Cameroonian president Paul Biya took time during a speech he gave on the country’s annual Youth Day on Wednesday to ask for anglophone youth in the Northwest and Southwest regions for faith in his government. A protracted secessionist struggle, referred to as the Anglophone Crisis, has seen violence between demonstrators and Cameroonian security forces since 2016, taking more than two thousand lives and displacing more than four hundred thousand. President Biya highlighted recent laws promoting bilingual language rights and granting further autonomy to the anglophone region, but it will take time for trust to be gained, as anglophone grievances go back to Cameroonian unification in 1961.
The Anglophone Crisis forms a stark contrast with the relative success of Cameroon’s economy and ability to avoid protracted identitarian conflicts despite containing a wide swath of linguistic and ethnic communities within its borders and unresolved questions of identity left over from its colonial past. Cameroon was a German colony until World War I, after which it was partitioned between the British and French victors. French Cameroon became independent in 1960, with the British Cameroons (the modern-day territory of the Northwest and Southwest regions) opting to unify instead of joining with Nigeria.
Differences in governing styles, judicial codes, and educational syllabuses between the French and English regions of Cameroon fomented distinct identity differences between the two. Anglophone Cameroonians make up a little more than one-fifth of the country’s total population, leading to a persistent disparity in terms of political representation, the result of which was perpetual underfunding of English-speaking schools and courts. Anglophone citizens were also frequently regarded as provincialists, second-class to the majority francophone citizens.
These grievances came to a head in late 2017, when a group of anglophone protest movements declared an autonomous state of Ambazonia, sparking an intense crackdown by President Biya’s military and security forces. Videos doing the rounds of soldiers using civilians as human shields and violently suppressing civil demonstrations exacerbated tensions further. By the time the Biya administration got around to negotiating and taking anglophone concerns into consideration, the damage had already been done. Though legislative elections were held with relatively little violence, it will still take many years to resolve these disputes and rebuild trust between Cameroon’s anglophone and francophone territories.