Biya leaves Cameroon’s anglophones speechless

Mark Huband in Limbe finds a colonial linguistic divide fuels opposition to one of Africa’s worst regimes


The Guardian, 2 May 1991

THE town of Victoria lies on the coast; offshore is the island of Fernando Po. Army checkpoints give the impression of a border between the francophone and anglophone areas of the Cameroon, the soldiers waving through a herd of longhorn cattle as they amble in the darkness: “It’s okay; ça va. You can go; allez allez, ” says the soldier.

The roadsigns are the first indication of the linguistic border having been crossed. There are old signs to Victoria, new ones to Limbe. It is the same town, lying among the wooded hills on the shore.

The British, who ruled Western Cameroon until independence in 1960, called it Victoria and the two million English-speakers still do. The francophones, who are in a majority of five to one and who now run Cameroon, changed the name in 1983 in an attempt to extend “la francophonie” desired by France, which ruled the rest of the country until independence.

Anglophone resentment at what is regarded as systematic discrimination in education, employment and political representation has surfaced in the form of vociferous political opposition to the authoritarian regime of President Paul Biya.

While there is equally outspoken criticism among Mr Biya’s French-speaking tribal rivals, it is the anglophones’ demand for the country to be reorganised into the federation which existed until 1972 and was divided on linguistic lines, which has led to the upsurge in political opposition.

“Britain is our first friend,” says John Fru Ndi, leader of the Social Democratic Front, the largely English-speaking, though only truly national, opposition party. “Anglophones were very embarrassed by the cool reception Biya gave to the Prince and Princess of Wales when they visited the country last year. Biya only met them four hours after they had arrived, and Lady Di was pushed very much to the background,” he says.

Thirty years after Union Jacks were lowered on the flagpoles of Africa, the anglophones clutch at British culture. “There are certain mannerisms which distinguish the English way of doing things which the Anglophone countries tried to copy. They look to England as their first friend,” says Mr Ndi, a bookseller from the anglophone stronghold of Bamenda.

“The Frenchmen don’t understand it, mostly because it is linguistic. In employment, if you are anglophone you have no chance at all. This is creating a very strong anger. The average anglophone can’t compromise any further,” he says, citing the example of students who have spent their school days learning in English and then have to study French at university. Many anglophone students have left to study in Nigeria, the region’s anglophone superpower.

Nigerian state radio yesterday described the Biya regime as treating the Cameroon opposition “like dirty rats”, a sentiment suggesting recognition of the linguistic and historical links between Nigeria and the Cameroon minority.

A similar feeling spread throughout the region when it became clear that the francophone countries generally supported the Liberian rebel leader, Charles Taylor. The anglophones are intent on depriving him of power, partly because they believe he would enhance French and francophone power in the region.

Mr Ndi believes France was behind Mr Biya’s rise to power. Since a 1984 coup attempt, Cameroon has enlisted the ubiquitous Israeli military and security advisers, whose services have ensured the survival of one of Africa’s worst regimes.

In Limbe, the anglophones can see the wasted potential of their territory. The town’s natural deep water harbour has been neglected in favour of Douala, which requires regular dredging. Most of the country’s oil wealth is in the anglophone area of Ndian, but employment potential is limited: “Everyone from the director to the gatekeeper at Elf-Aquitaine is francophone,” says Mr Ndi.



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