Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis at the Crossroads

Executive Summary

The Anglophones of Cameroon, 20 per cent of the population, feel marginalised. Their frustrations surfaced dramatically at the end of 2016 when a series of sectoral grievances morphed into political demands, leading to strikes and riots. The movement grew to the point where the government’s repressive approach was no longer sufficient to calm the situation, forcing it to negotiate with Anglophone trade unions and make some concessions. Popular mobilisation is now weakening, but the majority of Anglophones are far from happy. Having lived through three months with no internet, six months of general strikes and one school year lost, many are now demanding federalism or secession. Ahead of presidential elections next year, the resurgence of the Anglophone problem could bring instability. The government, with the support of the international community, should quickly take measures to calm the situation, with the aim of rebuilding trust and getting back to dialogue.

Generally little understood by Francophones, the Anglophone problem dates back to the independence period. A poorly conducted re-unification, based on centralisation and assimilation, has led the Anglophone minority to feel politically and economically marginalised, and that their cultural difference are ignored.

The current crisis is a particularly worrying resurgence of an old problem. Never before has tension around the Anglophone issue been so acute. The mobilisation of lawyers, teachers and students starting in October 2016, ignored then put down by the government, has revived identity-based movements which date back to the 1970s. These movements are demanding a return to the federal model that existed from 1961 to 1972. Trust between Anglophone activists and the government has been undermined by the arrest of the movement’s leading figures and the cutting of the internet, both in January. Since then, the two Anglophone regions have lived through general strikes, school boycotts and sporadic violence.

Small secessionist groups have emerged since January. They are taking advantage of the situation to radicalise the population with support from part of the Anglophone diaspora. While the risk of partition of the country is low, the risk of a resurgence of the problem in the form of armed violence is high, as some groups are now advocating that approach.

The government has taken several measures since March – creating a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism; creating new benches for Common Law at the Supreme Court and new departments at the National School of Administration and Magistracy; recruiting Anglophone magistrates and 1,000 bilingual teachers; and turning the internet back on after a 92-day cut. But the leaders of the Anglophone movement have seen these measures as too little too late.

International reaction has been muted, but has nevertheless pushed the government to adopt the measures described above. The regime in Yaoundé seems more sensitive to international than to national pressure. Without firm, persistent and coordinated pressure from its international partners, it is unlikely that the government will seek lasting solutions.

The Anglophone crisis is in part a classic problem of a minority, which has swung between a desire for integration and a desire for autonomy, and in part a more structural governance problem. It shows the limits of centralised national power and the ineffectiveness of the decentralisation program started in 1996. The weak legitimacy of most of the Anglophone elites in their region, under-development, tensions between generations, and patrimonialism are ills common to the whole country. But the combination of bad governance and an identity issue could be particularly tough to resolve.

Dealing with the Anglophone problem requires a firmer international reaction and to rebuild trust through coherent measures that respond to the sectoral demands of striking teachers and lawyers. There is some urgency: the crisis risks undermining the approaching elections. In that context, several steps should be taken without delay:

  • The president of the republic should publicly recognise the problem and speak out to calm tensions.

  • The leaders of the Anglophone movement should be provisionally released.

  • Members of the security forces who have committed abuses should be sanctioned.

  • The government should quickly put in place the measures announced in March 2017, and the 21 points agreed on with unions in January.

  • The government and senior administration should be re-organised to better reflect the demographic, political and historical importance of the Anglophones, and to include younger and more legitimate members of the Anglophones community.

  • The National Commission on Bilingualism and multiculturalism should be restructured to include an equal number of Anglophones as Francophones, to guarantee the independence of its members and to give it powers to impose sanctions.

  • The government should desist from criminalising the political debate on Anglophone Cameroon, including on federalism, in particular by ceasing to use the anti-terrorism law for political ends and by considering recourse to a third party (the church or international partner) as a mediator between the government and Anglophone organisations.

In the longer term, Cameroon must undertake institutional reforms to remedy the deeper problems of which the Anglophone issue is the symptom. In particular, decentralisation laws should be rigorously applied, and improved, to reduce the powers of officials nominated by Yaoundé, create regional councils, and better distribute financial resources and powers. Finally, it is important to take legal measures specific to Anglophone regions in the areas of education, justice and culture.

Cameroon, facing Boko Haram in the Far North and militia from the Central African Republic in the East, needs to avoid another potentially destabilising front opening up. If the Anglophone problem got worse it would disrupt the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018. Above all, it could spark off further demands throughout the country and lead to a wider political crisis.

Nairobi/Brussels, 2 August 2017


Since October 2016, protests around sectoral demands have degenerated into a political crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. This crisis has led to the re-emergence of the Anglophone question and highlighted the limits of the Cameroonian governance model, based on centralisation and co-optation of elites.

The Anglophone area consists of two of the country’s ten regions, the Northwest and the Southwest. It covers 16,364 sq km of the country’s total area of 475,442 sq km and has about 5 million of Cameroon’s 24 million inhabitants. It is the stronghold of the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF) and plays an important role in the economy, especially its dynamic agricultural and commercial sectors. Most of Cameroon’s oil, which accounts for one twelfth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), is located off the coast of the Anglophone region.

The politicisation of the crisis and the radicalisation of its protagonists is mainly due to the government’s response (denial, disregard, intimidation and repression), the diminishing trust between the Anglophone population and the government and the exploitation of the identity question by political actors who have aggravated the population’s resentment to the point that probably most Anglophones now see a return to federalism or even secession as the only feasible ways out of the crisis.

What is the Anglophone crisis about? Who are the protagonists? How is it perceived by Francophones? What is the government’s response? How has the international community reacted? What role are the Anglophone diaspora and religious actors playing? In order to reply to these questions, Crisis Group has relied on documentary research and conducted around a hundred interviews during several visits to the Anglophone regions, Yaoundé and Douala, between December 2016 and May 2017. The report analyses the structural factors that caused the crisis in the Anglophone regions, the strategies and motivations of the actors, and the political and economic consequences. It formulates recommendations aimed at breaking the deadlock and rebuilding trust, with a view to facilitating a genuine dialogue and identifying sustainable solutions.

II.The Roots of the Anglophone Problem: Colonial Legacy and Failure of the Centralised Model

A.The Colonial Legacy

The German government and the traditional Douala chiefs signed a treaty in July 1884, establishing a protectorate called Kamerun. Its territories were shared out after the German defeat at the end of the First World War. The League of Nations appointed France and the UK as joint trustees of Kamerun. The Anglophone problem and a number of other weaknesses in present-day Cameroon have their roots in the colonial period.

During the period of the mandate and the trusteeship, each colonial power shaped their territories in their own image. This resulted in major differences in political culture. English was the official language in the territory under British administration. The justice system (Common Law), the education system, the currency and social norms followed the British model. The system of indirect rule allowed traditional chiefdoms to remain in place and promoted the emergence of a form of self-government to the extent that freedom of the press, political pluralism and democratic change in power existed in Anglophone Cameroon prior to independence. The territory was administered as though it were part of Nigeria and several members of British Cameroon’s Anglophone elite were ministers in the Nigerian government in the 1950s.

In contrast, the Francophone territory was directly administered by France following the assimilationist model, although colonisers and the traditional elites also practised a form of indirect government, especially in the north of the country. French was spoken and France’s social, legal and political norms shaped the centralist political system of successive regimes. Bogged down in a total war against the nationalist movement (Union des populations du Cameroun – UPC), which challenged French presence, the Francophone territory was less democratic.

B.Independences and Reunification: Different Dreams in the Same Bed

The process leading to the reunification of the two Cameroons is at the heart of the Anglophone problem. The Francophone territory gained independence on 1 January 1960, becoming the Republic of Cameroon. The British territory comprised Southern Cameroons and Northern Cameroon. In the referendum held on 11 February 1961, Northern Cameroon chose to join Nigeria and Southern Cameroons chose to join the Republic of Cameroon. Southern Cameroons became independent on 1 October 1961 when it joined the Republic of Cameroon.

At the time of the 1961 referendum, the political landscape in Southern Cameroons was already dynamic. According to reputed historians, the majority of the population aspired to independence. But the UK and some developing countries were against it on the grounds that Southern Cameroons would not be economically viable and that it was best to avoid the creation of micro-states. They advocated a vote in favour of joining Nigeria. The UN therefore excluded the independence option and limited the referendum to a choice between joining Nigeria and reunification with the Republic of Cameroon.

The main figures among the Anglophone political elites, Emmanuel Mbella Lifafa Endeley, John Ngu Foncha, Solomon Tandeng Muna and Agustine Ngom Jua, pleaded at the UN for an independent state of Southern Cameroons, or alternatively for temporary independence during which time it would negotiate the terms of unification from a better position. The UN’s rejection of the independence option left two opposing camps during the referendum. Endeley, the leader of the Kamerun National Congress (KNC), campaigned in favour of joining Nigeria. Foncha, the leader of the Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP), who left the KNC in 1955, Muna and Jua campaigned in favour of reunification with the Republic of Cameroon. Influenced by these prominent political leaders and by a certain fear of being absorbed by the Nigerian giant, the vote went in favour of reunification.

Representatives of Southern Cameroons and the president of the Republic of Cameroon, Amadou Ahidjo, met at Foumban in the west of Francophone territory from 17 until 21 July 1961 to negotiate the terms of reunification. Even today, the failure to keep the promises made at the Foumban conference, which did not produce a written agreement, is among the grievances of Anglophone militants. The Anglophone representatives thought they were participating in a constituent assembly that would draft a constitution guaranteeing an egalitarian federalism and a large degree of autonomy to federated states, but Ahidjo imposed a ready-made constitution that gave broad powers to the executive of the federal state to the detriment of the two federated states (West Cameroon and East Cameroon). The Anglophones, who were in a weak position, accepted Ahidjo’s constitution and only obtained a blocking minority by way of concession.

The National Assembly of the Republic of Cameroon approved the federal constitution in August 1961 and Ahidjo promulgated it on 1 September, while Southern Cameroons was still under British trusteeship. The constitutional process for reunification and abandonment by the British left Anglophones with the impression of having been deceived by the Francophones, and also explains the bitterness of Anglophone militants toward the UK.

C.The Centralist Model and the Emergence of Anglophone Grievances

Since 1961, unification and centralisation have been the political dogmas of the Ahidjo (1960-1982) and Paul Biya (1982-) regimes. After reunification on 1 October 1961, Cameroon became a federal republic, but in practice inherited a shaky federalism with an unequal distribution of power between the two federated states in the federal assembly and in the government.

Amadou Ahidjo was the federal president and John Ngu Foncha was both vice president of the country and prime minister of West Cameroon, in line with the constitutional provision according to which the vice president must be from West Cameroon if the federal president comes from East Cameroon, and vice versa. At the time of reunification, Ahidjo already had a near political monopoly in East Cameroon. Only West Cameroon represented a serious obstacle to his hegemonic ambitions. In 1961, he set about bringing West Cameroon under control through a mixture of repression and exploitation of divisions among Anglophones. At the federal level, despite the constitutional guarantee that English and French would both be official languages, French was the administration’s language of preference.

On 20 October 1961, Ahidjo signed a decree reorganising federal territory into six administrative regions, including West Cameroon, and appointed a federal inspector for each region, who was to report to the federal president. That provoked discontent among Anglophones, because West Cameroon could not at the same time be a federated state according to the constitution and an administrative region by decree. The federal inspector had more power than the elected prime minister of West Cameroon and showed it on a daily basis by humiliating members of the federated government and parliament.

In 1962, Ahidjo signed several orders limiting public freedoms. With the war against the UPC still at its height in East Cameroon, the arbitrary arrest and detention of opponents and trade unionists accused of subversion became common. Although these arrests took place mainly in the Francophone part of the country, Anglophone leaders became concerned about the repressive direction that the federal executive was taking.Other measures, such as the introduction of driving on the right-hand side of the road, the imposition of the metric system and the FCFA as currency took place during the 1960s. The change in currency entailed a reduction in the purchasing power of the Anglophone population by at least 10 per cent. Ahidjo also demanded that West Cameroon cut all links with the UK with the result that it lost several export duty advantages afforded to Commonwealth countries.

The federated states did not have financial autonomy and depended on grants from the federal state. Understanding where the real power was located, the Anglophone elites competed with each other for positions in the federal government, spending more time trying to please Ahidjo than defending the Anglophone population. Ahidjo took advantage and manipulated the rivalries among the elites and the ethnic and cultural divisions between Grassfields in the north, which had cultural and linguistic links with the Bamilékés of the west Francophone region, and the Sawa in the south, who had cultural and linguistic links with the Francophone coast. The result was political chaos in West Cameroon, including a split between Foncha and Muna, who left the Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) in 1965 to form the Cameroon United Congress (CUC).

In 1965, in order to further weaken Foncha, who he believed to be less accommodating on the Anglophone question, Ahidjo tried to use his constitutional powers to appoint Muna as prime minister rather than Ngom Jua, Foncha’s heir apparent in the KNDP, the majority party in the West Cameroon parliament. He was unsuccessful in this because of strong opposition from the federated parliament. But one year later, taking advantage of divisions among the Anglophones, Ahidjo called for the creation of a single party in the two Cameroons, in the name of national unity. Strengthened by the support of some Anglophone leaders, such as Endeley and Muna, who saw an opportunity to dethrone Foncha, he succeeded in his objective. The Cameroon National Union (CNU) was formed in 1966 and the other parties were dissolved. Foncha, Jua and Bernard Fonlon (assistant general secretary at the presidency) were initially opposed but changed their views for fear of losing their positions in the federal government. The single party resulted in the Anglophones losing all their institutional leverage to plead their cause. In 1968, Ahidjo was able to appoint his new ally, Muna, as prime minister, replacing Jua.

Once the single party was formed, Ahidjo intensified centralisation, going so far as to suppress federalism on 20 May 1972, when Cameroon became the United Republic of Cameroon, following a referendum. Anglophones continued to challenge the legality of this change on the grounds that the 1961 constitution did not provide for any alteration in the form of state and stipulated that only parliament could amend the constitution. Anglophone militants also consider that the referendum should not have taken place throughout the country and should have been limited to West Cameroon, which had the most to lose. Finally, they claim that it was not possible to hold a free and transparent referendum in the context of the time and that the ballot was marred by serious irregularities.

It was also in 1972 that Anglophones really began to challenge their marginalisation. At the CNU National Congress in 1972, Bernard Fonlon publicly criticised the creation of the unitary republic. Other prominent Anglophones, such as Albert Mukong and Gorji Dinka were also fiercely opposed. Foncha and Jua wrote privately to Ahidjo and expressed their opposition in the official media.

When Paul Biya succeeded Ahidjo in November 1982, he further centralised power. On 22 August 1983, he divided the Anglophone region into two provinces: Northwest and Southwest. In 1984, he changed the country’s official name to the Republic of Cameroon (the name of the former Francophone territory) and removed the second star from the flag, which represented the Anglophone part of the country.

Anglophones formed movements and associations to resist their assimilation. In 1994, they protested in vain when the government, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), announced the privatisation of the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC), which played a major economic and social role in the Anglophone part of the country. In that same year, the government’s move to standardise the Anglophone and Francophone education systems provoked strong resistance from teachers’ unions and the parents of pupils and it finally had to create an independent General Certificate of Education (GCE) Board by presidential decree.

Unification left Anglophones with a sense that their territory was in economic decline, because it entailed the centralisation and/or dismantling of West Cameroon’s economic structures, such as the West Cameroon Marketing Board, the Cameroon Bank and Powercam, as well as the abandonment of several projects, including the port of Limbé, and airports at Bamenda and Tiko, with investments in the Francophone part of the country winning out.

In particular, unification left the impression of a democratic setback, cultural assimilation and a downgrading of political status. Many Anglophones are convinced that the Francophone part of the country followed a strategy to marginalise Southern Cameroons and are still not sufficiently aware of the disastrous impact the economic crisis of the 1980s also had on several Francophone regions. When the multiparty system was restored in the 1990s, the Anglophones seized the opportunity to make their grievances heard. On 26 May 1990, the Social Democratic Front, a new pro-federalism opposition party, with a national vocation but with a strong contingent of Anglophones, was formed in Bamenda. It gained ground in the Anglophone part of the country before extending its influence into Francophone provinces. It then participated in the October 1992 presidential elections and came close to winning it.

With the prospect of a review of the constitution to adapt it to the multiparty system, the Anglophones organised the All Anglophone Conference (AAC) in 1993 and called for a return to federalism. The Consultative Committee for Review of the Constitution rejected this option in favour of decentralisation. Meanwhile, after resigning in 1990 from the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), the name adopted by the single party in 1985, Foncha and Muna, yesterday’s rivals, resigned from the consultative committee in 1994 and openly criticised the assimilation of Anglophones. In that same year, a second All Anglophone Conference (AAC2) was organised in Bamenda and some of the participants called for a two-state federal system or secession.

During this period, Muna and Foncha launched diplomatic offensives at the UN to demand independence for Southern Cameroons. The position of the Social Democratic Front, which rejected secession and proposed, in the context of Francophone opposition to a two-state federal system, a four-state federal system, was judged to be ambiguous by some Anglophone militants, who in 1995, formed movements calling for two-state federalism or secession: the most well-known was the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), the youth wing of which, Southern Cameroons Youth League (SCYL), resorted to low-intensity violence. Since 1996, the SCNC has taken further diplomatic initiatives at the UN, the African Court of Banjul, the Commonwealth and national embassies.

After the golden age of the 1990s, dissent weakened and the focus switched to the Anglophone diaspora’s advocacy in the international community and the creation of an Anglophone consciousness through the education system, writings of Anglophone intellectuals, the churches, associations and the local media. However, SCNC militants continued to organise protests in the Anglophone regions every 1 October and spectacular actions such as the proclamation of independence by the Ambazonia Republic on radio Buea in 1999 and in 2009. Despite the emergence of Anglophone movements, centralisation continued and Anglophones lost even more political strength at the national level. In 2017, there was only one Anglophone among 36 ministers with portfolio.

The roots of the Anglophone problem lie in a badly-organised reunification that was based on centralisation and assimilation, and in economic and administrative marginalisation. Personal and ethnic ambitions and rivalries among the elites did not help matters. They have not always been able to present a common front to defend an increasingly heterogeneous Anglophone cause. Since the 2000s, the Anglophone question has deeply divided society. It finds expression in the mutually negative perceptions of the Anglophone and Francophone populations and the occasional reciprocal stigmatisation. The current crisis represents an especially worrying resurgence of this old problem. Never before has the Anglophone question manifested itself with such intensity.

III.From Sectoral Mobilisations to the Resurgence of the Anglophone Problem

A.From the Strike to the Crisis

The current crisis began on 11 October 2016 in Bamenda when lawyers from the Northwest and the Southwest went on strike. Their demands, ignored until then by the justice ministry, were related to the justice system’s failure to use the Common Law in the two regions. The lawyers demanded the translation into English of the Code of the Organisation for the Harmonisation of Business Law in Africa (OHADA) and other legal texts. They criticised the “francophonisation” of Common Law jurisdictions, with the appointment to the Anglophone zone of Francophone magistrates who did not understand English or the Common Law, and the appointment of notaries, to do work done by lawyers under the Common Law system. A lack of trust in the government and the brutality of the security forces aggravated the problem and radicalised the public.

On 8 November 2016, the lawyers mobilised hundreds of people for a march in Bamenda and reiterated their demand for the full restoration of the Common Law system as it was at the time of the federal system. They added a demand for federalism. While the march was taking place peacefully, gendarmes violently dispersed the crowd, manhandled some lawyers and arrested some motorbike taxi drivers (“Okada boys”). In response, some youth and Okada boys set up barricades at several crossroads and clashes between demonstrators and gendarmes left several wounded.

On 21 November, teachers went on strike as well. They organised a rally against the lack of Anglophone teachers, the appointment of teachers who did not have a good command of English and the failure to respect the “Anglo-Saxon” character of schools and universities in the Anglophone zone. At the rally, several thousand people joined teachers to express grievances ranging from the lack of roads in the Northwest to the marginalisation of Anglophones. The police and the army violently dispersed the demonstrators. Several people were severely beaten, dozens of others were arrested and at least two people were shot dead, according to a report by the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms the (Commission nationale des droits de l’Homme et des libertés, CNDHL). Several other incidents took place in Bamenda at the end of November, leading to riots

On 28 November, the crisis, which had until then been limited to the Northwest, spread to the Southwest. Students at Buea University organised a peaceful march on the campus to call for the payment to students of the president’s achievement bonus, denounce the banning of the University of Buea Student Union (UBSU) in 2012 and protest at the introduction of a penalty for late payment of education fees and the additional fee charged for accessing examination results. The university rector’s response was to call the police onto the campus. They brutally repressed the students and arrested some of them in their homes. Female students were beaten, undressed, rolled in the mud and one was allegedly raped.

The most violent confrontation took place on 8 December in Bamenda when the CPDM tried to organise a pro-government rally in the Anglophone regions. The angry crowd prevented the rally from taking place. In violent clashes, four died, several were wounded and around 50 arrested. Demonstrators set fire to a police station, government buildings and vehicles. The prime minister, the CPDM secretary general, the governor of the Northwest region and the national security adviser, who were due to attend the rally, had to hide all day in the governor’s residence to escape the violence. The government responded to these demonstrations by militarising the region, causing the social climate to deteriorate even further.

The violence in Buea on 28 November and in Bamenda on 8 December aggravated the crisis and led to extensive media coverage. Images of abuses by the security forces quickly spread on the internet and on to international television channels. They had a decisive impact on public opinion and opened the Pandora’s box of the Anglophone problem.

Further incidents took place in January and February 2017 in Bamenda and other towns such as Ndop. They led to riots that left at least three dead, while government buildings and vehicles were set on fire. From October 2016 to February 2017, at least nine people were killed and more sustained gunshot wounds. There were 82 arrests, including of journalists and lawyers, according to the communications minister and about 150 according to the SDF. They appeared before a military court under the terrorism law. The security forces also arrested and intimidated prominent Anglophones. For example, Paul Abine Ayah, a judge at the Supreme Court, was arrested without a warrant in March on charges of funding the Anglophone campaign. He has since remained behind bars.

B.The Government and Anglophone Actors: Strategies and Motivations

Faced with the Anglophone crisis, the government tried to maintain the status quo. However, realising there were limits to what it could achieve with repression, it began talks with the striking unions. At the end of November, the prime minister formed an ad hoc inter-ministerial committee charged with leading negotiations. It comprised four Francophone ministers and was placed under the supervision of the prime ministry’s cabinet director. At the start of December, the lawyers and teachers formed the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC, “the Consortium”). It was initially formed by four lawyers’ associations and several teachers trade unions, with Félix Khongo Agbor Balla as president, Fontem Neba as secretary general and Wilfred Tassang as treasurer.

On 25-26 November, the prime minister unsuccessfully conducted a first mission to Bamenda to open negotiations. He arrived without concrete proposals, perhaps expecting that the promise of dialogue and his presence would be enough to end the strike. This visit was an early sign of the divisions within the Anglophone elites working within government institutions in Yaoundé. While the prime minister recognised the existence of the Anglophone problem and invited the trade unions for talks in Bamenda, other prominent Anglophones, such as the minister and permanent secretary at the National Security Council told the media in Yaoundé that there was no Anglophone problem. This inflamed opinion in the region, making the prime minister’s mission impossible and, especially, confirming the Anglophone belief that the prime minister, a post occupied since 1996 by an Anglophone, had no real power.

From December 2016 to January 2017, the ad hoc committee conducted several missions to Bamenda. The list of union demands increased from eleven to 25 between November and January but negotiations nearly reached an agreement, with the government saying it was ready to meet 21 of the 25 demands. However, on 13 January, police abuses, against a backdrop of rumours, provoked riots in Bamenda and the negotiations collapsed. On 14 January, the Consortium cancelled a meeting with the committee, condemned the violence perpetrated by the security forces and declared a two-day Operation Ghost Town in the Northwest and the Southwest. The government responded by shutting down the internet in the two regions on 17 January, banning the Consortium and the SCNC and arresting Consortium leaders and several activists such as Mancho Bibixy, claiming that the Consortium had conditioned agreement on the introduction of federalism.