6 dates to understand Cameroon’s lingering crisis – By Simon Ateba Updated for 2021

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Updated: February 28, 2021


At a time when everyone is claiming to be right and everyone else is wrong, and many lives are being wasted by the day, living and working from Washington DC here in the United States has given me the unique privilege to see the Cameroonian crisis with some fresh eyes, and to understand the damage that slave trade, colonialism and neocolonialism have done to the African continent, as well as what a despotic, corrupt and intolerant government can cause a nation.

I have sat down with Anglophone “leaders” here in Washington DC and watched as they explained why it would be independence or nothing, and listened to the Cameroonian government explain to the international community that it would defend its territory with blood and guns against any enemy who takes up arms against the state and threatens the stability of one of Africa’s most stable countries.

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Having heard from all sides, my opinion is that all of them are right and all of them are wrong at the same time. First of all, it is wrong to suppress freedom of speech and expression, to arrest, jail and kill those who are peacefully protesting for grievances that they may have. It is also wrong to use so much excess force on the population that you push them against the wall and leave them with no choice but to defend themselves. It is also wrong for one man, no matter how intelligent he may think he is, to truncate democracy, suspend term limits and spend almost 40 years in power since 1982, and to still continue to insist that he would be running for his seventh term of seven years even though he is now 85 years old. That is wrong and having one man in power has left a country without strong institutions and development, and without fresh ideas and a willingness to change and listen.

It is equally wrong for anyone, anywhere in the world to take up arms against the state, to shoot dead security forces, behead some, pulling out their eyes, and to set classrooms on fire to prevent children from going back to school to draw sympathy from the international community. It is also wrong after burning those schools to then try to blame security forces for burning them down.

When you take up arms against the state and kill and kidnap people, do not expect that state to fold its arms and allow you to completely crumble the rule of law.

Murder, whether from the Cameroonian government or from Anglophone activists is murder and must be punished with severity.

Even in Nigeria where Cameroonian activists were meeting before they were tricked and arrested, despite the grievances in Nigeria, when some Biafra activists took up arms against the state in 2016, the government responded ruthlessly.

Even here in the United States, if you take arms against the state, no matter your grievances, you would be treated as a terrorist and dealt with. If you are not killed immediately by security forces, you might be sentenced to death or spend the rest of your life in prison. 

Two wrongs can never make a right. That’s the first thing to understand.

More broadly, to understand the whole crisis, you just need to remember and understand these six dates. These six dates will allow you to understand how the present day Republic of Cameroon went from German Kamerun to Bristish Cameroons and French Cameroun to the Republic of Cameroon.

1- Before July 5, 1884

Before that date, there was really no structure in what is known today as Cameroon. Several kingdoms, chiefdoms overthrew one another. The Baka are believed to have been the first inhabitants, the Mandara Kingdom with fortified structures were said to have been founded in 1500 in the Mandara mountains, the Aro Confederacy of Nigeria was believed to have had a presence in western Cameroon, and it is said that during the late 1770s and the early 19th century, the Fulani, a pastoral Islamic people of the western Sahel, conquered most of what is now northern Cameroon, subjugating or displacing its largely non-Muslim inhabitants. In essence, that was the system then. The law seemed to be the law of the strongest group, the strongest men.

The Portuguese sailors would also arrive on Cameroon’s doorstep in 1472, and as the story goes, they noticed an abundance of the ghost shrimp Lepidophthalmus turneranus in the Wouri River and named it Rio dos Camarões (Shrimp River), which became Cameroon in English. They would make other trips mainly for trade in the 16th century, but malaria was deadly and prevented significant European settlement and conquest of the interior until the late 1870s, when large supplies of the malaria suppressant quinine became available. The Portuguese would name Cameroon.

So that was it, it was not one country, one colony or anything like that. There were kingdoms, chiefdoms, and different other forms. The people were governed by various local laws and there was no general law or language for the entire territory. In fact, there was no territory. That’s how we lived.

2- July 5, 1884

Beginning on July 5, 1884, all of present-day Cameroon and parts of several of its neighbours became a German colonyKamerun, with a capital first at Buea and later at Yaoundé. Germany had become a super power by then and was conquering the world. It would have many colonies in Africa. The Germans would make substantial investments in railways and other infrastructure still in Cameroon today but also set up labor camps, to the extent that Jesko von Puttkamer was relieved of duty as governor of the colony due to his brutal treatment of native Cameroonians. Many people were forced to learn German, and up till this day, many people in Cameroon still speak German. But then, Germany would lose the first world war, and it colonies would be shared between France and the United Kingdom.

It was just as if they were sharing a loaf of bread. Some villages were even divided in the middle, in such away that some people from the same village suddenly belonged to two different territories. Which brings us to the third date.

3- June 28, 1919

The First World War had just ended in 1918. It was time for the German colonies to be shared by those who won the war. Therefore, after the war, the German colony was partitioned between the United Kingdom and France under June 28, 1919 League of Nations mandates (Class B).  France gained the larger geographical share and ruled from Yaoundé as Cameroun (French Cameroons). Britain’s territory, a strip bordering Nigeria from the sea to Lake Chad was ruled from Lagos as Cameroons (British Cameroons).

These colonialists would try to change everything German, from the language to the culture. They will also loot, impose labor camps, and commit atrocities never seen. Instead of granting independence to these populations, they would use many tactics, including becoming the “trustees” of these territories. They would be ruling these territories for several decades. But calls for independence were rising and becoming loud.

4- January 1, 1960

French Cameroon achieved independence on January 1, 1960 as La Republique du Cameroun. After Guinea, it was the second of France’s colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa to become independent. On 21 February 1960, the new nation held a constitutional referendum. On 5 May 1960, Ahmadou Ahidjo became president. 

5- In 1961

On 11 February 1961, a plebiscite organised by the United Nations was held in the British controlled part of Cameroon (British Northern and British Southern Cameroons)

The pleibiscite was to choose between free association with an independent Nigerian state or re-unification with the independent Republic of Cameroun. Many people have asked why didn’t they grant British Cameroon outright independence? They gave many reasons that still do not make sense till date. Anyway, on 12 February 1961,the results of the plebiscite were released and British Northern Cameroons attached itself to Nigeria, while the southern part voted for reunification with the Republic Of Cameroon. To negotiate the terms of this union, the Foumban Conference was held on 16–21 July 1961 with John Ngu Foncha, the leader of the Kamerun National Democratic Party.

The British Southern Cameroons was to be referred to as West Cameroon and the French part as East Cameroon. Buea became the capital of the now West Cameroon while Yaounde doubled as the federal capital and East Cameroon. Ahidjo accepted the federation, thinking it was a step towards a unitary state. On 14 August 1961, the federal constitution was adopted, with Ahidjo as president.

In the minds of Anglophones, Federal government was not the same as Federal Government in the United States or Nigeria where representation is made based on the population. In the minds of Anglophones, the Federal Government meant two states with equal power, even though Anglophones represented only 19 to 20 percent of the population. It seemed to be an arrangement that could hardly work, and this brings us to the last date.

6- In 1972

In 1972, after a referendum, a new constitution replaced the federation with a unitary state called the United Republic of Cameroon, which would later become the Republic of Cameroon

ChoiceVotes%
For3,177,84699.99
Against1760.01
Invalid/blank votes1,612
Total3,179,634100
Registered voters/turnout3,236,28098.2
Source: African Elections Database

The Anglophones believe that the government of Cameroon has not respected the United Nations resolution’s 1608 which granted British Southern Cameroon independence by joining Cameroon.

The Republic of Cameroon says even the United Nations failed to grant independence to the Anglophones directly but asked British colony to either join Nigeria or Cameroon, and that a subsequent referendum abolishing the Federal system and establishing the unitary system is binding. 

But in the end, despite agreements and disagreements over historical facts about what really happened and what did not happen, my opinion is that it is the failure of government to build strong institutions, develop the nation, unite the people, treat all people fairly and equally, and be willing to listen to feedback from those who are aggrieved and take serious actions to remedy their grievances, rather than use guns and teargas to crush dissenting voices and the opposition, that has led to the current crisis. Unless the government is willing to listen to take a different approach, I am afraid, there might no be any peace anytime soon in Cameroon. 

But then again, when one man has been in power for almost 40 years, the change may begin by changing him as he is unable to change now. 

This article was put together by Simon Ateba, a renowned international journalist based in Washington DC with documents from books, wikipedia and other sources.

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Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba covers the White House, the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Simon can be reached on simonateba@todaynewsafrica.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. Mr Ateba – if you’re proud of the accuracy and utility of this story, post our last comments for the public to enlighten themselves.

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