English speakers protest discrimination in Francophone Cameroon

The town of Bamenda, in western Cameroon, on Monday afternoon. Photo published by Charles Charlo on Facebook (via Storyful).
The town of Bamenda, in western Cameroon, on Monday afternoon. Photo published by Charles Charlo on Facebook (via Storyful).

Calm has returned to Bamenda, a city in a predominantly English-speaking region in the west of Cameroon, after two days of fierce protests resulting in at least one death.

The demonstrations began on November 21 after teachers started protesting against a local education system that they say is too French-oriented and doesn’t provide for English speakers. But it’s not just a quibble with education – a large number of English speakers say that they are treated like “second-class citizens” in the predominantly French-speaking country.

Trade unions Cameroon Teachers Trade Union and Teachers Association of Cameroon called for teachers to strike on Monday and Tuesday. Thousands of people lined the streets of Bamenda, the region’s main city and the founding place of the country’s opposition party. It is also one of the two main English-speaking regions in a country divided into 10 regions – a holdover from British colonial rule.

Video shared on social media of the demonstration on November 21.

There were clashes with police, who used tear gas on protesters and fired in the air in a bid to disperse the crowds. Protesters responded by throwing rocks. The government announced that one person had died in the violence, while the opposition party claimed that there had been three deaths.

On Monday, military forces fired in the air to disperse the crowds.

Several people were injured during the demonstrations. This video was published on Facebook by Ni Solez (via Storyful).

By Wednesday the streets were calmer, and shops began to reopen on Thursday. Police forces continued to patrol the town, however, and schools had not reopened.

Teachers oppose the fact that there are more Francophone teachers than Anglophone teachers in universities in the area, even though the majority of students are English-speaking. They also complain that Anglophone teachers are sent to work in Francophone institutions and regions.

"I have to pay someone to translate my brother’s schoolwork from French to English"

Valery Azamah is an accountant in Bamenda. His younger brother goes to the local public university.

The fact that French-speaking professors teach in English-speaking schools and universities is a huge problem because a lot of them have very bad English. Some of them even just teach in French, even though their students speak English far more than they do French.

This makes it hard for the pupils to understand, even if some of the students have at least basic French. To help my brother I pay someone to translate his schoolwork from French to English – but not everyone has the money to do that.

There are a few more English-speaking teachers in primary schools so the situation is slightly better, but barely… As a result, it seems harder for young English-speakers than French-speakers to get ahead.

It says in the Cameroonian constitution that the two official languages, English and French, are meant to be equal. It also says that the Republic "shall guarantee the promotion of bilingualism throughout the country".  

A 1998 law on education also assures that bilingualism is a fundamental part of the education system at all ages. The law states that the education system has two branches: one French-speaking and one English-speaking, and they work independently of one another with their own set of evaluation and means of testing. This sentiment is not shared by Anglophone teachers, who think that they are increasingly required to teach according to the French system.

This man made an impromptu speech in the road on November 21 while standing in… a coffin. Photo published on Facebook by Boris Bertolt.

Teachers are not the only ones who feel discriminated against in the region. In October, lawyers started a strike for similar reasons: they voiced their grievances at the increasing presence of Francophone magistrates and a French civil law system.

But problems aren’t just confined to these particular industries, says our Observer.

“Important positions are taken by French-speakers"

In Yaoundé, [the capital of Cameroon] only a handful of ministers are English-speaking [including the prime minister], and when we go there we are treated badly if we don’t speak French.

What’s more, in the region the majority of important political positions are taken by French-speakers. Generally speaking, there’s not much work to be found here anyway and when the government is recruiting civil servants they usually give priority to French-speakers, and there aren’t any big public or private companies. Which means that even if you have a degree, you can still be unemployed and selling SIM cards in the street.

The town is dirty and polluted. Nearly all the roads are in a bad state, worse than in French-speaking areas, and we don’t think the government is doing anything. This is why protestors were calling on the government delegate to resign. [Editor’s note: the city’s delegate is appointed by the central government, not elected].

Over the last few days, the protesters have been demanding political change. Some have called for the creation of a federal state system, which is one of the rallying points of the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front.

Everyone interviewed by FRANCE 24 did emphasise that normally there are no problems between French speakers and English speakers themselves. “We only have a problem with the government and its bad management,” said a teacher living in Bamenda. Many Francophones have said that they understand the complaints of their English-speaking compatriots.

Riots at the beginning of the week caused some damage in Bamenda. Photo posted on
Facebook by Boris Bertolt.