BY DAVID AKANA
In the late 90s and 2000s, I lived and worked as a journalist in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. English and French are the two official languages of Cameroon. After years of shuttling in several privately-sponsored media, I ended up in the state-sponsored Cameroon Radio-Television Corporation (CRTV).
Editorial meetings were probably one of my best part of the job in the sense that they were spaces for interaction and professional engagement. In editorial meetings, teams brainstormed on story ideas. New ideas got discussed, accepted or rejected in these meetings. Because of the bilingual nature of the country, most editorial meetings are conducted in English and French. Though I mastered some functional French; my operationally and preferred language is English. So, you may consider me a minority-language speaker when I am in Yaoundé.
Overall, I often got my ideas accepted in these meetings and largely made my point with enough clarity. But quite often, I ended up in some discussions looking either unintelligible or wondering if we had effectively communicated. The bilingual composition of the newsroom staff could often result in so much noise in communication.
While these editorial meetings were professional learning environments, they could also be incredibly frustrating spaces. For example, if discussions became contentious and uncomfortable, you could be dismissed not necessarily on the strength or weakness of your argument but sometimes on your origin and background. Rather than carefully examine merits and demerits of arguments, you could sometimes come under denigrating and uncalled-for criticism. This was in no small way based on your language to which you are pigeonholed and tagged deeply disturbing stigmas and prejudices. I suspect if you have ever been described as “les anglos la,” then you might better grasp what I am referring to.
Anglophones are referred to as “les anglo” in Cameroon. It carries with it a negative and derogatory connotation that can lead to a humiliating, shameful or depressing feeling. How well you handle these tags can affect how you remain active or not in the workspace. In my newsroom, I reluctantly embraced some of these tags. From time-to-time, going the extra mile to develop my arguments in French in part to reduce the noise in communication and to enhance my belongingness. For others, it shut them down completely. For the most part, they participate in these mandatory meetings but would hardly share an opinion or express approval or disproval at how the business of tax-payer newsroom is conducted. For many, journalists are elites and opinion leaders of the country. For these individuals with significant responsibility in shaping the direction of the country to turn passive in part because of this newsroom dynamic tells you a lot about what happens in the broader society with a lot less educated ordinary Cameroonians.
Concretely, what you end up with is an English-speaking driver for example who decides just to bribe his way through when confronted to a routine security check manned by French-Speaking police officers intentionally conducting business in a language they would not understand. What you have is a farmer or small-business owner admitting guilt even when they do not have to because it may be too hard to make their point or it is perhaps the easy way out of an uncomfortable encounter with a law officer. What you get is an Bamenda-based English-speaking teacher who devolves the follow-up of his/her documents in the Ministry of Public Service and Education in Yaoundé to someone else because they are too uncomfortable to seek these services themselves in part because of their limitation in functional French in which most business is conducted in the capital. What played out in my newsroom too often played out in small and large spaces in Cameroon.
If the system guaranteed these basic liberties, not only would you see diminishing calls for separation, but also a greater recognition that in our linguistic duality and bicultural richness lie our common and shared future.
Turn to the access and retrieval of public documents for work related purposes, and there you find another disturbing layer of linguistic discrimination. Too often as a young reporter in Cameroon, I obtained documents during coverage of official government business only in French whereas my operational and preferred language is English. Too many government meetings were conducted in one language. Without the official English translation, I spent so much time playing the role of translator. I cannot imagine how many times I ended up misinforming the public because of my inability to correctly decode the right information. The systematic absence of documents in English not only indirectly exposes the domination of the French language in the conduct of public business but also speaks to an assumption that has become the norm – that Anglophones understand and speak French. The same is often not expected of Francophones. While many end up accepting this as the norm in part because of limited recourse measures, it is unconstitutional. Article 1(3) of the supreme law of Cameroon states that all documents meant for public consumption must be produced in English and French.
Fast forward my 1990 and 2000 experience to November 2016. Frustrated by incessant demands to have the English translation of a critical business law (the Organization for the Harmonization of Business Law in Africa) and the adulteration of the legal system in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, lawyers decided to go on strike until the situation is resolved. Teachers on their part, concerned about the ‘Francophonization’ of the Anglophone school system decided to also go on strike until the situation is resolved.
For clarity purposes and better understanding of context, present day Cameroon is the fruit of two entities that came together in 1961 to form a federation. Before independence, both entities had an independent status. The Anglophone region (Southern Cameroons) was administered mostly through an indirect system of government by Britain while France administered the Francophone region (East Cameroons). Part of the legacy left behind by the colonialists are a legal and education systems that are fundamentally different not only in style but also in practice. In these differences lies the core of the current political crisis facing Cameroon. To it has added other dimensions including the fight for equality.
In this trying moment for Cameroon, it is tempting to fall for easy solutions. A considerable significant voice has asked for secession. Others want federalism. And the central government is not mincing words – Cameroon remains one and indivisible. In between lies the solution – the linguistic duality of Cameroon. It is perhaps the greatest asset of a prosperous, peaceful, and united Cameroon.
I am not wedded to federalism, secession or unitarism. What matters is that it works.
The nostalgic feelings and clamor for separation by some Anglophone Cameroonians are in no small way linked to the frustrations encountered in a system that cannot protect their fundamental constitutional rights of freedom to information in a language of their choice.
If the system guaranteed these basic liberties, not only would you see diminishing calls for separation, but also a greater recognition that in our linguistic duality and bicultural richness lie our common and shared future. In this difficult moment, it is possible to ignore substantial evidence that point to practical cases where Cameroonians are savoring their experience of living together in one of the most beautiful countries on earth. Look at both sides of the Mungo (the river that divides both the French and English parts), and you will see families from both regions who have successfully lived side-side, prospered together in strong communities for decades.
Add to this mix the fact that, many in the past and current generations have acquired bilingual skills and gone on to be perhaps some of the most successful Cameroonians at home and abroad. You cannot dissociate the strong performance and employability of Cameroonians on the international job market to the bilingual environment they grow up in. Five years ago, I interviewed for a position in the World Bank Group in Washington D.C. My bilingual skills perfected laboriously in the process of trying to survive an overwhelmingly French environment ended up being the reason why I beat about 100 candidates and landed the job. For all the criticism against the colonial and slavery legacy, Cameroon’s bilingual character is a natural advantage that presents itself as the single most critical opportunity to seize and promote in the ongoing crisis. For those who have been looking at ways to revive the country, this is one of the means to position it on a trajectory of unmatched growth, respect, and envy across the world. Some may argue that globalization has taken a hit recently. That is true, but for anyone with the remotest sense of where the world is heading, you will conclude that it is in the direction of diversity. And the more you can communicate in as many languages as you can, the more you win the future from a business, communication and even social perspective. Don’t we owe this to our kids and future generation?
These lofty goals may not be enough to convince some that Cameroon should stay one and indivisible. But combine these natural advantages to a responsive system of government that works for the people, and you would have found a sustainable solution to the current crises facing Cameroon. Some have suggested Federalism as a solution. In Federalism lies the ability to devolve some powers to local communities. Federalism has the beauty of addressing local and indigenous realities than most other forms of governments. It will not be far from the truth that in adopting the Federal system in 1961, the underlying assumption was that, it was probably the only system of government that could cater and maintain both Cameroons with their specific systems deep at the core.
The current leaders have argued that all subsequent changes to the system including the 1972 Referendum and the 1984 decree introducing the Republic of Cameroon where in good faith and designed to unite the country further. In the same line of thought and out of the supreme interest to keep the nation indivisible, it would make sense to listen and entertain discussions and voices that are arguing for a one Cameroon but that respect the specifics of different regions. And part of this includes federalism that allows the civil and common law to be practiced where it is most appropriate and the implementation of Anglophone and Francophone-styled education where it is most suitable.
In fact, you may not even call it any name, but just have an arrangement that is sensitive to the different histories and cultures. I am not wedded to federalism, secession or unitarism. What matters is that it works.
David Akana works in the African Development Bank after a few years in the World Bank Group in Washington D.C. He worked for many years as a journalist.