Last month, President Paul Biya announced that the long delayed celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of reunification of the British Southern Cameroons and the Republic of Cameroun (ex-French Cameroons) would take place in Buea, the former capital of Southern Cameroons, on February 20, 2014. This was three years late and on a date that had no historical significance or link to either the independence of the French Cameroons (January 1, 1960) or the reunification of the British and French Cameroons (October 1, 1961).
Writer George Ngwane, like many Cameroonians, questioned the choice of the date:
Did the state leadership not know that 1st October 2011 was the real date of the 50th anniversary of Reunification? Shall we remember 20th February 2014 more as the day President Biya visited Buea or the day the Golden Jubilee Reunification event took place?
As expected, the celebrations revived the never-ending questions about the state of the union between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon. For example, user @mapetiteniche tweeted a question that was on the minds of many:
Today we celebrate the 50th reunification of cameroon.I wonder if more or less progress will have been done had we been 2 separate countries
— Lo (@mapetiteniche) February 20, 2014
An article on Matango blog on the marginalization of the Anglophone Cameroonians provided an unequivocal answer [fre] – the British Southern Cameroons got a raw deal in its “marriage” to the French-speaking La Republique du Cameroun:
La marginalisation du Cameroun anglophone est une habitude, voire un système bien pensé qui est mis en place depuis fort longtemps et qui structure la gouvernance… Cette marginalisation continue et se manifeste dans les faits par une attention de moins en moins soucieuse du développement de cette région riche en ressources. Des richesses accaparées par la partie francophone. Dans les actes de nomination et de dotation en infrastructures, cette partie a toujours été reléguée en second plan dans les priorités de l’Etat « unitaire », estiment ces leaders. Que célébrons-nous donc ce 20 février 2014, si ce n’est pas une marginalisation de plus ?
The marginalization of Anglophone Cameroon is a habit, indeed a well-thought-out system put in place long ago which shapes governance [in Cameroon]… This marginalization continues to this day and is manifested in practice by less attention being paid to the development of this region rich in resources. Riches monopolized by the Francophone section. Anglophone leaders feel that in appointments and the allocation of infrastructure, the English section is always relegated to a position of secondary importance in the priorities of the “unitary” state. What therefore are we celebrating on February 20, 2014, if not another act of marginalization?
The status of Anglophone Cameroon within the union was very present throughout the celebrations. One such occasion was a nationally televised round table on reunification at the University of Buea chaired by Prime Minister Philemon Yang. During the discussion, a leading Southern Cameroons nationalist, Mola Njoh Litumbe, questioned the legality of the union between Southern Cameroons and La Republique du Cameroun and insisted that “”Reunification was like illegal courtship – a concubine relationship.”
While some found his views extreme, there was emerging consensus, particularly among Anglophones, that the time was ripe for a reappraisal of the union between the two Cameroons. This view was echoed by writer George Ngwane, who argued that:
As long as human beings resolve to push the boundaries of injustice to the frontiers of freedom, there shall be internal agitations within and between nations to the point of new constitutional engineering and the birth of new nation-states.
To this end, he posited that the time was ripe for another referendum to determine the future of the former British Southern Cameroons:
So if the future of Southern Cameroons was decided through a Referendum (Plebiscite) on 11th February 1961, and the future of West Cameroon was determined through a Referendum on 20th May 1972, is it not logical that the future of the British Southern Cameroon, Southern Cameroons, West Cameroon or Anglophone Cameroonians, and they only, should be consulted, through another Referendum?
Forgotten heroes and personality cult
To many Cameroonians, the 50th anniversary celebration was an opportunity for the country to finally reconcile with its violent decolonization history and celebrate its nationalist heroes, many of whom were exiled and assassinated for challenging the colonialists. Sadly, in Buea these nationalist figures who made independence and reunification possible were completely ignored. This led blogger Tamaa Afrika to ask [fr]:
Peut-on célébrer un événement aussi marquant d’un point de vue symbolique en ostracisant ceux-là même qui ont combattu pour que ce rêve devienne réalité ?
Can we celebrate such a symbolically remarkable event by ostracizing the very individuals who fought to make this dream a reality?
The indifference towards the country’s national heroes led to soul-searching and questions.
On Twitter, @mosesngwanah observed:
— Moses NGWANAH (@mosesngwanah) February 20, 2014
In the same vein, @MasehMalong asked:
#CameroonReunification: Where are portraits of Um Nyobe, Foncha, Tandeng Muna, Ouandié, Moumié, Assalé, Endeley, Ahidjo, Fonlon, Ntumazah?
— MasehMalong (@MasehMalong) February 20, 2014
Instead, the streets of Buea were lined with portraits of President Biya and First Lady Chantal Biya, leading to a lament by @ChiefBisongEta1:
Photos of Biya and wife take pride of place in Buea over those of real heroes of Cameroon reunification to be celebrated tomorrow.
— ChiefBisong Etahoben (@ChiefBisongEta1) February 19, 2014
Some banners even went as far to describe Biya, who had barely started his public service career in 1961, as “the real father of reunification“ [fr].
In President Biya’s nationwide address on February 20, 2014, he did not mention the names of any of these heroes – not even Ahmadou Ahidjo, president of La Republique du Cameroun, and John Ngu Foncha, prime minister of Southern Cameroons, who negotiated the terms of the 1961 reunification.
Using a picture of these two historic leaders as a backdrop, Twitter user @AlainNdom wrote:
1961: deux grd artisan de la réunification du Cameroun.John Ngu Foncha et Ahmadou Ahidjo.Absent du cinquantenaire pic.twitter.com/wdLqPFtssz
— Black joe (@AlainNdom) March 9, 2014
1961: Two great architects of the reunification of Cameroon. John Ngu Foncha and Ahmadou Ahidjo. Missing from the golden jubilee celebrations.
The indifference of the architects of Cameroon’s independence and reunification led Le Messager newspaper to rue [fr] the missed opportunity in Buea.
During his anniversary speech, President Biya made a half-hearted attempt to reconcile with the people of the former British Southern Cameroons by delivering part of his speech in English – a rare feat that has occurred only a handful of times since he became president in 1982. The reaction to this effort ranged from cynicism to outright mockery.
— Zuzeeko (@zuzeeko) February 20, 2014
Listen to Paul Biya speak English like someone who's had two bottles of courvoisier at the re-unification ceremony: https://t.co/G1UBuBsvz8
— Cameroon Community (@Cameroon_Com) February 21, 2014
One of the highlights of the golden jubilee celebrations was the inauguration by President Biya of a reunification monument in Buea. Like everything else about these celebrations, there was little consensus over its design or its historical significance – a split which was once again captured on Twitter.
Thus, while @peyceETO enthused that “Le Monument est beau!!” (“The monument is beautiful!!”), @TheGodBanker saw things differently:
La ville de BUEA méritait un monument plus grandiose en terme d'architecture. Sérieux je suis déçu. Trois ans pour bricoler ce machin?
— Alexandre N. (@TheGodBanker) February 19, 2014
Architecturally, the town of Buea deserved a more grandiose monument. I am very disappointed. Three years to cobble together this thing?
This view was shared by @KathleenNdongmo:
— Kathleen Ndongmo (@KathleenNdongmo) February 20, 2014
In the end, the pomp and pageantry that characterized the reunification celebrations did little to conceal the linguistic and political divisions in Cameroon. This led observers such as Cameroon historian Achille Mbembe to be completely dismissive of the entire event. In an interview [fr] published by Tamaa Afrika, Mbembe described the event as:
Une distraction de plus, dans un pays dominé par une pseudo-élite sans idée, sans imagination ni véritable conscience historique.
One more distraction in a country dominated by a pseudo-elite without ideas, without imagination, and without a true historic conscience.
National pride nonetheless
In spite of the criticisms over the Biya regime’s handling of the event, which looked more like the coronation of a monarch than a commemoration of reunification, many Cameroonians were genuinely enthusiastic and proud of how far Cameroon has come since the tumultuous beginnings of the bilingual Cameroon republic in 1961.
Others seized the opportunity to specifically hail President Biya for leading Cameroon with a steady hand. @flpms_ wrote:
Cameroun , le meilleur des pays No bloog No war .Que du Bonheur et un president un peu vieux mais qui sais maintenir the peace Vive P Biya
— MEUF UNIQUE (@flpms_) February 24, 2014
Cameroon, the best country. No blood No war. Just happiness and a president who is a little old but who knows how to maintain peace. Long Live P Biya.
This was also the view of prominent Cameroonian musician @JoviLeMonstre:
— #LAPIRO (@JoviLeMonstre) February 20, 2014
@ChouchouAzonto concluded with a re-echoing of President Biya’s final words in Buea:
“Long live Indendence Long live Reunification Long Live Cameroun I now invite you to sing our National Anthem #DiscoursPRCBuea
— Chouchou Mpacko (@ChouchouAzonto) February 20, 2014