A Tale of Nationalism and Dissidence
Author: Marcel Fomotar
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 06/07/2007
History has shown that whenever people are dissatisfied with their living conditions, there is almost always a fight for an improvement of those conditions. This fight can take many forms; violence most often and/or non-violence, which is very rare. A good number of the English-speaking people of the Republic of Cameroon are an example of a people who are fed up with ‘oppression’ and ‘exploitation’ and are ready for secession.
Brief historical and political background
The Southern Cameroons is made up of the English-speaking provinces, North West and South West of the Republic of Cameroon. Formerly referred to as the State of West Cameroon in the Federal Republic of Cameroon between 1961 and 1972, Southern Cameroons was part of German Kamerun from 1884 until 1916. When Germany was defeated in the First World War, its territory was shared by the victorious allies, France and Britain, with the latter taking over control of Southern Cameroons and the former taking over control of 4/5th of the territory. Southern Cameroons was administered as a League of Nations mandated territory from 1918 until 1945, when the United Nations came into existence. It was then governed by the British Administration as a United Nations Trust Territory from 1945-1961. On 11th February 1961, a United Nations sponsored plebiscite with limited options, saw Southern Cameroonians vote to attain independence by joining La Republique du Cameroun which had attained independence from France in January 1960 (Nfor, 2002, Anyangwe, 2003, Ajong, 2006, Fomotar 2006). The only other option was to gain independence by joining Nigeria. Southern Cameroons and La Republic du Cameroun then founded a union known as the Federal Republic of Cameroon, which came into force on 1st October 1961.
In 1972, the president of the Federation, Ahmadou Ahidjo, violated Article 47 of the Federal Constitution which prohibited any action that threatened the existence of the Federation, and abrogated the federal arrangement with the proclamation DF 72-270 of the 6th February 1972, abolishing all federal legislative, judicial and administrative institutions, and removing all guarantees that protected the rights of the minority Southern Cameroonians in the Federation ( Bongfen 2004, Ajong, 2006). Unlike during the plebiscite of 1961 wherein only Southern Cameroonians voted to decide on their destiny, the May 1972 referendum was extended to all the people of La Republique du Cameroun. However, the dissenting voices of Southern Cameroonians, rejecting the centralized United Republic of Cameroon, were dwarfed by the wide majority of La Republique. Many Southern Cameroonians regard 20th May – the national day of today’s Cameroon – as a day when they lost their freedom (Bongfen, 2004, Ajong 2006).
The annexation of Southern Cameroons as the secessionists and some writers on the subject argue was completed in 1984, when Ahidjo’s hand-picked successor, Paul Biya, using Decree No 84-00 of 4th February 1984, changed the name of the country from the United Republic of Cameroon to la Republique du Cameroon, the name which French-speaking Cameroon used into the union with Southern Cameroons in 1961 (Anyangwe, 2003, Nfor, 2002, Bongfen, 2004, Ajong, 2006, Fomotar, 2006). Since then, the struggle for the rights of Southern Cameroonians has been fought by many groups with the John Fru Ndi-led Social Democratic Front (SDF) party being the pioneer. The main success of Fru Ndi’s struggle, it seems, is the coming to life of multiparty politics given the pressure he and his followers put on the single-party regime of Biya in the early 1990s. Despite multipartism, almost totally characterized by electoral fraud and ever increasing levels of unsanctioned corruption in Cameroon, many Southern Cameroonians still argue that secession is the only solution to their problem. It is no wonder that in December 1999, the separatist Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) declared the independence of the “Federal Republic of Southern Cameroons”. This virtual Republic is also known as Ambazonia by its “citizens”.
Grievances of the insurgents/nationalists
It must be made clear here that the type of nationalism expressed by the SCNC is difficult to categorize: civic or ethnic (Ignatieff, 2004). The balance though, seems to weigh up on the ethnic side. Whatever the case, some of the grievances of the Southern Cameroonian insurgents include the following: this part of the country produces 70% of the country’s natural resources, but they are given less than 10% of the exploit profits (Nfor, 2002, Prof. Anyangwe, 2003). Here, it is a question of relative deprivation in which the dissidents see or perceive that they are being exploited and are not given the opportunities they deserve. There is ample proof that most of Anglophone Cameroon is relatively and largely underdeveloped. There are very bad roads, only one state-owned, only one state-controlled English-speaking university, which came into existence after many English-speaking Cameroonians were killed in 1993 protesting against the French-oriented and centralized system of higher education (Anyangwe, 2003, Fomotar, 2006). Their Francophone counterparts are those appointed by the French-speaking president to most of the available posts of responsibilities like ministerial appointments and even the few existing sensitive and administrative structures in the English-speaking parts of the country like the oil refinery (National Refining Company- S.O.N.A.R.A) in Limbe, are headed by Francophones who, generally, do not want to identify with the Anglophones. The few appointed Anglophones simply follow orders from above and therefore, can not take initiative as leaders should. They are nothing less than “Yes Sir Boys!” as most cartoons in the English-speaking press almost always portray them. The French-speaking section is relatively well-developed with well-tarred roads, many telecommunication facilities, many state-owned and privately owned universities, factories and air transport facilities. The administrative system is so rigidly centralized that almost every decision is taken only in Yaounde. Though a general problem, Anglophones are too sensitive to this situation especially as the union terms once agreed to decentralizing power, as this accord has now been violated. These are very visible realities of relative deprivation which form a strong basis for Southern Cameroons insurgency. There is unequal division of labour which is an important part of all human societies and such crystal-clear disequilibrium usually lead to rebellion.
Another level of structural violence which Southern Cameroons separatists claim to suffer is cultural violence. Their much valued English language, which is supposedly one of the two official languages, has been almost always, if not completely, ignored by the government in favour of French (Fomotar, 2006). All the major administrative decisions are read or published in the state-owned widely followed media in French and always end with a never realized rhetoric that the communiqué or decision “…will be published in English and French wherever need be.” The President, being in power for almost 25 years (November 1982), cannot express himself in English. This is considered by most Anglophones as total disrespect of their existence as citizens of the Republic of Cameroon (Anyangwe, 2003). Statistics, though unofficial since no academic research has been done on this, will most likely reveal that all Anglophones heading any post of responsibility are bilingual in both official languages and the reverse is very untrue of most Francophones in similar if not the same positions. The Anglophones in the universities also suffer violence from Francophones who have constantly reminded them that they are “Biafras” (Ibos in Nigeria) and therefore, “l’ennemi dans la maison” [enemy in the house] (Bongfen, 2004). It is not uncommon to hear Francophone Cameroonians calling their counterparts “Anglofou” [foolish Anglophone/Anglo-Saxon] (Fomotar, 2006). Many Anglophones also argue that they cannot get jobs because the English accent in their French expression/speech is discernable and betrays their identity – an identity which they are not ashamed of. In the face of this kind of intolerance, a few Anglophone intellectuals have used the media vent of literature to x-ray and decry the repressive atmosphere. Nkemngong is one of these intellectuals who express these ordeals in his novel Across the Mongolo. In fact, his novel describes life on the “other” side of the country (the French-speaking part). He digs from the psyche of an individual, the sufferings and miseries of the Anglophone Cameroonian in the marginalization scheme of their Francophone brothers (Fomotar, 2006). The story is about the gruesome experience of a minority “race” given its profundity in the psyche of a boy who has witnessed the bitterness of life as an Anglophone on the other side of the Mongo River, the French side which is separated by the river. The effect of exclusion and subjugation is visible in his novel. Another writer on the subject is Bate Bessong. His docu-drama, Beasts of no Nation, seeks to dramatize the psycho-social, economic and political disequilibrium that has been imposed on his post-independent society and the attempts of the traumatized Southern Cameroonian victims of that reality to redress their dislocation and overcome the forces and causes at the root of their alienation (Fomotar, 2006). The use of literature as a medium of expression has hardly really served the purposes of the secessionist because these literary figures tend to be too obscure in meaning, especially Bate Bessong and thereby limiting their audience. Whatever the case, group polarization has generally taken hold of the society and it is no wonder that there are calls by the minority Southern Cameroons for self-determination. Schirch brilliantly captures the problem of division in the following words:
When individuals associate together, and especially if they do so on the basis of shared characteristics [territorial boundaries for example] that exclude others and make for the distinction between “us” and “them”, there are dangers of ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance. All these can contribute to overt violence. (2004)
One way the government has reacted to the situation which has only added weight – at least within the secessionists’ milieu – to the existing secessionists’ claims of ‘oppression in colonization by La Republic du Cameroun’ is to put in place harsh repressive measures. Fanon, on colonization says:
In the colonial countries…the policemen and the soldiers, by their immediate and their frequent and direct action, maintain contact with the native and advise him by means of butts and napalm not to budge. It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force. The intermediary does not lighten the oppression, nor seek to hide the domination- he shows them up and puts them into practice with clear conscience of an upholder of the peace; yet he is the bringer of violence into the homes and into the minds of the native. (1963:38)
In the case of Cameroon, the police and the Gendarmerie – Cameroon’s paramilitary police broadly equivalent to Italy’s Cabanieri (Mueller, 2005) – have been ruthlessly successful in the suppression of the Southern Cameroonian dissidents. Whether SDF’s or SCNC’s rallies of Anglophones, they have been disrupted by these corps which are noted to have caused mayhem in Anglophone towns like Ndu, Bamenda and Kumbo. Women here have not only been raped but violated in additional, more severe ways by the soldiers inserting peppers or bottles and breaking them in their vaginas. It is also common to arrest Southern Cameroonians, detain them without charges and torture them in jails. (Anyangwe) Amnesty international, among many other human rights groups, have been prompt in their unsparing condemnation of such exaggerated violations of human rights.
From the above, it is clear that the nation-state of Cameroon has not been very successful in managing all of its problems arising from the cultural diversity and challenges that the country has. Not only has there been inequitable distribution of labour, but also the language and culture of a whole group has been largely disregarded. These three permanent attributes of every human society, among others, have been threatened and by implication a people’s existence has also been threatened. Basically, this is why there has been agitation and calls for secession by the Southern Cameroons. However, the Biya government has been relatively very successful hitherto in “hiding” the “Anglophone” problem in Cameroon.
Government strategies adopted in containing the SCNC
First and foremost, the government seems to have understood perfectly well that the control of public opinion is very important as far as the case is concerned. One way of controlling this opinion has been intimidation. The government has been able to capitalize on its monopoly of legitimate violence to maintain the territory. The police and Gendarmerie are all over the Southern Cameroons territory especially in all the regions with close boundaries with Nigeria; for instance in Mamfe and Ekok (South West Province), Nkambe and Wum (North West Province). The main idea has been to check any infiltration of arms which could be used eventually for a secessionist war. Unannounced routine checks in people’s houses are not uncommon. These checks are locally called “cale-cale” and they are usually done in the early morning hours between 3-7 AM. The police and Gendarmes check for identity cards and search the houses for any possible weaponry. Most hunters and other indigenes that have guns and use them for traditional ceremonies like funerals in the local areas are usually caught and jailed for weeks for illegal possession of weapons. In fact, it was only after the 1990s that a law was passed forbidding the illegal possession of arms. These checks have basically been used to intimidate the people. Arrests without warrants and detentions without charges are also used to intimidate Anglophones most especially those living in SCNC major towns like Buea, Kumba, Kumbo and Bamenda (Anyangwe, 2003). Such arrests usually end up some few days or weeks ahead of the day that the SCNC actually celebrates or try to celebrate their self-declared independence day, 1st October. Some of the arrests follow rallies or press releases calling for rallies. This strategy has been successful so far in hiding the problem.
Another means by which the administration has concealed the situation from taking up any space in the public agenda (local and international) is to cajole a few elite from the Southern Cameroons into reasoning with the regime. How do they do this? By carefully making favourable choices in the appointment of some Anglophones into top ranking positions like the Prime Minister, of course. The constitution says that if the speaker of the National Assembly and the President of the Republic are French-speaking, the Prime Minister should automatically be Anglophone. What has happened for the last ten years is that the previous and present Prime Ministers come from the South West Province. These two political figures have a strong say in the affairs of their local community and as a matter of fact, the current Prime Minister is a traditional ruler. He is Chief Ephraim Inoni. He does not only have command over a large group of people, but also influences other traditional leaders. The people of these regions still have strong respect for their local traditional authorities it must be noted. So, when the Chief or Fon calls for order among his subjects, as is often the case, they usually obey. Because the present and past Prime Ministers also come from the same region has also fostered some level of division between the North Westerners and South Westerners. The North Westerners are well-known as a hard-working people and in the plantations in the South West province, many of them work in these plantations and many more own businesses and land. They are often called by their Anglophone brethren in the South West as “kam no go” in Pidgin English which they all speak. The expression means invader. So, there is some perception and fear among the South Westerners that if there is secession the North Westerner might end up dominating them more. By virtue of a common language and history, if these people are to be in complete agreement or unity, the secessionist struggle would naturally be strong. The regime has understood this fact and found the right antidote; deepening the mistrust by giving hope to the South Westerners. After all, much of the country’s natural resources are in the South West Province. What these appointed government officials say with respect to the “Anglophone problem” will be viewed within the government’s communication strategy but the point is that the government has been intelligent in its choice of Anglophones in the system.
Government’s communication strategy
The records of Biya’s regime show that no Anglophone Cameroonian has ever handled the post of Communications Minister. In fact, the Anglophones that have headed ministries have had positions which hardly give them any possibility of influencing policy. Some of the positions that appear to be meant for Anglophones include the ministries of Wild Life and Fauna, Transport, Energy and Power and Forestry. This has been an intelligent way of controlling information. Besides, these Anglophone elites, as official newsworthy sources speaking on behalf of the regime, are always quick to dismiss any allegations – if at all the journalists raise them – of an “Anglophone problem” for fear of losing their jobs. They maintain and defend government position that denies any such problem. So few calls from international organisations like Amnesty International for dialogue between government and the secessionists have been promptly dismissed with the claim that there is no such problem in the country (Ajong, 2006). To the government, there is nothing like the SCNC. The state-owned and funded media – Cameroon Radio and Television (C.R.T.V) – hardly mentions anything about the SCNC. Gate-keeping has been very successful as virtually nothing on the SCNC ever features in the CRTV news. The rare times a few bold Anglophone journalists have interviewed official sources (the Anglophone ministers) on the subject over the most popular Anglophone radio programme (Cameroon Calling), the answer has always been draconian denial. Such questions by these journalists are, as can be imagined, embarrassing to these elite since they are rather unexpected follow-up questions and the consequences for these journalists have been frustrating. Anglophone journalists who have such records of publicly embarrassing state sources are known to have been transferred to distant French-speaking provinces from the National Station in Yaounde and many of them have ended up dying rather mysteriously or simply fled the country. An example of a journalist who fled the country for his life is Eric Chinje, who “embarrassed” the President with the Anglophone problem in a live-broadcast TV interview in the early 1990s. Self-censorship among Anglophone journalists working with CRTV has become automatic. It should also be noted that since 1990 when there were calls for multiparty politics, the government has appointed only real specialists in the fields of politics, international relations; from 1990-2006 Cameroon has had Professor Kontchou (Professor of International Relations), Professor Jaques Fame Ndongo (Professor of Mass Comminication) and Professor Moukoko Mbonjo (Professor of Mass Communication) as Ministers of Communication. These strategies have only served the interests of the regime hiding the internal divide.
Another major way of containing the problem has been the institution of licenses by government. Despite the liberalization of audio-visual communication in Cameroon (1994), it is very difficult, if not impossible for Anglophones to have licenses or even permanent licenses for those who are lucky to have temporary ones that permit them to mass-communicate. Apart from CRTV, the only existing and officially recognized television stations are STV (owned by a foreign group headed as of now by a Senegalese) based in the French-speaking town of Douala and Canal 2 owned by a Francophone businessman with its basis in the capital, Yaounde. STV broadcasts in both French and English while Canal 2 broadcasts only in French. These three-year-old stations generally cover local events only in Yaounde and Douala. They are in fact entertainment channels with live broadcasts of sporting events and/or music shows. Politics is very rare on their broadcast agenda and when they do broadcast politics, the reports are generally about the President’s, Prime Minister’s and/or cabinet ministers’ international visits and local visits to some parts of the country and mostly, their villages or province of origin for political campaign or “home-coming” visits. Canal 2 also benefits from state subventions, it must be noted. With such a partisan kind of TV coverage, which is of course pro-government, therefore, there is virtually no hope of evocation of the Anglophone problem. There was an attempt by the out-spoken Cardinal Christian Tumi, of Anglophone origin to set up a Catholic radio station for evangelical purposes but his move was interpreted by the regime as a way of mass-communicating anti-governmental propaganda. Whether the Cardinal’s claim of using the station for evangelism was true or false is difficult to judge since the clergyman is well-known for his unreserved and unwavering criticism of the regime. His plans were dwindled when Gendarmerie forces stormed the already constructed and equipped radio station in Douala and seized the equipment. Because he is Anglophone and a respected public figure (a credible source) he is considered a potential danger if not real to the government. There have been rumours about failed assassination attempts on him among Southern Cameroonians especially after he repeatedly exposed the regime’s failures on Radio France Internationale (RFI) and BBC in the 1990s. These restrictive measures put in place by the regime to control public opinion have been rather successful as far as the TV and Radio are concerned. This has been very frustrating to the SCNC.
The few Anglophone newspapers that exist are largely clandestine in their publications. Those recognized by the state like The Post and The Herald once in a while report on SCNC detainees and their horrible detention conditions. They rarely go beyond that and when they dare the reports are usually ‘black propaganda’ and anonymous. SCNC tracks have been from time to time circulated around rather discretely in the Southern Cameroons. The fear by such reporters from disclosing their identity is understandable as several cases of arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists for ‘libel’ has been witnessed. Throughout 2005, for example, government officials and other powerful figures used defamation suits more than ever before to jail and intimidate critical journalists (CPJ, 2005). Journalists working in remote rural areas are particularly vulnerable to such suits. The most beleaguered journalist is Pius Njawe who on several occasions has been arrested, detained and only released because of international pressure. His newspaper Le Messager has been seized several times.
From the above scenario, there is no doubt that something very similar, if not the same to Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model has been put to effective use by the Biya government. Ownership and funding of the major media outlets is a government matter; which explicitly entails control of public opinion. The sources are largely government officials who deny the existence of anything like the SCNC and there has been much pressure (flak) on journalists. The anti-x ideology is not really evident here (since there is deliberate denial of the existence of the SCNC) but if one considers the division between the Southern Cameroonians, consciously encouraged by the government, and then one can say there is an attempt from one side, “us” – the government- to demonize the “other” – North Westerners. It is also interesting to look at the SCNC’s attempts at getting their goals through such a somewhat, hitherto, well-controlled political and media atmosphere.
SCNC Communication Strategy
With almost all media outlets entirely under government control the SCNC has used a few strategies to mass communicate their ideas. The first major and landmark communication “victory” they recorded for themselves was when they hijacked the CRTV provincial radio station of Buea on the 10th October 1999 at 10:00PM and declared the independence of the Federal Republic of Southern Cameroons. They actually took government officials by surprise and a few minutes after the night’s incident, soldiers stormed the building rather too late to arrest the “rebels”. However, some random arrests were made within the Buea municipality. Although some of the bigwigs (Albert Mukong and Chief Ayamba for example) of the virtual republic were later arrested, their point was already made though to a small audience in South West Province.
The other way by which the SCNC has tried to mass communicate its objectives with the hope, of course, of currying local and international support and eventual recognition, has been the use of alternative media and the internet. They have several websites (www.southerncameroonsig.org, www.southerncameroons.info, www.crwflags.com, for instance) in which information about their still to be recognized nation-state can be found and where intra-group networking is possible. Not only do they report on their activities, but perhaps most importantly, they try to demonize the Biya regime and France for “enslaving” and “colonizing” them. This kind of political violence facilitated by the internet is what is mostly associated with terrorism and cyberspace specialists like Conway term “Cybercortical Warfare” (2003, Nacos, 2002). The use of many websites is actually a way of avoiding hacking so that they can better attack many people. Some of their websites no longer open and I will like to think that they have simply been hacked. The impact of such a strategy is really difficult to measure with respect to public support most especially as the internet is still a luxury in Cameroon- the primary target public. Very few have access to the internet. Accessing their sites, one gets the impression that closed door negotiations are ongoing with the UN and other influential organisations and international recognition is imminent. This can encourage some poorly informed skeptics and believers in the dream as one can imagine, but it is very difficult, if not impossible to give any numbers of those encouraged by this.
Judging from the communication strategies put forth by both parties, it is clear that the Biya regime has been relatively very successful in controlling public opinion given its monopoly over information. That the SCNC can not really boast of a substantial support from within (locally) the territory also lends credit to a successful government strategy whether military or communication. It is no wonder therefore that the SCNC self-declared independent Federal Republic can only be best described as virtual and its nationalism becomes questionable; it has no internationally defined boundaries, no monopoly of legitimate violence and no political legitimacy. Without these attributes of a nation-state, there is no sovereignty. The Biya administration might have seen some of the attributes of the nation-state shaken, but their major reason for success in maintaining power with regards to the Southern Cameroons tale is their communication strategy; success because the country is still in place and the majority of the world’s population who know Cameroon do not know these facts. What else can any government want better from the public opinion whether local or international than credibility? This case also proves that politics is largely about the control of public opinion and the regime in place controls this opinion.
Bio: Marcel Fomotar is a student in the MA in Media, Conflict, and Peace programme at the University of Peace.