The Coffin Revolution in Cameroon

Image via Bonteh’s Blog.

On November 21, 2016, Mancho Bibixy, the newscaster of a local radio station, stood in an open casket in a crowded roundabout in the Anglophone Cameroonian city of Bamenda. Using a blow horn, Bibixy denounced the slow rate of economic and structural development in the city, declaring he was ready to die while protesting against the social and economic marginalization of Anglophone persons in the hegemonic Francophone state. Quickly dubbed the Coffin Revolutionary leader by English-speaking Cameroonians, Bibixy emerged as a key leader in the larger Anglophone political movement against the Cameroonian president’s policies requiring all the country’s schools and courts to use French.

While the majority of Cameroonians speak French, two western regions of the country were once part of the British Empire, and English continues to dominate in these regions. After 1922, Cameroon was a mandate territory of the League of Nations, then became a United Nations trust territory that Great Britain and France jointly administered. The British Mandate territory of Cameroon included the Southern and Northern Cameroons. Consequently, Anglophone regions have had their own distinct legal system, one based on British common law. These facts, and the history that led to it, are little known among both scholars and journalists outside the country.

The protests began a month earlier as thousands of Anglophone Cameroonians, from teachers and lawyers to irate youths protested the Francophone president’s dicta in the streets of Anglophone cities.

Within months, Bibixy and two other high-profile male Anglophone protesters would be arrested and face the death penalty. The state used a 2014 law created to help combat Nigeria-based Islamist militant group Boko Haram, whose fighters regularly launch attacks in Cameroon; it formally tried the three men for complicity in hostility against the homeland, secession, civil war and campaigning for federalism. In response, hundreds of infuriated youths, mostly young men, stormed the streets to demand the unconditional release of Bibixy and the others. The government responded by outlawing groups that advocate for Anglophone rights and shutting off internet connections to Anglophone regions of Cameroon in January.

The protests in English-speaking Cameroon are the culminating point in Anglophone secessionist/separatist movements that dates to the 1960s. The British Northern and Southern Cameroons severed from Europe on February 11, 1961. Each had a plebiscite that required them to choose between union with Nigeria and union with the former French administered region, Cameroun. As Anglophone activists point out, outright independence did not appear on the ballot and evidence suggests France and Britain rigged the votes. The Northern Cameroons became part of Nigeria, which had been a British colony, while the Southern Cameroons joined Cameroun in the Republic of Cameroon, a loose confederation with semi-autonomous states, the West Cameroon State (Anglophone) and the East Cameroon State (Francophone).

While the West Cameroon State had nominal independence that extended to its own political parties and press (East Cameroon had only government-run newspapers but West Cameroonian newspapers, while heavily influenced by political parties, had a press at least theoretically independent of the state) the Francophone majority was an ongoing threat to its political autonomy. Political elites used varied social and political strategies in the period of the federal republic to preserve a distinct Anglophone national identity. These efforts did not prevent the Francophone government from making all West Cameroonian political parties and newspapers illegal in 1966 or the dissolution of the federal republic in favor of a unitary republic in July 1972. But Anglophones continued to profess a distinction from Francophones, and consequently described themselves as forcibly re-colonized within the Francophone Republic during the 1960s and 1970s.

Indeed, the regime of Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, a Francophone, arrested and imprisoned his political opponents, many of them Anglophone, and severely repressed resistance from the 1960s to 1982. As Achille Mbembe and Meredith Terreta have both highlighted, the Francophone Cameroonian state has used violence, interrogations, intrusive intelligence gathering, imprisonment, disappearances, propaganda campaigns, resettlement and concentration camps and public beatings since the dawn of independence. Consequently, as Nantang Jua and Piet Konings contend, Anglophone political elites resorted to less visible and controllable forms of protest until the mid-1990s. At this point, the government adopted wide-ranging political reforms, including the introduction of a multi-party system, fewer restrictions on forming civil associations and private newspapers and a human rights commission. These reforms freed Anglophones to act more openly, and they successfully placed the “Anglophone Problem” on the national and international agenda. Organizations, such as such as the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), sprang up to advocate for self-determination in the form of a return to a federal republic and later the creation of an independent state, which they call the Republic of Ambazonia.

The events of 2016 and 2017 indicate the rolling back of protections that led Anglophone Cameroonians to organize for a political configuration that would allow them full citizenship. Videos showing security forces brutalizing Anglophone student protestors in Buea, the capital of the southwest region of Cameroon, have circulated on Youtube. The Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CASC) called for a “Ghost Town” campaign, imploring Anglophones to withdraw from public life for two days in late January to protest the French-only rule and the shutdown of the internet. The campaign advocated that Anglophones completely withdraw from all forms of public life to stunt the economy and to protect themselves from the “trigger-happy [police] forces” in the streets. In Bamenda business activities grounded to a halt as markets, banks, fueling stations and commercial centers closed. The consortium had called for no violence during the Ghost Town movement, but angry youths barricaded the roads in Limbe, which harbors the country’s lone oil refinery. Any commercial bike rider or taxi driver caught working had to face the enraged youths. Matters reached a climax when hundreds of angry Limbe youths stormed French schools in Limbe. Hundreds of Francophone students and teachers were forced out of their various school premises by furious youths as police fired tear gas and gunshots to disperse the ramping crowd.

The ban on membership in CASC and SCNC came later that month. The internet ban made Anglophone residents of Cameroon what newspaper reports termed “digital refugees,” as they traveled to Francophone towns or Nigeria to access the internet. International pressure led to the restoration of the internet on April 21, but the government announced its determination to control internet use and block its use by secessionists and political dissidents. Whether organizers of the strike will negotiate with the government, which they made contingent on internet restoration, is unknown.

Anglophone Cameroonians have endured forcible internal colonialism by a hegemonic Francophone African “other.” Their situation raises critical questions related to self-determination, inquiries that scholars, non-governmental organizations, and policymakers should investigate. Like many fragmented African states in the postcolonial period, Cameroon has prohibited democratization and self-determination. The threat of chaos and state failure makes the project of resistance urgent. Yet interrogations of Anglophone separatism/secessionism might illuminate secessionist movements in countries like Canada, where a Quebec sovereign movement persists, as well as throughout the Global South as in Western Sahara. Indeed, neither western or African media nor academic literature can afford to continue to erase or marginalize Anglophone Cameroon from the region’s present and history.

Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué

Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué is assistant professor of African History, Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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