Cameroon Teeters After English Speakers Protest Treatment

BAMENDA, Cameroon — Lawyers have long put up with laws that aren’t translated into their native English. They have endured French-speaking judges whose English is barely passable and who aren’t familiar with their judicial system.

Last fall, after another new law, regarding business transactions, was not translated, the lawyers here in Bamenda, a bustling city in Cameroon’s northwest, decided they’d had enough. They organized a demonstration to protest a government that they believed had long slighted their English-speaking region by failing to uphold a constitutional promise of a bilingual nation.

Map of CameroonThe demonstrations grew, as teachers vented their frustration that the government in Yaoundé — dominated by the French-speaking majority — sent teachers with shoddy English skills to schools in their area. Hundreds of citizens joined in, carrying banners and chanting against what they said were longtime injustices against their region.

By December, the protests had turned violent. Security forces used live ammunition to disperse demonstrations in Bamenda. At least two unarmed protesters were killed and others were injured, according to human rights groups. News media reports said as many as four protesters died.

As the violence and calls for secession in English-speaking areas rise, the issue is quickly becoming a big problem for the central government. In recent days, protest organizers have called on businesses in Anglophone areas to stop paying taxes.

For four decades, Cameroon was split into English and French territories. After independence in the early 1960s, the nation unified into one republic made up mostly of French speakers and a minority who speak English and adhere to British common law. The setup has been plagued by constitutional disputes and complaints from English speakers who say the government gives them fewer resources and generally fails to represent their interests.

Cameroon, a Central African nation so geographically and ethnically diverse it is known as “all Africa in one country,” has been ruled since 1982 by President Paul Biya, 83, who spends weeks at a time in European hotels and is seen as increasingly out of touch with a growing population of young people.

The nation is battling Boko Haram in its Far North region, as the war with Islamic militants spills over from Nigeria, and wildlife trafficking elsewhere, regularly fighting off international poachers of its ivory. Last month, Cameroonian officials seized two shipping containers of pangolin scales. They were being illegally smuggled to China, where the fingernail-like scales are valued as an ingredient in medicine.

The demonstrations have spread to Buea, an English-speaking city in the southwest, where a video circulated on social media of police officers hovering over female students lying in the mud and of officers beating students in their dormitories.

In recent weeks, dozens of protesters have been arrested and moved to Yaoundé.

“We don’t call it arrested; we call it abducted,” said one government employee who considered the detentions in a French-speaking city yet another slight to English speakers. The worker comes from an English-speaking area and did not want to be identified out of fear for his safety and that of his family.

Protesters have been accused of violence, too. But the government’s heavy-handed response has revived calls in the English-speaking area to break away from the rest of the country, further inflaming the situation.

“Cameroon is one and indivisible and shall so remain,” Issa Tchiroma Bakary, Cameroon’s information minister, told reporters at a news conference last month.

American diplomats have called for a peaceful resolution of the dispute. The government and protesters have tried to negotiate.

A group of lawyers who organized the protests came up with a list of grievances, but before they could be fully resolved, Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla, the president of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, and Fontem Neba, the group’s secretary general, were arrested.

On the same day as their arrests, Jan. 17, the government declared the group illegal.

“Any other related groups with similar objectives,” according to a government letter presented to the news media, “are hereby prohibited all over the national territory.”

The jailed lawyers have been charged with inciting terrorism, a crime that landed them before a military tribunal, raising alarms from human rights groups. Last month, Amnesty International called for the release of Mr. Agbor-Balla and Dr. Neba, saying their detention was unlawful.

“These two men have been arrested solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, a Central Africa researcher for Amnesty. “This flagrant disregard for basic rights risks inflaming an already tense situation in the English-speaking region of the country and is clearly an attempt to muzzle dissent.”

With protest organizers in jail, members of the Cameroonian diaspora have intervened, sending messages to supporters by WhatsApp and Facebook.

Government officials circulated their own warning message to WhatsApp users, cautioning them that they risked up to two years in prison if they spread information on social media that they could not prove.

The government has shut down the internet in English-speaking areas, angering a population accustomed to using social media to communicate, and internet-based cash transfers to send money for business transactions and to relatives.

In English-speaking towns recently the population seems to disappear on some days. The streets are quiet, shops close down and classrooms sit empty as daily life is suspended, in a form of protest called Operation Ghost Town, organized by English-speaking Cameroonians.

In English-speaking areas, demonstrators have turned violent against people who have not supported the Ghost Town movement, which is hampering commerce and keeping students from classrooms.

A few days ago, a shop in an English-speaking town that reportedly stayed open during a Ghost Town protest day was set on fire. And a message circulating on social media warned students at the University of Bamenda to boycott classes or “the blood of those killed in this struggle will be on their heads.”

Comments are disabled on this page.