Cameroon withdraws contested language law

Thursday December 05 2019

Cameroonian President Paul Biya (centre) looks towards supporters from his motorcade as he celebrates his re-election in Yaoundé on November 6, 2018. PHOTO | AFP


Cameroon has withdrawn a controversial bill that sought to promote the use of French and English languages in official corridors.

The withdrawal just before Parliament adopted came after lawyers protested on the streets that the legislation could lead to more French-speaking judges being assigned to courts in the English-speaking North West and South West of the country.

Cameroon is deeply divided with the Anglophone region agitating for secession into a republic of Ambazonia on the grounds that political leadership and allocation of resources is skewed in favour of the Francophone parts of the country.

The agitation started in 2017 spawning a crisis that has to date left 3,000 people dead, displaced half a million internally and forced 40,000 others into refuge in Nigeria

President Paul Biya called a Major National Dialogue in October to seek solutions to the crisis but the talks were undermined by absence of rebel leaders and claims that government officials handpicked delegates.



Nevertheless, President Biya also extended a gesture of reconciliation through release of more than 330 people held over political charges including opposition leader Maurice Kamto.

The international community saw this as a promising foundation and have been urging for more talks over the crisis with the AU, the Commonwealth and La Francophone political groupings the latest to offer support.

The sticking point in the Bilingual Bill—which is part of a programme of cultural integration—provided for use of either English or French in ordinary and special courts during proceedings as well as rulings.

The use of either rather than both is the sticking point.

“If the bill is adopted, where is the guarantee that the French majority will use English in French speaking towns like Dschang, Yagoua and Monatele with relative ease just as officials have been doing in West Cameroon?,” posed Barrister Oliver Ngwang Shey.

“Yaounde does not have the zeal to foster or maintain the Anglophone culture as a minority,” said Shey, a member of the Cameroon Bar Association.

A lawyers’ strike in 2016 over what they termed an erosion of the common law practice degenerated into violence that metamorphosed into an armed conflict when separatists joined in and declared the creation of an independent state of Ambazonia in 2017..

The UN says the conflict has created a fast-growing humanitarian emergency now affecting nearly two million people, a “15-fold increase since 2017.”

In a rare public comment on the issue last month, President Paul Biya told a Mo Ibrahim-moderated panel discussion on the sidelines of the second Paris Peace Forum that the root cause of the problem was the country’s background of having been governed by Germany, Great Britain and France.

“My country was divided with the juxtaposition of cultures and civilizations. We have had conflicts that are being resolved at the moment to give the part that was under British colonization a special status,” President Biya said.

The Bilingual Bill appears to have been part of efforts to give the two languages am equal footing, a task complicated by the different cultures, education and judicial systems in the two regions.
Biya said the special status would recognise the needs of the Anglophone zone as part Cameroon’s territory. He said the government had considered integrating English speakers into the majority francophone system but shelved the idea.

“I believe that countries are now concerned about affirming their identity today,” President Biya said in justification for the special status. However, the regions want complete autonomy in a federal state with a rotational presidency which the government has ruled out.