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Cameroon: colonial past and present frictions

Mark Caldwell
January 31, 2017

In Cameroon, there has been a surge in protests by the English speaking minority against the dominance of the francophone majority. Understanding the country's colonial past helps explain the depth of this animosity.

Dt. Kolonien in Afrika  Landkarten 1902
Image: picture-alliance / akg-images

The area around Mount Cameroon, an active volcano some 4,000 meters (13,000 feet ) above sea level, was known to the Cartharginians - the foes of ancient Rome - long before Portuguese explorers navigated the estuary of the Wouri river in 1472. Spotting mud lobsters in the waters, the explorers named them Rio dos Camaroes, Portuguese for River of Prawns. The name Cameroon was born.  

The Portuguese were followed by Dutch, French, Spanish and British explorers who traded salt, fabrics, liquor and firearms in exchange for palm oil, fish and slaves. German traders first arrived 1862 and in 1884 the German Empire signed an agreement with Kings Bell and Akwa under which Kamerun - German for Cameroon - became a German protectorate.

Lost territories

Germany lost her colonies during the First World War (1914-1918) and Cameroon ceased to be a German possession in 1916. In 1919, the country was given the status of a League of Nations mandate administered by Britain and France.

"The switch between colonial powers has consequences to this day," Professor Bea Lundt, an historian with Berlin's Free University told DW.

There were also differences between the two new colonial powers themselves. "The British colonial system was what they call indirect rule, the French system was more direct rule," Lundt said.

The colonial structures in the French part were - and still are - perceived as "harder" than those in the English part.

Kamerun Wahlen
English and French are both official languages in Cameroon as seen here above the entrance to the country's electoral commission Image: Dr. Dirke Köpp

 By the time independence arrived for  British Cameroons and French Cameroun in 1961, the French territory was more economically developed than its British counterpart. Two unequal former colonies became a single federal state; the disparities between the two were not addressed.

Anglophone Cameroonians felt they were politically and economically at a disadvantage, and the tensions with their francophone compatriots rose during the 1990s.


There are two English-speaking regions in Cameroon, but eight French-speaking ones. Anglophone Cameroonians complain to this day that English speakers are underrepresented in key government positions and that ordinary people are marginalized because they lack a good command of the French language.    

In 1995, the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC)  came to fore with the demand for the creation of an independent state called Southern Cameroons. That was the term for the southern part of British Cameroons.  A government crackdown on the SCNC ensued. In one incident, Amnesty International reported in 2002 that six members of the SCNC had been detained without charge at Mamfe Gendarmerie station in South West Cameroon and were at risk of being tortured or ill-treated.  In 2017, some firebrands are agitating for secession from francophone Camerooon, but more moderate Anglophones favor the federalism that existed from 1961 to 1972 when Ahmadou Ahidjo was president.    

Denkmal für die Wiedervereinigung der beiden Kameruns
A memorial in Yaounde marking the reunification of the two Cameroons at the end of colonial rule. Image: Dr. Dirke Köpp

The government of 83-year-old President Paul Biya is not prepared to countenance the one nor the other. Biya, who has been in power since 1982, has declared the SCNC an illegal organization. 

Cameroon's two English speaking regions - South West and North West in today's parlance - are longtime bastions of opposition to Biya.

The surge in protests by the anglophone minority, which began as lawyers and teachers strikes in October 2016, is an expression of perceived economic injustice as well ass cultural and linguistic discrimination.  Cameroon is rich in oil and is among the most prosperous countries in sub-Saharan Africa, but the English-speaking community complains that the wealth hasn't been shared out fairly.

This adds to the volatility engulfing Cameroon as the country gears up for a presidential election in 2018.  

"We have not been aware enough of the persistent colonial problems which still produce escalation on the African continent," Lundt said.