THE axiom that freedom is never willingly given by the oppressor but must be demanded by the oppressed cannot be more apt in dissecting the current crackdown on “dissident” elements in Southern Cameroon. Just like the unsavoury events that followed the independence votes in Kurdistan and Catalonia, Southern Cameroon was a theatre of anguish penultimate week. On October 1, the day some separatist elements in the region sought to symbolically regain their independence from the Republic of Cameroon, the Paul Biya-led government unveiled the state apparatus to crush any dissent. The symbolic declaration of independence was made on social media by one Sisiku Ayuk, the “president” of Ambazonia.
Early this year, the Biya government cut off internet access in the region for three months. It did not even bother to adopt the option of counter narratives to whatever the “separatists” were saying. It announced a temporary restriction on travel and public meetings across the South-West Region. This was after imposing a curfew in the neighbouring North-West Region. Only a fifth of Cameroon’s 22 million people are English-speaking, and the government has always sought to suppress this minority. In 1961, the former British entity, Southern Cameroons, united with Cameroon after its independence from France in 1960. At the inception of the union, the federalist system was adopted, but things were to change in 1974 when a patently fraudulent referendum stage-managed by the centralist government in Yaounde imposed the establishment of the Republic of Cameroon.
The assimilation process, a feature of colonial rule, was adopted by the Yaounde government, along with disparities in many parts of the country’s national life: the distribution and control of oil wealth, education and the judicial system. Believing that the federal arrangement, which would allow them considerable power over their own destiny is the way forward for a united and prosperous Cameroon, the Southern Cameroonians have always staged protests, with a much more hard-line section embracing violent rhetoric and calling for outright secession from the country and the formation of a dream country, Ambazonia. But the central government has never pretended to be enamoured of the federalist proposal, let alone secession. On September 22, as thousands of “Ambazonians” took to the streets in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, soldiers reportedly shot at least eight people dead in the restive Anglophone belt, notably Buea in the South-West and Bamenda, the main town in the North-West. Thereafter, teachers and lawyers hit the streets in protest over the use of French in Anglophone schools and courts. This soon mutated into an outright demand for Ambazonia.
It seems fairly clear that the dominant powers in modern states will always strive to preserve the status quo, yet much progress can be made by attending to the cries of marginalised groups. The Biya government may be justified in going after the secessionists, but it can surely not be forgotten that it was only after the second Francophone president of Cameroon had unilaterally changed the name of the country from United Republic of Cameroon to the Republic of Cameroon that the Republic of Ambazonia was declared in 1984 by some English-speaking Cameroonians, led by a renowned lawyer, Fon Gorji Dinka. In other words, the Biya government would be doing itself and the future of Cameroon a favour if it situated the current secessionist agitations in their historical context and embraces the federalist imperative.
We deplore the crackdown on Southern Cameroonians and the suppression of legitimate dissent by the authorities in Yaounde. This is nothing but a demonstration of intolerance and lack of respect for the fundamental rights of the people. The people of Southern Cameroon deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. In the same vein, we call on the agitators for secession to temper their demands with rationality. There is as yet no empirical proof that the issues that agitate their minds cannot be adequaely addressed in a federal arrangement. We call on the African Union to take more than a passing interest in the developments in Cameroon, if only because the consequences of armed insurrection in the region for the continent may be too dire.