Cameroon: Secessionist Agitations and Political Balancing
(This is the second report on the interview on “The War in the Cameroons” on July 18, 2021. With the number of views now over 40,000 on 7 platforms, it is clear that this is issue is of great interest to many people. For its entire recording, see https://fb.watch/v/1Xu7uYhue/ or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzK81pf3F0A)
By Toyin Falola
Postcolonial conversations around African politics have proven that current political issues and trends in Africa are topics of continental and transnational discourse. Several political scientists have researched the causes and effects of political infractions, which are the basis for economic and cultural retardation in many African countries. The economists have also looked into the financial loss that the continent has suffered. In another dimension, ecologists have equally considered the environmental degradation in meteoric progression, with constant hostilities in Africa. In contrast, literary scholars have not failed to provide their insight on political dangers. For a non-historian, it would be easy to jump to uninformed conclusions and say that these patterns of hostilities, wars, and secessionist agitations that now plague Africa are not only the source of generational unrest and psychological issues that confront future generations of Africans, it is also locatable within the context of colonial and postcolonial global politics. No matter how window-dressed the blame game is, it will not bring any solution to the people, especially on this recurrent issue of hostilities. Nonetheless, the fate of Africa in the last 500 years cannot be detached from the contact they make with the external world, both the West and Arabs.
During the latest Toyin Falola Interview series where Professor Carlson Anyangwe was engaged, further light was shed on understanding the situation better. In his lengthy opening remarks, Professor Anyangwe submitted that part of the issues that come with colonial expansionism was the idea of the imposed identity that suited the imperialists’ plan for easy domination of their colony’s resources and their control. While this system worked for them, it came with unimaginable problems for the merged identities. From the early period of colonization, the minorities have inherited the problem of identity politics. The Ambazonia people of Cameroon are one out of the many identities experiencing very challenging times because of their status in the country. Between 1914 and 1961, they were a part of Nigeria, but this would change for good in the post-independence era of the country as they became bound with Cameroon, from whose political engagements they were excluded, for obvious reasons.
Understanding the emotional connection and investment of the people of Ambazonia, the toponymic designate of the agitators who are confined to answer to the identity, Cameroon, for which they claim to share no historical indebtedness, would come with the realization that the people have existed far beyond what revisionist history has recorded. As painful as the experience of marginalization could be to a people, they simultaneously suffered identity politics aggravated by negative narratives created to justify the very harsh treatment they were subjected to. Like millions of others in the continent, minorities in plural societies have suffered a similar fate with no glimpse of hope for a changed status soon.
Professor Carlson Anyangwe took us down memory lane when he said that the people who have now chosen for themselves the demonym of “Ambazonia” lived centuries before Jesus Christ. To bolster his argument, he mentioned that the Fako Mountain, for example, was “discovered” in 450 BCE, at a time when not much was known about some ancient history. But their historical significance was considered illegitimate by identity politics, which naturally characterizes the ex-colonies political engagements in Africa and perhaps elsewhere. Several leaders emerged from Cameroon, each making strenuous efforts to annex the Ambazonian territory to theirs, culminating in fractious relationships along the line. To be candid, the problem has ravaged the minority group whose association with Cameroon in 1961 was based on the mutual understanding that they would all constitute reasonably independent federating units to decide what happens to them under a Prime Minister who would undertake political responsibility for their progress. From being named according to what suited the leaders at any point in time, these people were psychologically tortured, and it seems they would not entertain the disrespect any further.
Under President Biya in Cameroon, these internal political permutations became intense a few years after their independence. As a response to the situation, the people of Ambazonia immediately showcased their compiled grievances without restraint. Political balancing appeared, once again, to be elusive in one of the erstwhile colonies of the Europeans because the nature of politics the colonies inherited was inherently discordant. The continued repression of the people’s identity and history generated heated controversy in the country, and many people began to generalize again about why African countries could not manage themselves peacefully and effectively, a myth that the West already constructed to justify their continuous encroachment on the people’s economy, politics, and social systems. Thus, the woes of the minorities, especially that of the Ambazonians in Cameroon, were heightened by the unprecedented circulation of revisionist narratives to cover the wrongdoings of the leaders against the group they earnestly seek to annex. This justifies why one of the most common descriptions of the Ambazonians is that they are terrorists, secessionists, or blatant rebels seeking political relevance on cheap grounds. Undoubtedly, such rhetoric obscures the important reasons for infractions in the said country today. As implied in the introductory phase, one cannot but complement the argument with the submission that colonialism bequeathed a legacy that brought conflicts in its wake.
Meanwhile, identity politics lingers where the minorities sometimes take no particular interest in the small details. They are quick to discountenance minor issues because they often believe that it makes no particular difference. Still, then, that is always the foundation of the challenges they are confronted with in the long run. To take as an example, one can overlook a map and begin to make sweeping generalizations and conclusions from an image concocted by an individual or a group of people. However, a map and the people who drew it cannot be free from biases, where problems are incubated without our knowledge. Because the map, as we have it today, does not confer any legitimacy to the yearnings and aspirations of the Ambazonians, especially in line with their claim of being a federating unit that constitutes a group in the Cameroonian politics, it is, therefore, a call to duty for those who understand the corresponding consequences of their silence in such political manipulation process. Professor Anyangwe stresses these points and draws the audience’s attention to the critical challenges they face, or would face, without taking such bold steps to reclaim their freedom and identity. Ex-colonies, in most cases, are usually given a plural identity. Because the majority would always strive to become politically dominant in such an environment, there are always reasons for contentions and controversies.
The case of the Ambazonians is not entirely different from what other countries experience on the continent today. At one point or the other, they face the possibility of identity repression. Even the concept of secession is a politically motivated one, according to Professor Anyangwe. Secession is the terminology created by every colonial structure to undermine the struggles for freedom. By the nature of the expansionist agenda, there is the need for a forceful overtake of the geographical and then economic systems of colonies. The people whose resources colonizers have pounced would consider resisting the imposition by their oppressors. In anticipation of this, the colonial forces created the narrative of secession to create an impression that the colonies are waging wars against the establishment, which, in a moral sense, is wrong in the dictionary of the oppressors. In essence, when the oppressed people resort to challenging the authorities that have illegally and illegitimately overtaken their economic and political space, it is expected that the oppressors would cry foul.
One significant way to understand this is to examine the concept of secession and ask if people who naturally belong to a culture would demand outright severity of the bond with them for political expediency. I mean, how easy would it be for someone whose cultural group is Tutsi of Rwanda to demand a break away from their own for good? Does it make sense that a Yoruba person would want to break away from Yoruba and demand physical separation of boundaries? So, technically, anyone who talks about federating units, for example, is a secessionist by this understanding because they are, in most cases, animating the fact that they have a different group identity that political expediency necessitated by European colonizers cannot undermine. It, therefore, makes enough sense to everyone that the power that benefits from tying the people down under a political structure would always feel attacked whenever their people summon the courage to demand their breakaway or regional independence.
In what Professor Anyangwe would provide a tremendous intellectual evaluation of, we understand that nearly all the civilizations and countries that make up the United Nations, at a point in their historical evolution and development, demanded freedom from a political landscape that dominated their group undeservedly. So, it is anticipated that people who rise to dictatorial regimes would be called secessionists; it indicates that they have started on a pedestal they deem appropriate. Knowing that the oppressors would negate all intentions for resistance makes it more important to understand that agitators are not distracted by their antics. Therefore, in a way, secession could happen consensually where both the colonial power and the colonized agree on their terms. However, sometimes, and in most cases, secession is taken through the show of force.
Conflicts and the lack of political balance in Cameroon and many other African countries result from the narcissistic style of the internal colonial system introduced almost immediately after the independence of many African states, including Cameroon. Professor Anyangwe continued by stating that the internal colonizers have always used force to suppress the minorities, to ensure that they have no intention of considering segregation now or in the future. In what seems to be this style, the colonial imperialists within the Cameroon state, so the Ambazonians argue, have devised methods to keep the Ambazonians under control by forcefully overtaking their territories and denying them the opportunity to express themselves freely. This is one of the shortcomings of postcolonial African countries, as it is challenging to manage plural societies and multiple cultures. The situation is proportionately explosive because, without the ability to manage numerous and diverse people, it would be readily impossible to attain peace when these groups are forced to function together under the same political identity. The situation in Nigeria is an example. The experience in Cameroon is evident, and situations of infractions in all other African countries that were incubated by the desire for self-determination happen because the people want an independent polity, free from external aggressions.
However, before the agitations for secession, it is politically logical that individuals would have made efforts for peace through consultation and explored compromise before resorting to confrontation. This is why the first interviewer of Professor Anyangwe asked if there are efforts made by Ambazonian leaders to engage the government of Ahidjo in conversation and dialogue so that they would both prevent the possibility of slipping into war. The Professor was very analytical and direct when he pointed out that no such engagement happened in 1972 by the Ambazonian leaders who never envisaged that the president would go on to manipulate the system so brazenly. Because Ahidjo had caught the people unawares with his decision to tie the Western Cameroonians to the Northern ones forcefully, the Ambazonian leaders decided to take a different approach in containing the ugly incidence. The first strategy was the conscientization of the younger generation about their history to contextualize the politics of identity and the political insincerity of their neighbors, whom they believed should not naturally consider victimizing them. This step is to ensure that the people remain safe during agitations and their fights for independence. Otherwise, the fight for freedom will be lost from the onset if the people for whom the fight was meant do not understand the reason for it.
Even when there are efforts made towards the actualization of one’s separatist agenda, there is the need for comprehensive political running, perhaps on the occasion that independence comes to the people. The interviewer also asked if the imagined independent Southern Cameroons would not dovetail into ethnic and sectional politics if they attain independence. And what would also be the fate of the Ambazonians who are, for example, stuck in the political system of Northern Cameroon in the case of a successful separation? Professor Anyangwe was very direct about his response. He hinted that the business a country chooses to do with its institutions and foreigners could not be left to outsiders to decide. In other words, the Ambazonians who are stuck in the political system of Northern Cameroon must realize that they have no sense of entitlement there. In essence, the right of Ambazonians as Cameroonians ceases to exist when they have their independent nation-state. This is a moral position to take because the people of Ambazonia, for example, would not equally expect the outsiders to have exclusive opportunities and freedom to decide the essential political engagements in their own country. They would be celebrated if they rise to the respectable level of political power in other places, but if they do not, there is no moral indictment of their host in this case that would hold ground.
The political calculations of marginalizing some groups come up whenever there is mischief by the majority group. Ordinarily, the federating units that are considered minority would face no segregation of any kind if the country is running true federalism as their political system since each would have been given their voices and would be statistically represented in the affairs of their government. The process of marginalization would be unnecessary if the proper forms of the political system are practiced. This is what the African Union and the international community also recognize when they talk about territorial integrity. On territorial integrity, the spatial landscape to which a people or government could lay claim is the one that is legally accepted in the time of their independence. These borders are visibly bound by laws that cannot be changed by an individual or a group unless there is mutual consensus to modify them. The essence of this is to clarify the problem of misconception and deliberate distortion of facts that come when people make strenuous efforts towards freedom. The Cameroonians have their visible boundaries, and by extension, territorial integrity, at the point of securing freedom from their French colonizers. Therefore, it would be anti-intellectualism to consider annexing places that belong to others because they want to impose themselves as the majority.
As that of balancing power, the quest for secession has always taken the forced line when the possibility of dialogue is forestalled. In most cases, negotiations are not always accepted by the power players because they understand that quite a large part of their resources would have been tampered with in the end. It, therefore, poses a moral question to the people who are agitating for an independent government. People would be displaced, economies would be negatively impacted, lives threatened, and freedom ceased is enough to ask the front liners of protest if they prepared for these consequences and the measures they put in place in case of emergency. It seems that the wars that erupted were sudden and caught many people unawares as a result. Due to this, therefore, the possibility of people being displaced in that large number was not envisaged, which explains why, at some point, people called for a ceasefire, international intervention, among other things.
Professor Anyangwe also noted that the downside of the plural societies that the colonizers bequeathed many African countries reflects that those who hold power do not give room for alternative perspectives. The protest of the Ambazonians, which was meant to draw the attention of the Cameroonian government, ended up attracting the use of force from them. Hence, the damage was not envisaged. In all these, innocent citizens are usually the collateral compromise that both sides of the conflict would unleash their terrors on. Where there is no political balancing, the innocent ones would be forced to undergo series of severe attacks, which would immediately increase their pressure and despair.
The current situation in Cameroon has allowed the forces of power to destroy the collective aspirations of the people by dismantling their investments. Government representatives emboldened the ruination by using their power and forces to infringe on the human rights of others. The victims get more devastated because they are not only witnessing a brutal regime, they are also undergoing a process that would recalibrate their political understanding for good. Destroying properties, raping females, and kidnapping children have become consequences of conflict situations animated by the freedom agenda. What remains challenging is the possibility of associating these crimes with the groups involved in the conflict. It could be used as a political strategy to condemn the agitators as morally deficient people. In some other situations, it could be used by agitators who take the opportunity provided by war to perpetrate their naughty desires. In whatever way possible, the management of plural societies using force and colonial strategy would always bring about chaos. This is what is happening in Cameroon in recent times.
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