Federalism: Can the SDF sway the majority? 1

For more than three months, West Cameroon has witnessed demonstrations which started with lawyers asking for a translation of legal documents in the country into English to reflect the country’s bilingual nature after repeated attempts by common law lawyers to get the government to understand that the country was a bi-jural and bilingual. Stuck in an old and colonial mentality, the government dispatched the police to unleash a reign of terror on peace-loving lawyers who were simply seeking a system that would enable them to be more effective and efficient by making their submissions in English, a language they master better. The strike was later joined by teachers who held that it was intellectually wrong for English-speaking students to be taught by French-speaking teachers. The matter was made worse when University of Buea authorities erroneously imposed a CFAF 10,000 bill on already frustrated students who thought it was time for them to meet with University authorities to have the issues ironed out. Again, university authorities, like their Yaounde masters, made the unpardonable mistake of ordering armed policemen to enter university grounds and ensure that peace reigned at all cost. Many students were brutalized, with many young and innocent girls made to drink raw sewage. As the students beat a retreat, the brutal policemen pursued them to their hostels, where many young girls were brutally raped.  The violence then spread to Bamenda, the Anglophone region’s biggest city, and it took a turn for the worst.

 As the violence spread across the entire region, West Cameroonians,who have been living with the belief thatthe Yaounde government has put in place a well-oiled marginalization mechanism against them,used the opportunity to call for a federal state that would enable them run their own part of the country like their parents had done prior to the declaration of a unitary state in 1972, with some ‘free radicals’ calling for secession and restoration of statehood. Many clearly curse the hour to which they were born to such a destiny, but rather than spend time crying over spilled milk, they believe the time has come for them to right the wrongs of the past by calling for a federal system or total independence from French-speaking Cameroon. The government has been scrambling for solutions, even going as far as creating a bilingualism and multiculturalism commission to placate the striking West Cameroonians. According to the government’s spokesperson, the government is prepared to discuss all the issues raised by the frustrated and disgruntled Anglophone minority, including federalism and secession, but the government seems to be bereft of an interface as West Cameroonians insist that any dialogue can only be held with their jailed leaders and that without such dialogue, the ghost towns and school closures will continue indefinitely. They insist that a first step towards meaningful dialogue must include the unconditional release of their jailed leaders – AgborBalla and Fontem –as well as all West Cameroonians arrested illegally and trucked to Yaounde where they do not have any family members and cannot speak French.

As the government scrambled for solutions, using mass arrests and intimidation as its weapons of choice, the more than one million Anglophone Diaspora decided to jump into fray to upset the government’s apple cart, especially as gruesome videos of the government’s atrocities popped up on the Internet, to provide strong support, clear direction and effective guidance to a hastily formed Consortium that comprises the various trade unions that have come together to present a common front against a government that only believes in a strong language and an iron fist. The emergence of compromising videos causedthe government to switch off Internet connection in the Northwest and Southwest regions of the country. The government holds that the Internet is a development tool that must be used judiciously, but what it does not tell the public is that this new technology is a key working tool that has created many jobs and has exposed many governments that have mowed down their own citizens. Its disconnection will render many West Cameroonians unemployed. Itwill also goa long way in radicalizing the Anglophone minority which clearly believes that the country is today divided along linguistic and Internet lines, though the government has been pointing out that Cameroon is one and indivisible.

While West Cameroonians have been rolled back to the dark ages, the Diaspora has been working overtime to make sure government officials continue to lose sleep. The disconnection of the Internet and the mass arrests that ensued have not deterred the country’s Anglophone minority from bringing its plight to the global arena. In North America, major cities such as New York, Washington, Toronto and Ottawa have all witnessed huge demonstrations. In Europe, strategic cities like London, Paris, Berlin and Rome have been the theaters of massive demonstrations that have left many people wondering whether Cameroon, the erstwhile oasis of peace in an island of chaos, can actually weather the storm that is sweeping through this country of about 25 million inhabitants. The Diaspora’s objective has, over the last two months, been to raise, awareness of the Anglophone minority’s plight in Cameroon. It has clearly and successfully given the government a bad name and image, with human rights organizations calling on the government to release the leaders of the Consortium who, in many minds, are being held illegally.

The outrage increased by a notch following the kidnapping of a Supreme Court judge, Justice Paul Ayah. A clear indication that the government is not prepared to go to the negotiating table to sincerely discuss with the Anglophone minority’s leaders, most of whom are languishing in filthy and sub-standard jails.  The more the government comes up with more dissuasive and oppressive measures and methods, the more the people of the country’s Anglophone region dig their feet. The illegal arrests and incarceration of the Consortium’s leaders has, at best, been counter-productive. They have only served as fodder for the cannons of the regime’s opponents as they seem to give the impression that the government has been pouring highly inflammable fuel into its own burning house. Students, farmers, mechanics, bricklayers and other professionals have all willingly joined the movement for a federal system of government,with all West Cameroonians religiously abiding by the outlawed Consortium’s call for ghost towns and school closures in West Cameroon as a strategy to bring the government to the negotiating table; a government that has, so far,been accused of displaying a lot of bad faith in the search formeaningful and sustainable solutions to the Anglophone problem that has been around for more than five decades and it is today a millstone around the government’s neck.Its inability to find a credible partner to dialogue with and its series of gaffes have left the country in a pitiful quandary.

For a long time, the Francophone majority has been on the sidelines, watching as their fellow citizens are being brought down by government bullets, with many even questioning why Anglophones were destabilizing the country given that the entire country has been a victim of the regime’s mal-administration. Regime supporters have hailed the government’s repressive measures and have even called for a court martial of those they consider as the enemies within and terrorists. But over the last couple of weeks, the balance has been swinging in the Anglophone minority’s favor as many French-speaking Cameroonians are gradually acknowledging the injustice Anglophones have suffered in the hands of a regime that has failed to bring prosperity to a country endowed with natural and human resources. The discourse is gradually changing. Francophones are gaining a better understanding of the situation. The Anglophone minority has carefully martialed its arguments and it has successfully won hearts and minds among Francophones, most of whom fear that the government’s do-nothing attitude could cause Anglophones to secede. In the event of secession, the Anglophone minority will be walking away with about 60% of the country’s wealth. The Anglophone region is blessed with many resources, including oil, gas, diamond and timber. Its rich sub-soil has brought lots of foreign currency earnings to the country. For almost 50 years, the Rio Del Rey estuary has been the source of more than 90% and at times 100% of all the country’s hydrocarbons, specifically oil or petroleum. In 2014, the last year for which complete data is publicly available, Cameroon exported US$5.88 billion worth of products, of which US$2.65 billion, about CFAF 1,650 billion, was from crude oil. Such a move will spell doom for a country that has been caught in the throes of an economic crisis for many decades.

The changing tides should tell the government that it has a huge crisis on its hands. The Francophone majority is gradually injecting itself into the equation, with some Francophone senators and members of parliament yielding that the Anglophone problem is real and should be dealt with politically to avoid a doomsday scenario. The Social Democratic Front (SDF), the country’s major opposition party, has decided to take the struggle to the Francophone region. It has scheduled a massive federalism march on March 4, 2017 in Douala which is a cosmopolitan city. Though the government has banned the march, the SDF has promised to organize one of the largest marches in the country’s history; a situation that will surely lead to a violent confrontation between Francophone federalists and a regime whose faith in oppressive methods of conflict resolution is no longer in doubt. The fireball is gradually rolling into the enemy’s camp and government fears are gradually coming true. Francophones might have, over the last three months, displayed inexplicable indifference to the slaughtering of Anglophones, but does this imply they are satisfied with the centralized system of government that is spreading pain and death in the country? Their silence might have been misconstrued as support for the government, but now that the grumbling is getting louder and SDF has decided to go frontal with the government, many Francophones might consider that the time has come for them to join the struggle that appears to hold out lots of hope not only for Anglophones, but for the entire country. The answer to the question that has been on many lips might finally find an answer in a few days’ timewhen the SDF will roll into Douala and other cities to deliver its message of federalism and rapid economic development. Will the once famous political party achieve what Anglophones have not been able to achieve over the last five decades? Swaying many Francophones has been a tough job for many Anglophones. Can the SDF really succeed to sway Francophones? The federalism march could be a significant milestone in Cameroon’s political history. The country’s leaders must understand that the odds are stacked up against them. The writing on the wall is very clear and it is, this time around, in French. Playing the ostrich will spell disaster for a country that has long been on life support. It is time for the government to rethink not just its strategy, but the form of the state, if it does not want to end up with a sticky situation on its hands.

By  Dr. Joachim Arrey

About the Author:The author of this piece is a keen observer of Cameroon’s political and economic landscape. He has published extensively on the country’s political and economic development, especially in the early 90s when the wind of change was blowing across the African continent. He has served as a translator, technical writer, journalist and editor for several international organizations and corporations across the globe. He studied communication at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and technical writing in George Brown College in Toronto, Canada. He is also a trained translator and holds a Ph.D.