YAOUNDE - A strike in English-speaking parts of Cameroon is approaching its sixth month mark. Schools in those areas remain shut and business paralyzed. As tensions deepen, Cameroon has begun grappling with some of the deeper grievances underpinning the divide.
Another market was burned in an English-speaking area of the country on Saturday. This time, it was in the northwestern town of Kumbo at St. Augustine’s College junction.
Local businessman Ndukong Gabriel estimates he lost $20,000 worth of property. He says he will no longer be capable of repaying his loan.
"All credit union presidents should come on board to grant some clemencies to all their clients that they granted loans before these crises," says Gabriel.
The government has blamed the fires on secessionist groups in English-speaking zones.
The unrest in those areas, the northwest and the southwest, began shortly after English-speaking lawyers and teachers went on strike in November, demanding reforms. The situation intensified as the strike pulled in other activists who say the English-speaking minority is marginalized and that those regions should declare total independence.
The government has rejected secessionist discourse but announced some changes, including the recruitment of more bilingual teachers and more anglophone judicial officers.
‘A Pandora’s box’
Paul Nchoji Nkwi, anthropologist and social sciences lecturer at the Catholic University of Cameroon, Bamenda, says it will take deeper reform to calm tensions.
"The strike of the teachers and the lawyers just opened a Pandora's box and there are lots of grievances which are now emerging."
Justice Minister Laurent Esso announced earlier this month that the government will propose draft legislation to address alleged marginalization in the court system.
Cameroon has parallel legal systems inherited from its two former colonial rulers. Francophone regions follow the French legal tradition while anglophone areas use British common law.
Esso says President Paul Biya is very aware of the difficulties raised concerning anglophones. He says among other measures, Biya has asked for the elaboration of a draft law on the creation of a common law division at the Supreme Court to handle cases from the English-speaking parts of Cameroon. He says they have also been instructed to conduct a census of English-speaking lawyers to increase their representation at the higher levels of the judiciary.
The predominance of French speakers at the highest levels of decision-making is proving a challenging grievance to address.
Tensions on that issue recently made their way to the floor of the National Assembly.
English-speaking parliamentarians protested last week as Cavaye Yeguie Djibril was re-elected speaker of the lower house. Djibril is from a French-speaking region, as is his deputy. Anglophone lawmakers said if the speaker is francophone, his first vice should be anglophone.
Calls for solidarity
Joseph Banadzem is president of the minority S.D.F. parliamentary group at the lower house.
"You have four main ministries and about 11 extra ministries that deal with youths. None of them is anglophone. The minister of secondary education, minister of basic education, minister of higher education, minister of vocational education, minister of scientific education and their secretaries of state - none of them is anglophone," Banadzem said. " People are talking about real things which we are living. There should not be as if you are pushing us to look as if we have created a situation in the country."
English is only spoken by about 20 percent of the population. Yaya Doumba, a French-speaking parliamentarian from the Adamawa region, says not everything falls on language lines.
He says the Mbere division where he comes from has never had a government minister. He says roads in many French-speaking regions are as bad as those in the English-speaking areas. He says there should be solidarity among francophones and anglophones in Cameroon as they find solutions to common problems.
President Biya has on several public outings declared that he is open for dialogue, but that he is not ready for any discussions that would question the unity of the country.
Strikers have demanded the unconditional release of everyone arrested over the stoppage and the reinstatement of the internet in English-speaking zones before dialogue can resume. Biya has said detainees must face justice.