Commonly dubbed ‘Africa in Miniature’, for its cultural, ethnic and geographical diversity, this Central African nation is home to over 277 living languages (273 indigenous, 4 non-indigenous, 12 institutional, 101 developing, 88 vigorous, 56 endangered, and 20 dying) with French and English as official languages. Handed as ‘bounty’ to France and Britain after the first World War, Cameroon was geographically and linguistically split into ‘anglophone’, Southern or British and ‘francophone’ or French Cameroon or territories respectively.
For a better understanding of our analysis, here’s a brief socio-political background on Cameroon:
- While English Cameroon witnessed colonial inclusion by the British, French Cameroon underwent total assimilation;
- ‘Francophone’ Cameroon became independent in 1960 as “la Republique du Cameroun” or the Republic of Cameroon;
- ‘Anglophone’ Cameroon federated with it in 1961 to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon (with a 2-star flag) through a controversial Plebiscite disputed till this date;
- The Federation was unilaterally dissolved in 1972 and the country was renamed the United Republic of Cameroon; leading to the disappearance of one of the stars on the flag;
- In 1984, the name was changed to the Republic of Cameroon;
- The current President, 85 year old Paul Biya, has been in power since 1982 and shall be running for re-election come October 7th;
- Both Francophone and Anglophone Cameroon suffer from bad governance, corruption and mismanagement from the dictatorial regime: widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, unemployment etc. in spite of the abundant natural resources the country boasts of.
The country has until recently, enjoyed apparent ‘relative’ peace. But peace they say, isn’t the absence of war as Cameroon has been a slow boiling pot; with the whole country burdened by economic hardship and discontented with a ‘dictatorial’ regime that has been in place since 1982 on the one hand, and English Cameroon disgruntled from marginalization and assimilation by the majority French Cameroon on the other. For almost 3 years now, the country is going through a revolution triggered by the regime’s violent response (brutal and indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians including women, children and university students, rapes, massive arrests and detentions, burning and destruction of homes and sometimes entire villages by the military, shutting down of internet service for extended periods…) to demands made by English-speaking Teachers’ Trade Union and Lawyers’ Association for better institutions and working conditions. In reaction to the government’s oppressive response, Anglophone Cameroon started making demands for Federation and subsequently, complete separation to become The Republic of Ambazonia. Restoration forces have been formed and there are daily battles with the regime’s military with excesses on both sides and devastating collateral damages on innocent civilians.
It should be noted that in this context, French-speaking/francophones or English-speaking/anglophones designate those who are intricately from either ethnolinguistic background and not necessarily speakers of either language in general.
Language, culture or cultural identity have played vital roles in this conflict.
Language and culture are intricately related and dependent on each other; language is formed by culture and is vital to understanding, exploring and experiencing our unique cultural perspectives embedded therein. Language not only expresses, embodies and symbolizes cultural reality but unifies people.
There are glaring cultural differences between anglophones and francophones. No offense to either side, but it’s a common joke amongst Cameroonians from both sides that the French part of the country is generally associated with corruption, lack of integrity, nonchallance, greed and laziness while the English part is associated with better discipline, accountability, hardwork and community spirit.
Current school system enrollment pattern is self-evident: while anglophones enroll in exclusively anglophone or bilingual schools, francophones enroll in francophone or anglophone schools for the most part. Francophones make the biggest student population in the major Anglophone University in the country.
As a replica of French political, economic and socio-cultural assimilation, there have been a gradual but steady engulfment of anglosaxon institutions and of the English language itself (road signs in Anglophone Cameroon written in French for example) as well as marginalization (the country’s largest oil refinery physically located in a anglophone region but taxes paid to a neighboring francophone region for example) leaving the anglophones feeling exploited and deceived. One of the main demands from the Lawyers’ Association were the institution of Common Law in the English-speaking parts of the country as against the imposed French Civil Law and the appointment of English-speaking judges instead of the current French-speaking ones. In brutal terms, assimilation means the loss of one’s heritage.
Contrary to some schools of thought, and to the culturo-linguistic differences between French and English speaking Cameroonians, the current revolution is not a Francophone-Anglophone revolution but a revolution against bad institutions, bad governance and a dictatorial regime. It is popular belief that the anglophones would have lived with the marginalization and relegation had there been good governance, equitable distribution of the national cake and justice. It is worth noting that the current regime includes anglophones (though negligible); some of whom are equally as guilty.
Out of spite, some francophones have been blind-sided to consider the situation an anglophone problem. Though both parts of the country suffer from the excesses of the regime, it is believed that a majority of francophones tend to overlook it for various possible reasons:
- the president is French-speaking
- through assimilation, they adopted a culture of nonchalance
- French colonization was very brutal; thereby destroying self-expression or assertiveness. Without trying to tag the British as angels, Anglophones on the other hand are culturally known to express themselves freely
Interestingly, anglophones now call English-speaking soldiers ‘La republique soldiers”
We can’t help but ponder the fact that prior to the colonial languages and the accompanying cultures, Cameroonians were Africans or should we say authentic Africans and still speak over 200 local languages.
Just like the Arab Spring, social media (Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter) is the main fuel of the revolution.
As we join the rest of the seemingly silent world to decry the atrocities and excesses, we couldn’t help but highlight the interesting relationship between language and culture or cultural identity in these crises. Language truly is the road-map of culture.