Cameroonians protest government refusal to speak their language

Africa | English speakers say the French-speaking majority is marginalizing them
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 2/09/17, 10:48 am

English speakers in Cameroon are persisting with strikes for greater equality in the bilingual country, and the resulting crackdown by French-speaking government officials appears to have inflamed the conflict.

The country’s teachers and lawyers, who began to strike in October, have argued French language is used overbearingly in the country’s English-speaking regions. The government has responded by shutting down the Internet for nearly a month, among other restrictive measures.

Cameroon is officially a bilingual country, and 20 percent of its population identifies as English speakers. The English speakers have complained that the majority of the country’s public documents are released only in French, and many government officials barely speak English.

The conflict began in October when English-speaking lawyers asked the court to transfer French-speaking lawyers from the region, saying the court would not work effectively when the judge, lawyer, and suspect could not communicate. The court failed to grant the lawyers’ request, triggering an outpouring of built-up frustrations. Regional rights groups said 10 people died in December demonstrations.

Educators in the region argue the government should not post teachers there who cannot speak English properly.

In Bamenda, an English-speaking city, only one of 4,000 students showed up on the first day of a high school’s academic term as teachers remained on strike. Demonstrators continue to call for “ghost town” protests in major cities. Some Anglophone civil groups also joined in the protests.

As the demonstrations persisted, Cameroon’s telecommunication ministry in a statement warned social media users it would penalize people who circulated information without evidence. Cameroonians also said they received text messages warning they could face up to two years in prison and a fine for spreading false information on social media. The government shutdown the internet in the English-speaking regions of the country only days after circulating the statement and messages.

Deji Olukotun, the global advocacy officer at digital rights group Access Now, said the Internet shutdown violates rights on several grounds and should be stopped.

“They cut off access to information, damage the economy, prevent journalists from reporting the truth, block emergency services, and can be used to obscure other human rights violations,” Olukotun said.

Cameroon’s President Paul Biya said he welcomed negotiations, but would not accept any attempt to destabilize the country. The government banned the activities of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium and charged two of its leaders with terrorism and rebellion against the state for their roles in the protests. Authorities forbade public meetings of the opposition and shutdown a radio station this month for hosting a debate on the strike on-air.

Hans Heungoup, Cameroon analyst with the International Crisis Group, said most of the grievances from the English-speaking lawyers and teachers are genuine, and the government’s response has worsened the situation. He called on the government to actually address the people’s complaints to keep the crisis from worsening.

“The government usually uses a repressive method that involves snubbing you, intimidating you, and, if possible, beating you,” Heungoup said. “This kind of response would no longer be sufficient.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

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