Identity politics are pretty much a universal axis of conflict, although the type of identity under dispute can vary. Religion is a very old and very bitter source of animosity. Class is a universal divide and still provokes outrage in places with high inequality. Race is a hot-button issue in multiracial countries. The nebulous concept of “ethnicity” divides and unites societies worldwide. Some commentators even point to the even more nebulous concept of “civilization” as a rallying point for political allegiance.
Language might seem to be less controversial, because it’s something everyone uses all the time everyday without much thought. But its very fundamentality makes it crucial and vital: how can you understand someone if you can’t understand what they’re saying? In multilingual contexts people sort themselves by preferred language all the time. In sub-Saharan Africa this can be a problem, given how many different languages are spoken across the continent, but luckily colonialism has given Africa a small group of languages that are spoken across tribal and national lines. Their importance in giving African countries something to unite around becomes obvious when you consider Cameroon, a central African country with the unusual situation of having 2 colonial languages.
Cameroon, like its giant neighbor Nigeria, is a very artificial country. It has over 200 different tribes and encompasses everything from the verdant Cameroon mountains in the west and the desert by Lake Chad in the north to the tropical jungles in the east and the plateau in the center and south. The north is more like the dry, Muslim Sahel region of West Africa and the east is more like the Congo jungle that dominates Central Africa. The more densely populated west has more in common with the tribes of Nigeria. (The upshot to this is that Cameroon is advertised to tourists as “Africa in Miniature”; since it’s located at the “hinge” where West Africa becomes Central Africa, it’s probably the single best introduction to the continent and packs a lot of diversity into a relatively small package.)
Cameroon’s colonial history only adds to this diversity. It was one of the blank spots on the map scooped up by Germany in the 1880s when it got into an imperialist mood. Thus, the colony was organized along German lines and German was the official language. But Germans never got very far into the interior (despite claiming a lot of territory); they stuck to the profitable, accessible coastal regions and relied on missionaries to do a lot of the intermediary stuff with Africans, and they tended to use local languages. When Germany lost control of the colony during World War I, there hadn’t been much cultural influence to clear away (although German remains a favorite language to study there).
Instead, Cameroon became a British AND French colony. It was surrounded by Britain in Nigeria to the west and France in its colonies to the south and east. They invaded together in 1914 and partitioned the colony between them. The trouble is, France got much further than Britain — leaving only a narrow strip along the Nigerian border in British hands. The colonial powers went on to govern their sections differently, too: Britain preferred to use indirect rule, leaving local elites intact and mostly staying out of local affairs, while France liked direct rule, scooping up plantations and mines, creating a rich settler community to manage them and introducing its customs and culture to “civilize” the Cameroonians.
When independence came to Africa in 1960, French Cameroon gained it without much fuss. The question was what to do about the British Cameroons, which were thought too small to be viable independent countries. Should they join neighboring Nigeria, from which they had been basically governed and with which they shared cultural and linguistic ties? Or should they join Cameroon, from which they’d been separated for 44 years and which would probably dominate them? The Brits put it to a vote in 1961, and surprisingly, the result was a split. Northern Cameroons chose to join Nigeria while Southern Cameroons went for reunification. (It’s hard to say why this was, but apparently local elites in the north decided that Nigeria would better protect their interests and vice versa in the south, and they managed to convince everyone else to vote accordingly.)
Northern Cameroons was soon absorbed and integrated into Nigeria, although transnational tribal ties linger, as they do across Africa. But Southern Cameroons faced the prospect of joining a much larger country where everyone spoke French and where many were in thrall to French culture. It was nervous, but initially the 2 former colonies formed a federation, where each had its own government and prime minister, with a president presiding over a weak central government in Yaoundé (in the French zone). But Cameroon’s founding father, Ahmadou Ahidjo, like most other African leaders, eventually came to crave more power and crushed all opposition to his rule. This included pesky West Cameroon, which was fully absorbed into a unitary republic in 1972 (hence the date on the map above).
English-speakers (“Anglophones”) were mollified by constitutional guarantees that their language would be respected; Cameroon is officially bilingual. Anglophones are often appointed as ministers in the national government. The unique administrative structures set up by Britain also remain intact. But Cameroon is a dictatorship; its president, Paul Biya, has clung onto power since 1982, which makes him 1 of what are derisively called Africa’s “dinosaurs” (really long-serving rulers). Threats to his power — or to national unity — are not tolerated.
Anglophones complain that they are 2nd-class citizens in their own country. French-speaking (“Francophone”) judges sent to their regions don’t understand British “common” law (France uses a different law code promulgated by Napoleon). Francophone teachers sent to their schools can’t easily communicate with their students. Yaoundé generally ignores the west or takes it for granted, since the region is cloaked by a veil of English.
Some Anglophones go even further and complain that they are actively discriminated against. Government funds are often linked with the tribal ties of the relevant ministers in Africa, and when the national government is dominated by Francophones, that means West Cameroon goes undeveloped. Attending school in the rest of Cameroon or getting a job in the big cities (both of which are Francophone) is hard for Anglophones, since they can’t understand their teachers or coworkers. There is widespread suspicion that, in the name of national unity, the bilingualism drive is really just a way to get all Cameroonians to speak French — something many Anglophones are reluctant to do.
Protests against the government have come and gone in Cameroon; they are usually tied to economic problems (which might say something in itself), and although in 1990 they played a role in getting Biya to liberalize a bit and allow other parties to run in elections, the language situation has not changed much. The latest outbreak of protests began in October with a lawyers’ strike. It then expanded to include teachers and eventually big parts of West Cameroon, to the extent that towns were declared “ghost towns” on Mondays and everyone would go on strike. (Those who dared to go to work faced arson and beatings for breaking the strike.)
The government responded with repression. Police broke up the protests and arrested anyone openly calling for secession (as “Ambazonia”); at least 6 protesters were killed. More deviously, it also pulled the plug on West Cameroon’s Internet. From January until April, the Anglophone areas — already separated from many Cameroonian websites by their language — were cut off from the Internet altogether, partly as punishment, partly to squelch any organized resistance. The west is one of Cameroon’s most economically vibrant regions, dubbed “Silicon Mountain” due to its tech start-ups. The Internet blackout cost it $3 million and forced everyone to keep in touch via texting instead. Anyone needing to use the Internet had to take the day-long journey into the Francophone part of the country on Cameroon’s crummy buses.
So is Cameroon headed for civil war and breakup? Probably not. Secession is very hard to actually achieve in Africa; the last time it happened was in 2011 (South Sudan), and not only was that a rare and remarkable event, but it’s gone REALLY badly since. Even without government repression tying up their organizational efforts, Anglophone groups are very divided. Some want an independent Ambazonia, others want to go back to the “good old days” of federalism, others just want more decentralized government and local autonomy. Within West Cameroon, there are tribal divides and a rivalry between the “Graffi” of the Grasslands in North West Cameroon and the coastal people of the South West. Some are suspicious that talk of secession is just a ploy for Anglophone politicians to grab more power.
Francophones, meanwhile, are not very sympathetic. They make up 80% of the country and think Anglophones are whiny. They point out that other parts of the country are worse off (like the north, which is harried by the jihadist rebels of Boko Haram) and comparatively quiescent. Anglophones get plenty of central government positions, including the prime minister’s office, and they tend to be pretty content and pro-Biya once they get them. And as Emmanuel Anyefru points out in “The Refusal to Belong,” Cameroonians have many bonds that cut across linguistic lines. Both Anglophones and Francophones like Cameroon’s catchy makossa music, eat plantains and fufu, drink beer and palm wine, watch Cameroon Radio and Television, and enjoy the formidable national soccer team. A pidgin form of English is also widely understood across the country, even if it’s not what you’re supposed to speak in school or the office.
Cameroon’s experience sheds some light on how important languages are for bringing a country together. A common language — especially a colonial language, since they come from outside and are not ethnically biased within African contexts — can serve to bind wildly different tribes and cultures together. Lacking this, it’s harder to conjure up a sense of national identity. When the linguistic minority is as small as Cameroon’s is, it makes the feeling of victimization and discrimination even more acute. Although it’s by no means a perfect solution (except for the most passionately nationalist, anyway), Canada might be a good model for Cameroon. With a small but fiercely proud Francophone minority overshadowed by an Anglophone majority spanning the continent, Canada is sort of the reverse of Cameroon. But a bilingual national identity is carefully cultivated in Canada, and national politicians are expected to be fluent in both languages.
(Or Cameroon could just try more political liberalization, although dictators usually hate that.)