoke out against economic and political marginalization. Moreover, only a month ago, Human Rights Lawyer Amungwa Tany Nicodemus was arrested without reasonable charges. This shows clearly that arbitrary detentions remain a pressing issue until today. 

Furthermore, Cameroon is a party to three international treaties that prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment: the Convention against Torture (CAT), the ICCPR, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples‘ Rights.Torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and punishment are prohibited by the African Charter (Article 5), the ICCPR (Article 7) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), both of which Cameroon has ratified. However, many cases of torture by the government and the separatists came to light over the past years. The torture of a young man by government forces for being related to a separatist fighter in February 2021 became the most recent public example of various violations of the rules mentioned above.

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There is also a massive problem with gender-based violence in the English-speaking parts of Cameroon. Over 4000 cases were documented only in 2020, and many women protested with a hunger strike to highlight this issue. In addition, a shocking 500 reported cases of rape in the first quarter of 2021 highlight the continuing severity of the problem. All these occurrences violate Articles 2 and 3 of the African Charta, Article 3 of the ICCPR and the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Furthermore, it is a breach of the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict that Cameroon signed.

Lastly, also children, as another vulnerable group, have been suffering immensely. During the conflict, 800 000 pupils were out of school, violating their right to education. Moreover, there are reports of kidnappings and indiscriminate attacks on children which is a violation against their fundamental rights to life and security. Furthermore, schools are often an aim for the belligerents, as was shown in a terrible attack on the International Bilingual Academy in Kumba with victims as young as 12 years. 

The Anglophone Crisis affects 3 million people and forces many to flee

The numerous violations of Human Rights illustrate that conflict has taken its toll on the inhabitants of the English-Speaking zones in the country. About three in four persons were affected by the hostilities between separatists and the government. According to Crisis Group, the number of internally displaced people rose to 705 000 in late 2020, up from 679 000 the year before. Moreover, the number of refugees tripled from 20 485 in 2018 to 63 235 in 2021. Most of them seek refuge in neighbouring Nigeria in Akwa Ibom, Benue, Cross River and Taraba and have only limited access to education, healthcare, and a chance to sustain themselves. However, the UNHCR tries to help with a small amount of money of about 20 $ per month. 

These dire conditions are consequences of the steep rift between the country’s English- and French-speaking parts and the economic, political, and administrative discrimination of the former. Thus, 60 years after gaining independence, Cameroon faces an impactful crisis with massive human rights violations and rising numbers of refugees which is mainly caused by the colonial legacy of language and culture inherited by their former occupiers, France, and Great Britain. 

The UN and Western countries must act

Despite its severity, the Anglophone crisis has gone unnoticed by Western media. There has not been enough attention to this conflict and a lack of action to mitigate this crisis. However, the international community cannot ignore the gross violations of Human Rights in Cameroon anymore. The consequences that civilians, among them women and children, must endure are severe and need to be urgently addressed. Despite initial expressions of concern, it must be clearly stated that words and written statements by officials are not enough. The UN and countries like France and Great Britain should be acting as independent and impartial brokers in this situation. They should foster a dialogue between the warring parties so that peaceful communication is possible.  Hence, the parties to the conflict might find adequate and sustainable solutions, the root cause, namely the linguistical rift in the country, can be addressed, and Cameroon can achieve long-lasting peace. 

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