English and French still demarcate the lines of a violent conflict in Cameroon. This situation has worsened in the two years since 2016’s police clashes (see LM, December 2016).
According to the Washington Post, what started as peaceful protests has escalated to a secessionist movement and brought the Central African nation to the brink of civil war.
Although there are over 200 local languages in Cameroon, around 80% of the country speaks French, while only two small regions on the western Nigerian border speak English.
This linguistic divide is rooted in the era of colonialism, when France and Britain seized and divided Cameroon between them. The francophone area gained independence in 1960. In 1961, anglophones in part of the British-occupied territory joined them to create a bilingual country.
The French-speaking area of Cameroon is much larger than the English-speaking part, and francophones dominate politics and society.
In 2016, lawyers and teachers peacefully protested what they saw as forced francophone assimilation through the appointments of francophone judges to anglophone courts, the assignments of francophone teachers to anglophone schools, the printing of government documents only in French, and public figures giving speeches in French to English-speaking populations.
The Cameroonian government initially agreed to some reforms, but also jailed many activists. The next two years saw the anglophones’ goal transform from policy change and civil rights advocacy to full anglophone separation.
Currently, a vocal group of English speakers want to divest from Cameroon and create a country called Ambazonia. This group mainly consists of young men, colloquially known as Amba-boys.
The francophone government has said that the Amba-boys have utilized guerilla warfare tactics such as attacking troops and burning down schools. The government has said they have retaliated by burning down what they assert are secessionist camps.
But dozens of interviews for the Washington Post say that those “camps” were actually civilian villages and that the government has indiscriminately tortured and killed anglophone men and women.
Last year, the UN condemned the violence on both sides. Amnesty International reported a death toll of at least 400 civilians in September 2018. Many refugees of the conflict have fled northwest to Nigeria.