Politics and Society
A clash of histories in Cameroon
An uprising in the English-speaking parts of Cameroon has brought to light a little-known aspect of the country’s history, one that its government has spent 30 years suppressing.
In October 2016, I watched as ghosts of a bygone era landed in the cities of Buea and Bamenda in Western Cameroon, resuscitating age-old grievances in this former German colony (Deutsches Kolonialreich).The crisis began when lawyers in the English-speaking North West and South West regions launched a sit-in strike to protest against the undermining of English common law within a judiciary dominated by French civil law. A few weeks later, the lawyers were joined by teachers decrying the appointment of French-speaking teachers in English schools.
At first the government did not respond, but when it did, the protests degenerated into an uprising the likes of which the country hadn’t experienced since the so-called ‘hunger’ riots of 2008. In Bamenda, this clash of histories played out on the streets and pitted club-wielding police and gendarmes against wig-wearing attorneys in black robes. In Buea, a peaceful student protest at the state university morphed into an orgy of violence.
By framing their demands for reform in the education and judiciary systems in terms of their Anglophone identity, the striking lawyers and teachers had opened up chapters of the country’s history that the powers that be would rather keep closed
To be clear, violence is no stranger to Cameroon, but by framing their demands for reform in the education and judiciary systems in terms of their Anglophone identity, the striking lawyers and teachers had inadvertently opened up chapters of the country’s brief history that the powers that be would rather keep closed.
Words have never seemed as ineffectual in the face of a three-decade system that polices everything, including any narratives that stray from the established fiction: that Cameroon was never a union of two autonomous states.
Read: Cameroon: Anglophone activists charged with terrorism face death penalty
The Union Dies
Though neither date holds any significance in Cameroon today, East Cameroun gained its independence from France on 1 January 1960, while West Cameroon, a British colony governed jointly with Eastern Nigeria, became independent on 1 October 1961 in a UN-sponsored plebiscite, which joined the latter to the former in a two-state federation.
In the time between East Cameroun’s independence in 1960 and West Cameroon’s independence in October of the following year, delegations representing both entities met in July1961 in the town of Foumban to draft a constitution and set the terms that would govern the union. Amadou Ahidjo, an ally of the departing French colonial authorities, would emerge as President of the Federal Republic of Cameroon, with both sides retaining some measure of autonomy. The new state’s green, red and yellow flag bore two stars, representing both entities.
According to historian and poet Enoh Meyomesse, early in 1972 a rumour, believed to have been hatched by the pro-French Ahidjo, circulated in West Cameroon that the region was at risk of being invaded by Nigerian troops. To repel the possibility of invading Nigerians, Meyomesse, notes that “Cameroonian Army troops were massively deployed in that part of the country”.
West Cameroon was never invaded and evidence has yet to show that Nigeria planned such a thing. Nonetheless, on 20 May 1972, Ahidjo organised a constitutional referendum which essentially dissolved the federal state – a legacy that allowed Western Cameroonians their autonomy–into the United Republic of Cameroon and designated that date as the new entity’s national day.
Anglophone activists committed to the federal structure have claimed for decades that the basis of the referendum was flawed because Ahidjo had jailed or exiled all dissenting voices. If Ahidjo’s erasure of history felt like a calculated smack in the face of former West Cameroonians, his handpicked successor, Paul Biya, rubbed salt into the wounds when he unanimously changed the country’s name to la République du Cameroun in 1984. Whether Biya knew it or not, the seed of 2016’s crisis were sown on that day.
Read: Cameroon government shuts down the internet in English speaking regions
Of Actors and Narrators
After seeing the violence, I dug out my copy of Michel-RolphTrouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, in which I was reminded that humans participate in history both as “actors and as narrators”.
Though I am aware of how Cameroon’s contesting histories and contentious founding has politicised its official history, I found little solace in the Trouillot’s notion that “what actually happens” can be undermined by “what is supposed to have happened” depending on who is doing the telling.
The ongoing crisis in Cameroon have merely brought to the fore fundamental questions that have not been resolved. For instance, when does Cameroonian history begin? Who determines when Cameroon’s history began? Why are there so many versions of the same events? How does the writing of this history take place?
I reflected on these questions. But I also reflected on the conference in Foumban, whose vision was extinguished somewhere between Yaoundé and the França frique citadel of Paris. The latter had endorsed and facilitated Ahidjo’s muzzling of political plurality and his gobbling up of Anglophone autonomy. I also considered the 1922 League of Nations Class B Mandates, which split the area into British and French Cameroons, and the conference of 1884 Berlin, which doled out what was then known as Kamerun to Germany.
I have been reminded by the recent clash of histories back home that texts alonedo not suffice in the production of history. Humans will find a way to impose a historical narrative that sustains their grip on power.
Initially, the established power’s response to the stasis was to deny that there was an “Anglophone” problem in Cameroon, attributing the events to the actions of Diaspora-based secessionists. As the crisis escalated, the government dispatched mostly Anglophone bureaucrats to the English-speaking regions to negotiate with the hastily formed Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, which. However, the negotiations were stifled due to the government’s strong-arm tactics and refusal to address federalism, which, the consortium argued, was the root of the malaise.
Sticking to the story
The government’s inflexibility was further underscored by President Paul Biya, who in his December 2016 end-of-year speech–while not citing the ongoing crisis– declared: “We should never forget that we are walking in the footsteps of our country’s founding fathers, our national heroes, who shed their blood to bequeath to posterity a nation that is united in its diversity.”
I ask myself what national heroes he was referring to.Was he referring to those in East Cameroun, who were brutally repressed by the departing French colonialists and their handpicked local allies, like Biya’s predecessor, Ahidjo? Was he referring to those in West Cameroon, who had voted to reunify on terms that were now taboo subjects?
I now believe that Biya was telling Cameroonians that his government’s version of history was the only version that mattered.
The president continued by insisting that “Cameroon’s unity is therefore a precious legacy with which no one should take liberties. Any claim, no matter how relevant, loses its legitimacy once it jeopardises, even slightly, the building of national unity.”
I now believe that Biya was telling Cameroonians that his government’s version of history was the only version that mattered: To hell with all those who claimed the Supreme Court did not have a bench for English Common Law! Who cared if English-speaking students were being taught by French speakers who had barely mastered the language of instruction? What mattered was “national unity”.
Unsurprisingly, less than three weeks after his address, with negotiations at another deadlock, Cameroonians woke up to the news of a ministerial order that had outlawed the consortium and that its leaders, Barrister Nkongho Felix AgborBalla and Professor Fontem Neba, had been arrested at their homes in Buea and whisked away to Yaoundé. Meanwhile, a few days later the government shut down the Internet in the two English-speaking regions, citing the proliferation of ‘fake news’ that threatened the state’s security.
Perhaps the established power thinks that in cutting the English speakers off from the world, a new history would not be written. As I am writing this, the Internet has still not been restored, but the history of Cameroon is being rewritten in new ways by a new generation of narrator-actors.