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English-speaking Cameroon remains in upheaval as regional leaders are set to go on trial on Thursday accused of calling for secession. But why is President Paul Biya so afraid of granting more autonomy to Anglophones?
Some activists in the northwest and southwest provinces, traditional bastions of opposition to the regime of long-time President Paul Biya, are calling for an independent state of Southern Cameroon. The region was once called that in British colonial times. But according to analysts, a vast majority of the Anglophone population prefers a federation, believing it to be the best way to address what they perceive as their political and economic marginalization.
Ben Shepherd of the London-based think-tank Chatham House, who has been to the region, believes that the Anglophone population, which makes up for about 20 percent of a total of 22 million, has a point.
"They have not had representation, development aid and support to the degree that they feel they should have. I know a lot of English-speaking Cameroonian civil society and political organizations. They have been systematically marginalized over a very long period of time," he told DW.
The current crisis started last year with a strike by lawyers demanding the application of the so-called "Common law" Anglo-Saxon judicial system and the use of English in courts. It was followed by a teachers' strike over the same language issue. Ever since demonstrations by mainly young people have turned increasingly political and violent. Instances of arson against public buildings and shops have been increasing.
President Paul Biya, who has ruled the country since 1982, is not ready to make any concessions.
"My government is open to dialogue only as far as the unity and diversity of our country are not questioned," he said this week.
Biya's reaction to the protests has been very heavy-handed. He put a muzzle on the press and cut internet access to the regions in question, with dire results for the local economy. Police brutality against demonstrators, which has resulted in several deaths, stoked the protesters' anger. A video showing police mishandling demonstrators in Buea at the end of November shocked country and observers around the world.
The bigger question
So why is the octogenarian President so afraid of conceding some measure of autonomy to the English-speaking population? Shepherd thinks that it could set a dangerous precedent.
"There is a bigger question here. Cameroon is home to a number of very deep divisions, be they regional, between the industrialized center of the country and the periphery; be they religious, with a largely Muslim north and a largely Christian and animist remainder of the country; or linguistic, between English and French speaking areas, and something like 250 ethnic and linguistic groups," he said.
According to Shepherd, for a long time the response to this situation has been a tacit and unwritten political agreement to rotate power and share top-level jobs so as to ensure some representation for all of Cameroon's diverse groups. But, he added, the same people have managed to cling to power for five decades.
"With longevity of power comes the temptation of corruption and a sort of stasis which is not necessarily corrupt, but is incredibly risk-adverse, incredibly conservative and incredibly cautious," he said.
Fear of losing control
This resulted in a social, political and economic stagnation of the country, exacerbating tensions and grievances. They are compounded by the presidential elections scheduled for 2018. 84-year-old Biya, now in his 35th year in office, has yet to announce whether he will run again, though he has not given any sign of wanting to relinquish power.
"But obviously he cannot rule in perpetuity. And the question of who would be acceptable to all of Cameroon constituent groups to take over the reins of power is a very, very difficult one indeed," Shepherd said, concluding "Cameroon is in a tricky place at the moment."
Add to the mix the ongoing conflict with the terrorist groupBoko Haram in northern Cameroon and it becomes clear why those in power believe a crackdown to be the only possible response to any form of dissent.
"If they start to lose control, the risk is that all of those divisions - religious, regional and ethnic - start to reemerge," he said.
But for analyst Ben Shepherd it is also clear that a repressive answer will not solve the problem. He expects agitation to increase as the date of the polls approaches. Not only because anger among those who feel marginalized goes very deep, but also because much of the campaign for change in Cameroon is being waged from the diaspora, which will not be silenced by repression.
"I think the answer has to be a recognition of the grievances and negotiation, as with the resolution of all conflicts everywhere," he said.