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Analysis II
Last Updated: 06/03/2008
Key Challenges to Peace in Camaroon
Galda Keng

Camaroon is a nation of great promise for peace and stability. As Golda Keng explains, this promise is threatened by inequalities and ethnic tensions, many of which are rooted in the country's colonial history.


The Republic of Cameroon (a.k.a. La Repulique du Cameroun), is one of Africa’s politically "stable" countries, having had 2 presidents since Independence, and only one attempted coup d’etat (April 6, 1984). Considered peaceful by many who define peace as the absence of war or acute violence, it is very quickly turning into a simmering pot of magma awaiting a spark to ignite a huge volcano. Many maladies plague the region, effectively posing as challenges to lasting or sustainable peace in the nation. The most prominent issues are political (history of colonization, bilingual separatism, human rights violations, illegitimacy of the government), socio-cultural (identity issues, nepotism and tribalism), and economic (unequal distribution of resources and development, large scale unemployment, post colonial exploitation and high scale corruption and fraud). To better understand the issues involved, we must begin with a brief description of the peoples of Cameroon.

Originally occupied by the indigenous Pygmies[1] and Bantus[2], the area has become home to more than 235 groups and tribes speaking over 24 major African languages and 300 dialects. With colonization, this situation was very well exploited and the country remains one of few in Africa with no written form of a local dialect. The Tikaris and Semi-Bantus make up the 20% English-speaking population who make their home in two the of the nation’s ten provinces in the western part of the country. The French (Francophone) and English (Anglophone) parts of Cameroon became independent in 1960 and 1961 respectively, and were united in 1972 after a Referendum. Even though overseen by the UN, the plebiscite[3] of 1961 refused the English speaking entity - administered by the British as a part of Nigeria - the option of becoming a state and this feeling of “being lost” within a French country is at the base of all the trouble the country is having. This lingering resentment and mistrust will be seen more as I discuss the challenges to peace in the paragraphs that follow.

The first challenge to sustainable peace in Cameroon will be heaped under the term “political issues”. This consists of several interwoven aspects of the recent history and politics of the country. Another issue is the legacy of past Colonial policies practiced by the masters - Germany’s “divide and rule”, French “assimilation” and English “indirect rule” that has birthed confusion, stereotypes, and suspicion among tribes.

The modern history of Cameroon began in 1884, when the territory came under German rule. Although British missionaries had been active in the area since 1845, the UK recognized the German protectorate, called Kamerun. During their occupation from 1884 to 1914, the Germans advanced into the interior by pitting local coastal chiefs against those in the interior, and seizing land to cultivate large plantations, introducing forced labor to build roads, and cities. This set the stage for deep-seated inter-tribal mistrust among the local people. When World War I broke out, French and British forces invaded the territory and overpowered the Germans. After the war, one-fifth of the former German Kamerun, which was contiguous with eastern Nigeria, was assigned to the UK, and the remaining four-fifths was assigned to France as League of Nations mandated territories. Worthy of note is the fact that the “Lancelot-Picot line” which divided the territory, only took into consideration the resource factor for the colonizers, cutting through villages, creating artificial boundaries and separating tribes and families.

During the period 1919–39, France made notable contributions to the development of the territory. Agriculture was expanded; industries were introduced; roads were built; medical services were broadened; and more schools were established. Political liberty was restricted, however, and the system of compulsory labor continued. The Germans returned for a brief period, but in August 1940, Col. Philippe Leclerc, an envoy of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, landed at Douala and seized the territory for the Free French. The birth of the Fourth French Republic and the UN trusteeship in 1946 signified a new era for the territory. French Cameroun was granted representation in the French National Assembly and the Council of the Republic[4] thereby replacing their policy of association with “assimilation”. This was in marked contrast with the British-governed Cameroon, which practiced the “indirect rule” policy that effectively left the people to fend for themselves, and accounts for the relative underdevelopment of Anglophone Cameroon today. One thing that was commonly done by all three powers was stamping out local languages and making English and French the only languages to be used officially, especially at school.

On January 1, 1960, French Cameroun became an independent republic. On February 11, 1961, separate plebiscites were held in the Southern and Northern British Cameroons under the auspices of the UN. The voters in Southern Cameroons chose union with the Cameroun Republic, as a federation while those in Northern Cameroons opted for union with Nigeria, which was accomplished on 1 June 1961. In 1972, the president of the Federation, Ahmadou Ahidjo, violated Article 47 of the Federal Constitution which prohibited any action that threatened the existence of the Federation, and abrogated the federal arrangement with the proclamation DF 72-270 of 6th February 1972, abolishing all federal legislative, judicial and administrative institutions, and removing all guarantees that protected the rights of the minority Southern Cameroonians in the Federation (Bongfen 2004, Ajong, 2006). A proposal to replace the federation with a unified state was ratified by popular referendum on 20 May 1972; the vote was reportedly 99.97% in favor of unification. A new constitution went into effect on June 2, renaming the country United Republic of Cameroon. Unlike during the plebiscite of 1961 wherein only Southern Cameroonians voted to decide on their destiny, the May 1972 referendum was extended to French Cameroon. The wide majority of French Cameroonians dwarfed the dissenting voices of Southern Cameroonians, rejecting the centralized United Republic of Cameroon. Many Southern Cameroonians regard 20th May – the national day of today’s Cameroon – as a day when they lost their freedom (Bongfen, 2004, Ajong 2006).

During the months that followed, terrorist activity was renewed and the government had to devote one-third of its national budget to the maintenance of public order. Ahmadou Ahidjo remained president of the republic, created the office of prime minister, and appointed Paul Biya to the post. In November 1982 he resigned and was succeeded by Biya but remained head of the ruling party, the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM). Biya proved more independent than Ahidjo had anticipated. Following allegations of a military coup, allegedly masterminded by Ahidjo, the former president retired to France in August 1983, and Biya became party chairman. Ahidjo was sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment) in absentia in February 1984. Biya's presidential guard attempted to overthrow the government in April, but the army stamped out the rebellion. Purges followed, and 46 of the plotters were executed. A state of emergency was declared, which lasted several years.

Late in 1984, the position of prime minister was abolished, and the name of the country was changed to the Republic of Cameroon. English speaking Cameroonians still maintain that they are Southern Cameroons, and extremists go by the “terrorist” name of “Ambazonia State” with very strong secessionist ideologies. With a hands-on military presence (gendermerie) in 7 provinces, widespread arbitrary arrests, detentions and murders of members of this front called Southern Cameroon National Congress (SCNC) are common today. Diaspora Anglophone Cameroonians have in recent years been mobilizing to demand a change in the political scene. The seeds of violence have been planted and have taken root and it is evident that Cameroon is sliding down the same rugged road that Sierra Leone, Liberia, and many other African Nations have taken. Lasting peace cannot be had unless the underlying issues are exposed and dealt with.

Looking at the economic challenges to peace in Cameroon, it is worthy of note that while the politics and economy has been and is controlled by and from French Cameroon, the natural resources, except for timber (oil, bauxite, precious stones, agriculture, tourism…) are located in the underdeveloped English Cameroon. This already makes for rivalry over resources and a classic case of secessionist tendencies in Anglophone Cameroon. The Anglophones feel deprived and rightly so, when they can only work as laborers in plantations owned by French expatriates and managed by Francophone Cameroonians. Not only is there a need for economic security but also the systematic tribalism involved in the distribution of wealth in Cameroon doubles the anxiety experienced by the Anglophones. High scale unemployment with a vast demographic mismatch is prevalent as last names are usually an asset or disadvantage in the job market. There is a Marxist threat hovering in the atmosphere as numerous youth use aggression as a conduit for their disillusionment by sabotaging means of production, thereby hampering economic growth.

Another hindrance to the country’s growth and future is the massive emigration of educated Anglophones who cannot exist in such a stifling environment. It is estimated that the Anglophone population in the Diaspora is double that of the population at home. While natural resources and agriculture make Cameroon a potentially wealthy country, life expectation is around 50, half the population is below the poverty line, unemployment is over 30% and agricultural productivity is low. Foreign intervention is such that the French support the regime while the British stay clear with their hands full elsewhere such as Sierra Leone. The real danger lies with the recent injection of funds from the World Bank to build the pipeline from Chad to the sea to bring out, among others, Exxon-Mobil’s oil. A small per cent of the oil revenues are supposed to be returned to improve lives and resettlement of the displaced communities in Cameroon as well as Chad. With the pipeline still not complete, oil spills are causing local havoc, much to the chagrin of the World Bank.[5]

With this state of affairs, corruption has taken over the country and in 1998/9 Transparency International[6] listed Cameroon as the World’s “most corrupt” nation. It is a popular joke that corruption is the highest employer in the country.

Cultural challenges to peace in Cameroon arise mainly from language and in-fighting within border tribes irrespective of the language. The English language, which is supposedly one of the two official languages, has been completely ignored by the government in favor of French (Fomotar, 2006). All the major administrative decisions are read or published in French, in the state-owned, widely followed media that always ends with a rhetoric “…will be published in English and French wherever need be.” The President, having been in power for almost 25 years (since November 1982), cannot express himself in English. This is considered by most Anglophones as a total disrespect of their existence as citizens of the Republic of Cameroon (Anyangwe, 2003). Statistics, though unofficial since no academic research has been done on this, will most likely reveal that all Anglophones in positions of responsibility are bilingual but the reverse is untrue of most Francophones in similar positions. The Anglophones in the universities also suffer emotional violence from Francophones who constantly remind them that they are “Biafras” (Ibos in Nigeria) and therefore, “l’ennemi dans la maison” [enemy in the house] (Bongfen, 2004). It is not uncommon to hear Francophone Cameroonians calling their counterparts “Anglofou” [foolish Anglophone/Anglo-Saxon] (Fomotar, 2006). Many Anglophones also argue that they cannot get jobs because the English accent in their French expression/speech is discernable and betrays their identity – an identity they are not ashamed of.

One can thus conclude from the above analysis that Cameroon is a failing state that might degenerate into full violence given the prevailing circumstances. The challenges to peace in this nation are numerous and complex and demand immediate attention and intervention or Africa will be facing another Uganda or Zimbabwe.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Argenti, Nicolas P. Intestines of the Sate: Youth Violence and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grass fields. (2007).

Bjornson, Richard African Quest for Freedom and Identity: Cameroon Writing and the National Experience (1991).

Chiabi, Emmanuel Making of Modern Cameroon: A History of Sub-state Nationalism and Desperate Union, 1914-1961 (1997)

 Gros, Jean-Germain Cameroon: Politics and Society in Critical Perspective (2003).

Konings, Piet Negotiating an Anglophone Identity: A Study of the Politics of Recognition and Representation in Cameroon. (2003).

Manga, Ekema African Economic Dilemma: The Case of Cameroon (1998).

Mbuh, Justice Inside Contemporary Cameroon Politics: Ingredients of International Conflict. (2005).


[1] A physically short forest dwelling tribe that up till today, defy all forms of modernization and keep to their traditional way of living. Mostly found in the rain forests of the Eastern part of Cameroon.

[2] A huge tribe scattered over most of Central, East and South Africa.  The Prehistory of Africa, Thames and Hudson, 1970.

[3] 1961, English-speaking,  British  protectorates were given two options in a UN plebiscite. Gaining independence by joining La Republic du Cameroun or Nigeria. The vote went to joining French Cameroun in the South and Nigeria in the mostly Muslim north. The south has since regretted this choice.

[4] http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/Africa/Cameroon-HISTORY.html

[5] Simon Sander Peace and Conflict Monitor, Upeace 2007.

[6] http://www.transparency.org/policy_reseach/surveys_indices/cpi/previous_cpi


Golda Keng is an MA-Peace Education student at the University for Peace, Costa Rica. As an Anglophone Cameroonian, her academic interests revolve around Educational Systems and Change, Human Rights, and Sustainable Development Education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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