Cameroon’s Secessionist Crisis


On October 1, 2017, Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, the leader of Southern Cameroonian secessionists, declared the southwestern part of Cameroon the independent Republic of Ambazonia. Very quickly, clashes erupted in key cities in the region between forces of the Cameroonian government and supporters of the secessionists. The high wire political act of Ayuk Tabe was the culmination of several years of political conflict between the Anglophone Southwest and the Francophone section of the country.

Cameroon’s topsy-turvy colonial history, as well as a rigid political stance by her national leadership, especially from the Francophone region of the country, are largely responsible for the dangerous turn in the political brinksmanship between the Paul Biya led government and the ‘Ambazonians.’ The implications for violence that can degenerate into a full blown insurrection are enormous.

In the course of the European scramble for Africa, the territory of Cameroon became a German possession. But Germany was forced to give up the territory following her defeat in the First World War. The French and the British had actually wrested control of the territory in the course of the war, but subsequent formalities arising from the Treaty of Versailles effectively split the territory into 2 and placed them in the respective administrative control of the British and the French.

British Cameroon consisted of 2 regions—a north and a south. Both regions were run by British administrative officers who reported to superiors in neighboring Nigeria. British Northern Cameroon became an administrative unit and was joined with Northern Nigeria, as the south was equally made a part of Eastern Nigeria. In elections held in 1950, 13 Southern Cameroonians were elected into the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly. In 1953, Southern Cameroon was made an autonomous region. By 1960, both Cameroon (the French controlled part) and Nigeria had been granted independence. In 1961, British Northern Cameroon and the autonomous southern region participated in a plebiscite organized by the United Nations. There were 2 questions on the ballot: union with Nigeria or with Cameroon. The north voted for union with Nigeria, while the south opted for union with Cameroon.

Following the plebiscite, Cameroon became a federal state and operated a federal constitution which gave substantial autonomy to the 2 distinct regions in recognition of differences in colonial orientation. In essence, Cameroon was a bilingual and binational country, the first of its kind in Africa, uniting English and French speaking sections as one. But in 1972, a new constitution which abolished the federal state and replaced it with a unitary structure was pushed through. Then the overbearing influence of the larger French region of the country began to manifest in policies, programs and administrative decisions which marginalized the Anglophone region, leading to the current standoff.

Anglophone Cameroonians accused the Francophone political leadership of several sins, including: forced learning of the French language when it really should be optional; replacement of the English legal system with the French system without adequate consultation and planning; and marginalization at the top echelons of the government.

The movement for the outright independence of the people of Southern Cameroon from the Republic of Cameroon acquired a momentum in the last two decades as a consequence of the policies of the dictatorial regime of Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982. Moderate voices in the movement initially advocated for a return to the federal system which worked very well from 1961 to 1972. They contended this would douse secessionist tendencies, but Biya and hardliners in his government refused any consideration of the views of the moderates. Biya did not take them seriously and over time, the moderate voices were drowned out by the secessionists who appear to have the upper hand now.

The moderates had laid out a number of demands consistent with the practices of a federal state. They wanted a Southern Cameroon House of Assembly; recognition of English as the working language of the region; and control of the natural resources of the region. Biya has refused dialogue on all of these. He may believe in using force to deal with his determined foes, but if the history of the use of force in settling political disputes in Sub Saharan Africa is a predictor of messy outcomes, Cameroon may be sliding down a path of bloody conflict. The choice appears to be Biya’s at this point.

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