Cameroon – Exploring the Anglophone Crisis: A Conversation with Felix Agbor-Balla

A political crisis continues to grip English-speaking regions of Cameroon, with no real solution on the horizon. A year ago strikes by various legal associations quickly expanded into a full-blown protest movement that encompassed teachers, students, and local trade unions. Underlying the movement are longstanding grievances and feelings of discrimination. These sentiments have been exacerbated by perceptions of misallocation of state resources and uneven representation in the highest levels of government. The government has heavily resisted this movement and responded with violence. During the most recent round of protests a reported 17 people were killed in clashes with security forces.

The solution to the crisis is not clear. Dialogue with the government has been limited, and there is no consensus on what an endpoint would look like. The Anglophone crisis involves the resolution of many longstanding issues regarding the region’s British heritage. However, fundamentally the crisis also implies some restructuring of the Cameroonian state. At one extreme are violent groups like the Ambazonia Movement, which advocate for secession. Others like the now-banned Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) seem to want a return to federalism, while the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) wavers between calls for federalism and decentralization.

With these tensions in mind I spoke with Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla. Agbor-Balla is a human rights lawyer and the president of the CACSC and the Fako Lawyers Association (FAKLA). On January 18, 2017 he was arrested and airlifted to Yaoundé. A 2014 anti-terror law allowed the government to try him in a military tribunal, and he remained in military detention without bail until he was released by presidential decree on August 31st. I spoke to him from London over Skype on October 23. Our conversation, which I excerpt below, revolved primarily around the roots of the Anglophone crisis and the difficulty of resolving it within the context of the Cameroonian political system.

The Roots of the Current Anglophone Crisis

The “Anglophone Problem” has historical roots in the country’s brief experiment with federalism that united former British and French territories. The specifics of unification have been covered extensively, but the federal arrangement left significant authority in the hands of the presidency. The president could appoint critical administrative figures, direct the flow of resources, and use emergency powers to curtail political expression. By 1972, both multipartyism and federalism were abolished. Since Anglophones have seen themselves as the main losers of this arrangement. This was true under first president Ahamadou Ahidjo and his successor Paul Biya.

At one level Anglophones are responding to a specific set of discriminatory government policies. For instance, Anglophone lawyers oppose the imposition of French magistrates in English-speaking areas and the absence of sufficient recognition of Common Law. Similarly, teachers and students have protested the lack of English-speaking educational and career opportunities. The issue of language and belonging looms large for Anglophones. As Agbor-Balla noted, “French is the language of oppression for many. And they [the Francophone] do not care about the Anglophone problem because they think that French is the only language you need to speak if you want to have your way.”

At another level the crisis is over the perception that Anglophones have not had an adequate seat at the political table. This is reflected in the distribution of senior appointments and economic resources. For instance, after 1972 many local economic functions were transplanted to Yaoundé, and the government invested in the Douala port rather than Limbe. Most importantly, political exclusion has instilled fear of permanent political alienation from the highest offices of power, namely the presidency. Under Ahidjo the sense was the politics tilted toward the north, while under Biya it is to the south.

The hierarchy of state positions was evident from my conversation. Most clearly, I pushed Agbor-Balla to consider whether a more empowered Prime Minister would be satisfactory. The position was reinstated in 1992 and has informally always gone to an Anglophone. Agbor-Balla claims this concession is meaningless: “Having a Prime Minister without any power! The power resides in the Presidency. What powers does the Prime Minister actually hold? We used to have a Vice President and Speaker who were second in command, but now we have a Prime Minister that does not really matter. Why can’t we have a President? Why not a Vice President?”

Resolving the Anglophone Crisis

The government has not conceded much ground. An ad hoc committee led by the Prime Minister was largely maligned by Anglophones, including Agbor-Balla: “These are the same people who are ministers, the prime minster, members of government, parliamentarians. These are people who do not recognize a problem, who have not accounted for previous government atrocities.” Similarly, a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism was seen as cosmetic and a way to demonstrate progress to the international community.

The most significant government concessions emerged out of the March legislative session. While nothing has been implemented, there are new laws that call for the creation of a Common Law bench on the Supreme Court, reforms to the National School of Administration and Magistracy, and the recruitment of additional Anglophone magistrates. For Agbor-Balla “the Common Law bench is a step in the right direction,” but he also claims that “we have passed the stage where we say it is just the legal and education based issues to a stage where we tackle fundamental problems with the form of the state.”

And it is here that significant tensions emerge. Simply addressing questions of discrimination might not be agreeable to the movement. Agbor-Balla advocates for an inclusive constitutional conference, but his position on the outcome shifts. He maintains that decentralization and some form of truth and reconciliation can work. But, he also noted that anything short of a return to federalism would likely not satisfy Anglophones: “The CACSC believes that that federalism is a midpoint between the unionists and the independence movement. It is a win-win situation.” This involves rotating the presidency between an Anglophone and Francophone, restoring the office of the Vice Presidency, and explicit protections for minority rights.

But, this type of change is improbable given the incentives that underlie the Cameroonian political system. The presidency holds together a tenuous multiethnic coalition of entrenched elites who view the question of distribution and political control quite starkly. As Agbor-Balla notes, “They do not have the political will and do not want to lose their control over power. It is a patronage system where you have to have allegiance to them so they can manipulate you.” Indeed, Biya amended the constitution in 2008 to extend his term limits, and is likely to run again in 2018 to prevent a divisive succession crisis.

This implies that many of the underlying issues that propel the Anglophone crisis will persist. Absent a clear political strategy that changes the calculus in the presidency, it is difficult to imagine the government embarking on true reform. Biya has demonstrated a willingness to use violence and curtail discussion of federalism and even decentralization. This leaves Anglophones in a precarious situation as different voices pull the movement in various directions, some potentially violent.

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