Cameroon’s Culture Challenge
Author: Marcel Fomotar
Originally published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 09/28/2006
In Cameroon, culture has been one of the root causes in most, if not all, conflicts that have existed and continue to exist. It is very important to first understand what culture is and how diverse Cameroon is culturally before one can begin to explore possible solutions for sustainable peace building in the country.
The word ‘culture’ derives from the Latin word ‘cultura’ which means ‘cultivation.’ Originally culture was used in regards to agriculture although, today, the term culture characterizes intellectual activities. Given its historical origin, culture can be seen as ‘…the sum total of the best responses that human beings in a given society have found to satisfy their needs’ (Fonlon, 1967). The implication of this definition is that there are bound to be several different meanings of culture since men live in different environments and respond to their needs accordingly. Another very important implication of the working definition of culture is that, generally, culture is a source of pride. It is the identity of a people (Fonlon, 1968). With the idea of pride inherent in culture, it serves as a driving force behind human action. Culture can, for instances, serve as a source of a superiority complex. Superiority complexes can in turn encourage one to impose a culture on others. This is seen particularly in the case of language. Language is a good example of what composes culture. Language is the expression of ideas from an environment, it is the verbal expression of a peoples’ view of the world. Language is thus, fundamental as far as culture is concerned. One of the best tools of imperialism is to impose language onto a people (Said, 1993). The conclusion we arrive at, therefore, is that culture is at the same time, a source of happiness and a source of evil.
In Cameroon, there are over two-hundred and fifty different ethnic groups and cultures. At the national level, there are two official languages: English and French. How the two cultures came to co-exist and how it can be seen as a challenge to peace is another important issue one must explore. When Germany lost in World War I, its territory (Kamerun) was shared by the victorious allies; France and Britain. The latter took control of one-fifth of the territory—Southern Cameroon. Both territories were administered as League of Nations mandated territories from 1916 until 1945, when the United Nations came into existence. Both colonial powers still maintained control over the territories, until the 1960s when independence came and both Cameroons went further to reunite following the 1961 plebiscite. However, during the previous forty-five years (1916-1961), both territories acquired two different, new cultures. Due to reunification, it is obvious that inevitable culture shocks, which already existed locally, world intensify.
When individuals, who share characteristics, associate with others who are different, it widens the distinction between “us” and “them”. This creates dangers of ‘…ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance. All of these can contribute to overt violence” (Schirch, 2004). In the case of Cameroon, this observation is valid.
It is also worth mentioning the issue of scarce natural resources within Cameroon. Politics is the quest for power for the control by human beings of human beings and natural resources (Fonlon, 1968). The Anglophone region of Cameroon produces 70% of the nation’s natural resources—wealth—yet the region is relatively underdeveloped. This is one of the main grievances of the Anglophones.
Culture shock can be considered the main challenge to peace in Cameroon. As previously stated, the English-speaking part of Cameroon represents the minority of the entire nation-state. Despite the ethnic differences, the English language, which represents part of the culture of the group— is the “umbrella”, just as the French language is to the majority French-speaking Cameroonians. The first move that put the future of the Anglophone culture in jeopardy was on May 20, 1972 when President Ahidjo annulled the Federal Constitution in favor of a unitary state. The dissenting voices of Southern Cameroonians rejecting this move were dwarfed by the wide majority of La Republique. Many Anglophones regard May 20 as the day when they lost their freedom (Ajong, 2006). The Anglophones were use to the federal system of government, which gave more room for self-governance to the various states, a prototype of the indirect rule British system of colonial administration. The French colonial system of “assimilation” was, by President Ahidjo’s annulment, in evidence—centralization. The ensuing conflict was latent.
The “annexation” of Southern Cameroonians was completed in 1984. Paul Biya, President Ahidjo’s hand-picked successor, using Decree Number 84-00 of February 4, changed the name of the country from the United Republic of Cameroon to La Republique du Cameroun. The name was what French-speaking Cameroon used to enter into the union with Southern Cameroon in 1961 (Ajong, 2006). Since this time, several groups have fought the struggle for identity of Southern Cameroonians, with the Social Democratic Front (SDF) party pioneering. The violation of the agreement by Biya in favor of Francophones was in itself, an obstacle to peace: imposition of the French system of government on all.
In addition, the geopolitical positioning of Cameroon since 1987 has also been a cause of worry and conflict for Anglophones. Initially, the territory was considered West African meaning that Anglophones were in close contact with their English-speaking African brothers of Nigeria and Ghana. This explains why most of the first generation Anglophone intellectuals studied in Nigeria and Ghana.
Since 1987, agreements have been signed by Biya’s government that make Cameroon a “super-power” in the Central African sub region which is made up of five other countries: Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon and Congo Brazzaville, all French-speaking nations, and the lone Spanish-speaking Equatorial Guinea. Anglophones feel deprived and isolated in this sub region, especially when traveling out of the country and encountering non-Cameroonians who often express surprise that there is an English-speaking part of Cameroon (Bongfen, 2004). This cultural isolation is a big challenge to peace within the nation.
Moreover, the union with La Republique meant that Anglophones had to study in the single university at the time; University of Yaoundé, which had a French education system. The stories of the Anglophones who went to Yaoundé during this time are disheartening. In his novel, Across the Mongolo, John Nkemngong, expresses these ordeals. He pokes at the psyche of an individual; the sufferings and miseries of the Anglophone Cameroonian in the marginalisation scheme of their Francophone brothers. The story is about the gruesome experience of a minority 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 French side of the Mongo River. The effect of exclusion and subjugation is visible. Most public announcements, if not all, are written in French or if there is an English version, it is hardly big enough in character for long-range viewing. Anglophones are victimised at the university and other public places; their Francophone counterparts hurl insults at them like “Anglo fou” [fool of English expression] or “l’ennemis dans la maison” [enemies in the house] (Bongfen, 2004). Anglophones also suffered and still suffer from the brutal legal violence—both psychological and physical—of “security” officers. Arrests and detentions without warrants are not uncommon with the French Gendarmerie, Cameroon’s paramilitary police, which are broadly equivalent to Italy’s Carabanieri. The police are in charge of applying harsh repressive measures. Most Nigerians (English-speaking) who have visited Cameroon have very sad memories of the Gendarmerie.
Bate Bessong also shows the marginalisation of Anglophones. His docu-drama, Beasts of No Nation, seeks to dramatise the psycho-social, economic and political disequilibrium imposed on his post-independent society. He focuses on the attempts of the traumatised masses and victims of that reality, to redress their dislocation and overcome the forces and causes at the root of their alienation. As if in agreement with Marx, the state has proven to be “an instrument of oppression in the hands of the ruling class”. Polarisation has taken hold of the society as a result of this and we are not far from a master-slave relationship. 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 riffle 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). This only encourages hatred. Anglophobia and Francophobia, which now co-exist in Cameroon, hinder peace.
Structural violence was also present in Cameroon at the dawn of the 1990s. The launching of the SDF as an opposition to the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) party, caused an escalation to the conflict. Both primary parties fought for the protection of their interests, which were cultural. The Anglophones defied all threats from the regime forbidding the launching of the SDF, and went into the streets chanting freedom songs. Six Anglophones were killed on that day, May 24, 1990. Arrests were made, torture and rape were reported and a state of emergency was declared in Bamenda. Anglophones called, among others, for decentralisation at all levels, especially in education and administration and respect for their rights as a people.
Since 1990, some of the demands have been met at least partially. University reforms were made in 1993 giving life to the first and only state-owned Anglophone university in Buea.
All of the inequalities inherent in the system are responsible for the creation of the radical Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), which is a pressure group advocating for the restoration of the statehood of Southern Cameroonians as the only solution to the Anglophone problem. Government has never seen any reason, despite numerous advices from the international community, for dialogue. The “peace” that reigns in Cameroon is in jeopardy given the rigid positions of both parties. There is a possibility of genocide as the SCNC braces daily for a war of liberation. It is thus, imperative to now suggest ways of overcoming the stumbling blocks to peace.
It is important to note that separation may not be the best option to the Anglophone problem given the multicultural diversity of the country. There is no guarantee that after separation there will be peace among the Anglophones.
The first proposal toward peace building is serious, frank and elaborate dialogue between the government and the SCNC. With the dialogue, Anglophones will express their grievances which are, as noted above, mainly cultural. A return to the Federal system of government will give room to many positive changes. It will mean regional self-governments, which will lead to some form of balance in development and power. For instance, Anglophone universities run by Anglophones and offering professional courses will preserve the English culture of the people. The French-speaking part will certainly have nothing to lose in such an agreement, as there will be decongestion in the few existing universities.
Secondly, more and intense efforts should be made to educate Cameroonians as a whole on the idea of culture with a special emphasis on tolerance and mutual respect. One must think back to the original definition of culture as it has to do with cultivation. Seeds of tolerance and respect by means of communication must be planted, resulting in a harvest of peace.
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Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York, Grove Press, 1963.
Fonlon, Bernard Nsokika. The Idea of Culture, Yaounde, Revue Abbia, 1967.
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Nkemngason, John Nkemngong. Across the Mongola, Ibadan, Spectrumbooks limited, 2004.
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