What’s happening in Cameroon? Learning, I hope
On the 10th of October 2016, Lawyers in two out of ten regions in the country went on strike/industrial action, after giving the government fair warning in 2015. For two weeks they sat home and did nothing. No one paid them any mind, in fact the Minister of Justice insulted them. They took permission to hold street protests (confirm) and after successfully marching across Commercial Ave (with a crowd of people joining them out of curiosity) their union president gave a speech calling for the end of the protests, thanking his colleagues and police who he claimed had “behaved like police of America and Britain “. He praised them prematurely it seems, because by the time he finished the police aimed teargas at their group to disperse them.
Well two weeks after that incident teachers- the most populated occupational field in the nation- decided they would go on strike too. To support lawyers and to bring attention to their own issues with the government’s attempts at harmonization which tend to be more of an assimilation of one system by another. Of course this particular strike won’t be limited to the workers. It would also mean students, their parents in other professions etc. would be affected. THE MAJORITY OF THESE PEOPLE WERE NEVER FORMALLY OR CLEARLY INFORMED OF WHAT EXACTLY THEY WERE STRIKING FOR NOR FOR HOW LONG THIS WOULD GO ON. This omission was allowed to slide because we all know there was a problem with the way our government marginalized our unique systems. So we didn’t bother to define the problem knowing that there were, what harm could come of not knowing exactly which one we were fighting eh?
Well as the strike progressed, language changed. The fact is, the issues raised by teachers and lawyers were a result of a much larger problem- the Anglophone problem- the problem our government tried to ignore and which a lot of our citizens have been unable to correctly diagnose. So language changed, it was no longer a fight for industrial action but gradually becoming a political revolution fueled by long repressed anger over the Anglophone predicament in this country and being used as an opportunity by a group of secessionists calling themselves Ambazonians (the name they had given the citizens of a country yet to exist which they are fighting for).
In an attempt to ignore the strike thinking it would go away students of the University of Buea were called to school to write tests. However their teachers had set no tests and no one would be there to administer them, the administration basically attempted to show they were superior to the teachers they administer and it backfired. After two weeks without classes, students turned up and saw empty classrooms, then proceeded to storm the administration building and vent their anger. In the absence of the VC, the Director of Students Affair approached the students and asked for representatives to take in to see the VC’s deputies. The crowd chose the most vocal to represent them before the VC’s deputies. They presented their issues:
- · Anger over the fine which they were being asked to pay for late registration,
- · The fact that some students (Level 400 students) had yet to receive their Excellency awards
- Anger over being asked to come to school thereby disrespecting their teachers’ calls to stay home and respect their strike.
Of these three reasons forwarded by the students only one had to do with the strike and only one was legit (and even then still questionable). The Level 400 students had already been set to receive their cash award. The proof is in the document dated Friday 25th of November. The last working day before the strike.
That information had not gone out fast enough so the students didn’t know that the administration had actually had to force Yaoundé to fulfill its promise and “gift students with the award”. The fine the students complained about though was a more legitimate problem, not because students were being fined (quite frankly given the way we do things at last minute, or abuse deadlines we need to be fined) but rather because the fine was too steep 1/5th the school fees and it didn’t help that students were late to pay their registration fees this year as a result of technical issues with the school’s website. While they had a legit problem few of them had attempted to complain to the right office nor did they use their elected student leaders to lobby for them. In essence, being called back to school they used an already tense atmosphere to vent their frustration without prior warning.
In fear of aggravating the situation, the deputies agreed with all student demands: The fine will be revoked, level 400 students will receive their awards as was already arranged, and the students would be asked to come to school only after the teachers called off their strike, the director returned with the student reps. to the crowd of students in front of the building. But things had changed, the peaceful students had been infiltrated. Students were now being encouraged by members of the banned student union UBSU to demand for the reinstatement of the union. The director thinking he had done all to appease the students was told no, they want to see the VC and have their union reinstated. This was obviously unexpected as that association had been banned for several years and few undergraduate students new of it enough to demand reinstatement.
Later, when I would leave the security of the administrative block I would recognize alumni, UBSU members of the batch ahead of me, and see their vandalism of staff cars which would be blamed on the peaceful group who were obtuse to their protest being used. I would realize that calling students back to school rather than addressing the striking teachers at that time, created fertile grounds for manipulation and chaos. These UBSU members who had either graduated or dropped out had a personal vendetta against the current administration had seen this as an opportunity to add one more demand to the student’s lists. They spread messages the week before the strike and even posted on their Facebook page about the ‘Lion roaring again’. Added to the campus being heavily militarized, and students initially peaceful being terrified, pushed around and acting out of fear it was a recipe for disaster.
Armed forces called to ‘protect campus property’ didn’t know (or care about) who was a student and who was not. As soon as they rocks were thrown on one side of the building, as soon as students banded hands and refuse to move as instructed they were hit with tear gas. The majority of students (off campus) had gathered around the University’s entrance to ‘see what a strike looked like’. They had no idea what had happened, or what was even being protested. But they heard the gunshot sounds of tear gas going off and all hell broke loose.
Around the streets leading to the University, police caught, abused and arrested whoever didn’t get out of their way fast enough. I saw colleagues held and kicked, I was yelled at (because I couldn’t understand French directives to not come closer to them as I tried to explain I was staff), I was pushed away as I tried to get a look at a student who had been beaten and pushed into a gutter with ground poured over him. Later, in the safety of my home I would see the videos of other areas where police went into familiar hostels, breaking down doors and arresting young people with no questions asked. Not to think of warrants. Those who were to be forces of law and order proved to be everything but.
That day passed and no explanation was offered to the public about the police violence. A rumor of a girl raped by the police caught on and depending on who told you, it would be several girls were raped, or the raped girl was dead etc. In truth the girl in question, the Vice President of the Nso Students association, was found in bed when gendarmes broke into rooms in her hostel. She had been feeling ill and was undressed, when they broke into her room, she was beaten by the police and left unconscious to be found like that by her neighbors who took pics of her brutalized body shared via social media fueling assumptions that she had been raped. The story caught on. Further fueled by the fact that no government official made a statement, not even an attempt at apology or a pitiful excuse.
Our government had the power to stop this from going further. In a show of good faith, they should have sanctioned the officers who were caught on camera breaking into room dehumanizing whoever didn’t get out of their reach fast enough. But no, representatives went on air to disregard there being an Anglophone problem, hail insults at Anglophones and further incite unrest. Some government officials outright refuted there being police brutality, claiming all the pictures and videos were fake. Other politicians attempting to calm matters asserted that all students arrested had been released. As though that ought to make up for their wrongful, abusive arrest in the first place.
So the language of the strike continued to change. People were enraged by the open police abuse, exaggerated tales were spun as though reality were not bad enough. As more politicians came up to ignore the Anglophone problem a divide was created, this was increasingly becoming a Francophone versus Anglophone issue. Secessionists, seized this as a moment to share their dreams of ‘Ambazonia’. They made a website, a flag, an anthem. This fictional country even had its own currency and it was supposedly the strongest in the world because 1 Amba= 5000 FCFA. This would beat the British Pound and the world’s most valuable currency- the Kuwaiti Dinar. The angry population ate it up. Reason was lost to rage and rumors exaggerating circumstances continued to spread like crazy. Few people spoke up as Social Media “opinion leaders” who preached secession and encouraged the Francophone/Anglophone divide. Few people spoke up when they encouraged the burning of the Cameroonian flag and hoisting of the ‘Ambazonian flag’. Fewer still spoke up to the outline the history of these “opinion leaders” and beliefs they had tooted hence from supporting Trump to asserting that women belonged in the kitchen. Few people spoke up because anyone who had opinions contrary to those of the ‘opinion leaders’ are considered black-legs/traitors to the struggle and would be the victim of endless cyber bullying.
The “struggle” as it was termed was looking more and more confused. People called for order. Who was leading this, what were we fighting for. Some asked for a plan of action or at least a manifesto and still did not get one. The public was then told a consortium had been formed to represent both teachers and lawyers. They would be the leaders. This was supposedly a consortium of trade unions, yet no one was told how it was formed. Was there an election? How was this decision made? Nonetheless the strike went on. We believed in the cause and perhaps these were those who opted to fight for us while others shied back. However notwithstanding there being a consortium, the government negotiated with teachers trade unions and/or lawyers trade unions directly. Splitting them up. At no time did these trade unions tell the government “We will no longer speak to you as it we now have this body represented us all”. This means both the government and unionists bypassed the consortium.
The strike went on and the strike went ‘off’ as well. Initially this was industrial action by two sets of unions, one demanding five points:
- The removal of Civil law Magistrates form Common Law Courts.
- The Creation of the a Common Law Bar School as once was.
- The translation of the OHADA text (unbelievable that we would have to strike for something like that eh?).
- Immediate end to harmonizing (read assimilating) of Common Law criminal procedure.
- A seat for a Common Law Supreme Court Justice (Note that these demands were made in 2015 and this union stated that if issues were not addressed they would demand a return to federalism).
And the other ‘supporting’ union demanding:
- Addressing the needs of lawyers.
- Transfer of French educated teachers from Anglophone schools.
- Decentralization of entrance exams into Anglophone institutions.
- Immediate end to plans of harmonizing (read assimilating) the educational systems etc.
But gradually this veered off to a political revolution.
Parliamentarians of the SDF party which is the main opposition party- and Anglophone based- decided to march in Buea. The strike had created an opportunity for them to show people they were on their side. So they marched and gave speeches calling for a return to federation even a majority of their audience waved signboards for ‘Ambazonia’. They did nothing to correct the people about the stand on ‘Ambazonia’. Not to be outdone, the ruling party decided to hold its own march. They called it “A rally for unity” in the Southwest region the event was attended by journalists and hired performing groups as the people heeded to strike and stayed home. In Bamenda though, young boys were encouraged by the ‘opinion leaders’ of the internet to disrupt this particular rally. And so violence broke out with at least 4 dead. At least two of those four were bystanders who were shot before they could even defend themselves.
That same night, the police reacted to the events of the day, by arresting a large number of young boys. Rather than taking them to functioning prisons in the same region however, the boys were carted off to Yaoundé. Parents could only guess where their kids were taken to. Criminal or not, you retain the right to lawful arrest and your mother retains the right to want to visit you in prison.
This spiraled more and more out of control, ghost towns were enforced by the consortium to force the government to negotiate on their terms. Despite the leaders of the consortium declaring that they were against all forms of violence, and people should sit-in during ghost towns. These days were marked with violence. Those who dared step out- Anglophone or not- were abused and had their property vandalized by ‘ghost town enforcers’. This of course led to more arrests in Mile 16, Buea, Ekona etc. The government media house CRTV did not help matters, having a reputation for omitting or outright lies telling, people no longer went to them for information, so WhatsApp group chats became sources of news with all sorts of tales shared with the speed of 17mb voice notes.
Nonetheless the ghost towns served the purpose of forcing the negotiations. Yet the government still negotiated with unions rather than recognizing the consortium as a body. Four out of five of the lawyers’ demands were met. At the last meeting with teachers 16 of 18 of the teachers’ demands were met. The only things not addressed were those with political implication. Teachers would have signed an agreement to suspend the strike action but for a false rumor claiming consortium members had been arrested which led to bike riders storming the conference grounds to “save them”. These bikers the proceeded to threaten the teachers: should they sign any agreement without the ok of the consortium (that same consortium which ought to be representing them) they would pay. The crowd of bikers made it clear that they wanted federation or secession. And so negotiations ended.
The next day a release by the consortium noted that the negotiations had failed. Nothing was reported as to what the government offered but it was clear that the strike was now no longer industrial action. The consortium officially asked for a referendum for a two-state federation. This was met with mixed reviews, while some praised the consortium for “standing up” for the end of Anglophone marginalization, other wondered when the consortium (or trade union leaders) had time between Friday Night and Saturday to go back to their respective chapters and ask the opinions of their members before taking this move. Were they really representing the members?
And if you are like me you wondered about the strategy or lack thereof and the consequences of a poor strategy. What was initially industrial action had grown violent, first by police then by cyber bullies, bikers-turned-ghost-town-enforcers. Now this was going political and still we could not see a strategy. I wondered, if people had considered just how long the strike would need to go on for if we asked this, I wondered if they had considered teachers, particularly private school teachers who were not being paid like those employed by the government, who were now reduced to petty trading to make ends meet. Were their opinions asked? Was it considered that if you switch from industrial action to political revolution the government could cut off salaries as you would no longer be fighting for better working conditions? I wondered at the likelihood of a referendum holding anytime soon, I felt it was particularly naïve to think a dictatorial government would change the system of government which suited it because people demanded so. Isn’t that akin to going on a hunger strike and expecting your enemy to yield so that you can eat? I found it ironic that we would be calling for referendum given that the majority of us aren’t even registered to vote and if we would wait to get registered and vote and “get a federation” before going to school, was that not akin to saying we were sacrificing the year of schooling? I wondered if we had lost the plot. In fact I believe we did lose it. In our anger and quest for payback we became very like the government we detest; we did not consider the ramifications of our actions.
Well the government of course reacted with their trademark careless cruelty. They banned the consortium, arrested the leaders they could catch, shut down internet without a care of the budding IT sector in this part of the country, and continue to repress people to date. They too are done negotiating and are now employing tactics colonial masters once used on our forefathers. Over three weeks later, we of the two Anglophone regions are in the same place; schools shut down, people repressed by both fear of the police and “ghost-town enforcers”, no internet access because our government did not know they could simply block access to the few social media sites and all this while the majority of the country remains more interested in Cameroon being the winner of this year’s AFCON. We still lack strategy and it is getting worse.
It’s getting worse as authorities increasingly try the divide the rule strategy, making this not only an Anglophone vs. Francophone thing but equally a Southwesterner vs. Notherwesterner issue. It’s getting worse as more young people get frustrated and likely to yield to bribes to do whatever they are told to. Worse as violence and arrests continue, like the burning down of a francophone school in Ndop the other day which led to police arresting haphazardly and the village turning up to protest at the station. It’s getting worse because the ‘new leaders’ of the now banned consortium are two guys in the diaspora who cannot adequately represent those on strike as they are neither lawyers nor teachers. It is getting worse for lack of strategy.
If one were to ask me, I would suggest this is the way forward:
We need to back track. There were other leaders of the trade unions the consortium was to represent; secretaries, vice presidents etc. They should come forward now and finish this rather than this movement being handed over to people who belong to neither trade unions and are not on the ground to negotiate. These executives could call for renewed negotiations, ask that the government release the members of the consortium arrested whose only crime was asking for a federation. These executives could propose that school will start as soon as they are freed and all political requests forestalled as long as the trade union initially raised will be addressed. In essence we need to pick our battles people. If we can bargain for those wrongfully arrested and resume normalcy then we can create time to plan. Planning for political change (relatively peaceful change) would involve using the law and its loopholes, creating a united front by pressuring opposition members to get themselves together irrespective of cultural, ethnic or linguistic divides and form a coalition. By giving us a candidate we can believe in, we can rally for massive registration in ELECAM and hold that electoral body under a microscope to ensure they serve US. We can get a new leader in power with conditions, the change of governing system to federalism if we wish can be a condition at that time. But this is my opinion.
However, should we continue in this hapless way we should expect worse. We should expect the government to stop salaries soon. They are not known for their kindness. We should know by now that they do not CARE about us, these ‘leaders’ of ours. And wouldn’t it be fair that ALL teachers striking should be without pay rather than just an unfortunate underpaid private sector? Perhaps then people will put their money where their mouths are. Can Cameroonians emulate Kenyan’s where better paid professors are giving doctors on strike stipends not to yield in but stand for their cause?
So to look on the bright side, perhaps this is a learning experience. Perhaps from this, people will learn that it takes a lot more to fight a political battle, perhaps our people will look at Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and recently the Gambia and copy what they did to have effective elections. Perhaps my people will learn that secession isn’t the way, that our enemy is not the one with a different colonial language, but our horrible national and neo-colonial governance. I am hoping that my people will see at the end of this that the government is not as threatened by two regions protesting as it would be by people uniting across regional and linguistic divides, or better yet our opposition members forming a coalition.
So my dear Cameroon, I hope to God that we are learning. I hope in the years to come we don’t repeat the same mistakes because I feel like we’re having a rerun of 1990.
This is definitely an abbreviated version of events. I have not delved into the history leading to the Anglophone marginalization in Cameroon, I wrote a bit about that in An Open Letter to Cameroonians posted here in February of 2014 (you can find more in depth pieces on the issue of Anglophone marginalization on Dibussi Tande’s Scribbles from theDen). I have not written of the way the taunting, non-committing speeches of the president has contributed to frustration during this protest, nor have I looked at the statement every incident and disastrous rumor which has further divided this country.
This piece is limited to making it clear, that both sides of this fight are responsible for the mess we are in; whether by being intentionally cruel or by risking our collective well being with naivety and lack of strategy.
One can however argue that, a government l(ike a parent) should be more logical and adept as addressing problems. This situation with the government’s delayed action and lack of sensitivity coupled with ‘revolutionaries’ blinded by anger can be likened to two elephants fighting. We the grass suffer