In recent months, political violence in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon has escalated dramatically. So far, at least 400 civilians and 160 state security officers have been killed in the conflict between the government and an armed separatist movement that, just two short years ago, started as a peaceful strike of lawyers and teachers. How did such upheaval come to a country that has prided itself for decades as a bulwark of stability in a region of violent conflict? And why has it escalated so quickly?
THE ROOTS OF THE VIOLENCE
The Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon have a special historical legacy that sets them apart from the country’s other eight regions: between 1922 and 1960, they were ruled as a British trust or protectorate while the rest of the territory was administered by France. This is why today, 3 million residents of the Northwest and Southwest regions—roughly 20 percent of the Cameroonian population—speak primarily English, not French. These two regions also use their own legal and educational systems, inherited from the British, and have a unique cultural identity.
Many analysts argue that the current conflict stems from the intractable historical animosity between Cameroon’s Anglophones and Francophones. Yet if that is the case, it is strange that the violence is only occurring now. Why not in 1972, when Ahmadou Ahidjo, the first president of Cameroon, ended the federation between the Anglophone and Francophone regions, forcing the Anglophones to submit to a unitary state? Or in 1992, when current President Paul Biya held Cameroon’s first multi-party elections, and narrowly won a heavily rigged contest by four percentage points against Anglophone candidate John Fru Ndi? Furthermore, if differences in identity are the primary driver of the conflict, it is quite surprising that Cameroon—one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Africa—has largely avoided ethnic conflict.
Most Anglophones themselves say that they would be happy to put their national identity above their linguistic one if they weren’t systematically neglected and repressed by Cameroon’s central government.
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