YAOUNDE, CAMEROON - Several people were killed and hundreds more were arrested or are missing Thursday in northwest Cameroon in violence that followed rallies by the country's English-speaking minority. They were protesting what they call the overbearing influence of French in the bilingual country. Some are demanding a return to federalism while others are asking for secession from the Republic of Cameroon.
Protesters in Bamenda, the capital of the northwest region of Cameroon, came out to stop the ruling CPDM party and the prime minister of Cameroon, Philemon Yang, from organizing a so-called "Peace rally," intended to halt Anglophone protests that started last month.
Yewong Petra, a resident of Bamenda, says the military shot at protesters who were hoisting blue and white flags that are an symbols of the English speaking regions that want to separate from the French speaking parts of Cameroon.
"The people of Bamenda are hoisting a flag that is not recognized," Petra said. "You cannot, in a nation, hoist a flag that is not recognized by the people. If it was a white flag, I would understand it is for peace. Hoisting a flag that symbolizes something like a secessionist attitude is going to provoke the military."
The government said two people were killed, but some residents and media outlets reported there were at least seven deaths.
In 1961, a vote was held in what are today's northwest and southwest English speaking regions of Cameroon. The referendum was over whether to join Nigeria, which had already obtained independence from Britain, or the Republic of Cameroon, which had obtained independence from France. Voters elected to become part of French speaking Cameroon, and the country practiced a federal system of government. English and French became the official languages of Cameroon.
Ebune Charles, historian at the University of Yaounde, says since 1972, when a new constitution was adopted replacing a federal state with a unitary state, French speaking Cameroonians have failed to respect the linguistic and cultural nature of the minority English speaking Cameroonians.
"We were supposed to have predominantly English speaking administrators in the predominantly English speaking regions of the northwest and the southwest, and that is not the case," Ebune said. "We were expecting official documents signed in both languages; that is not the case. Presidential decrees come only in one language. If you look at the level of the military, that is where it is so scandalous. It is just in one language but we are in a bilingual country."
Charles also pointed out that the country's currency is printed only in French, notice boards even in the English speaking regions are mostly in French, and more than 70 percent of radio and TV programs in the state media are in French.
The ongoing protests started when lawyers in the English speaking regions asked for French speaking judges who are not of the common law system to be transferred out of courts in those regions. They declared that justice can't be rendered when the judge, the advocate and the suspect can't communicate.
They also asked that the OHADA business law used by French African countries be translated into English.
When those requests were not granted, they refused to defend clients in court.
Teachers also went on strike to protest what they said was an overbearing influence of French in schools.
Professor George Dopgima Nyamdi, politician and former presidential aspirant, says the situation degenerated because the government has refused to listen to the cries of English speaking Cameroonians.
"If things like this happen to a country, it means there is something fundamentally wrong that must be addressed," Nyamdi said.
As the strikes continue, with violence closing schools, universities and markets, the Catholic Church has been calling for dialogue.
"The prime minister … is setting up a committee, he has appointed the chairperson of the committee so why not give him a chance," Cornelius Esua Fontem, the archbiship of Bamenda said. "There is a move of dialogue and we should not refuse that move. We want the government to prove that they too are coherent."
It is not the first time English speaking Cameroonians have protested. In 1984, they created the "Cameroon Anglophone Movement" to press for a return to the federal system, which eventually started calling for independence.