AD283: Cameroon’s linguistic divide deepens to rift on questions of democracy, trust, national identity

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Mircea Lazar

After more than a half-century as a single nation with a dual colonial heritage and two official languages – French and English – Cameroon is in danger of coming apart. Protests against perceived discrimination and lack of inclusion began peacefully in the anglophone regions in October 2016 but have escalated into violent conflict with a harsh government response (Africa Times, 2018; Morse, 2017; Confédération Suisse, 2018). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has voiced grave concerns about reported extrajudicial killings by state armed forces as well as abductions and killings by armed anglophone secessionists (AfricaNews, 2018; Atabong, 2018). Nearly half a million Cameroonians are internally displaced, and at least 30,000 have fled to neighbouring Nigeria (Africa Times, 2018).

The October 2018 presidential election, which extended the 36-year reign of President Paul   Biya, was marred by violence, irregularities, and a boycott by most residents of the anglophone regions. An opposition leader was later jailed after his party staged demonstrations against the election result (France24, 2019; International Crisis Group, 2018). 

These tensions between the two major linguistic zones have taken a clear toll on the country’s unity. Anglophone and francophone Cameroonians, who have lived as friends and neighbours for decades, are deeply divided on fundamental questions of democracy and state legitimacy, an analysis of 2018 Afrobarometer survey data shows. Major divisions have emerged as many anglophone Cameroonians have abandoned their support for and belief in the durability of Cameroonian democracy, as well as their fundamental trust in the state.