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Unity Day celebrations in Cameroon canceled

Cai Nebe
May 20, 2020

Cameroon has canceled its annual Unity Day celebrations to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But opposition leaders and separatists say the country is far from unified anyway.

A hospital in Yaounde, Cameroon with masked people outside
Image: Imago Images/Xinhua/J. P. Kepseu

The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown forced Cameroonian President Paul Biya to cancel the government's planned feasts and parades to celebrate Cameroon's annual Unity Day.

The day marks the adoption of the unitary state on May 20, 1972, when French Cameroon, which had achieved independence from France in 1960, and British-ruled Southern Cameroons, which became part of Cameroon in 1961, voted to become one as opposed to being a federated state. 

But for opposition leaders and separatists, the day signifies anything but unity: rather they view it as the date Cameroonian authorities unjustly canceled an agreed federal system of government and consolidated the head of state's power.

More than 3,000 people have been killed since 2016 in clashes between government forces and Anglophone separatists fighting for an independent English-speaking state. 

No unity to start with

In an interview with DW, opposition leader Kah Walla questioned the very existence of Unity in the country.

"Unity is not something you declare; it is something you build…and you build it based on justice, based on equity, based on everybody feeling that they belong to that country," she said. 

Children in Cameroon conflict

Under colonialism, Cameroon was divided between France and Britain, and since independence, Francophones have dominated the country's economic and political landscape.

For Kah Walla, the 1972 referendum was a stepping stone to marginalizing Cameroon's Anglophone minority.

"1972 was one of the steps which contributed to making Anglophones feel that they do not belong in this country. It was a sham referendum," she said. 

President Paul Biya has hardly recognized the conflict as an obstacle to Unity Day. In a rare message to citizens, he called on Cameroonians to promote national Unity in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read moreWhy the African Union must not ignore Cameroon

"Most of you have understood it is necessary to put aside political squabbles and adopt a common front in the face of the insidious danger posed by COVID-19, Biya said in a speech televised nationally on Tuesday. 

Anglophones feel like second class citizens

But in the capital Yaounde, Mofor Eric says English speakers like him are considered second-class citizens.

"Why is it that an Anglophone is appointed to assist a Francophone when he is even more competent than his boss? We are not supposed to accept such things," he said.

An armed soldier looks on as a electoral officials pass by
Cameroon is seeing a rise in anti-government separatist violenceImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Longari

The sense of injustice for English speakers extends through the education systems.

"I know from the constitution our country is a bilingual country with French and English saying that they have comparable statutes, but French is highly dominating. Some of our higher institutes of learning, the use of French in these schools more than English," said Wanaja Justin, another English speaker. 

Read more: Cameroon separatist leader is willing to talk peace

For Dorothy Njeuma, who voted in the 1972 referendum, the over-centralization of power by the national government in Yaounde is provoking Anglophones and separatists to take up arms against the state.

"Over the years, people have had second thoughts about whether an over-centralized system is the best, but I am not sure that the way that some people have gone about protesting is the best. I would go more for an effective decentralized system," she told DW. 

While the sense of disenfranchisement is rife among Anglophones, some French-speaking Cameroonians also acknowledge the government's failure to be more inclusive towards their English-speaking brothers and sisters.

However, even Anglophones like Enow Tanjong, who also voted in the 1972 referendum, believe secession or an armed struggle is not the solution.

Cameroonian government officials gather in Yaounde for the National Dialogue
Bringing rebel leaders and Cameroonian government officials to the table has proven difficultImage: Getty Images/AFP/Str

"They should lay down their arms and come and be integrated into the economic progress of the country," he said.

"Those who think that we should go and found another country are completely wrong. The world is looking forward to having countries come together."

Foreign intervention, not an issue

On social media, separatists criticizedcriticized the canceling of the federal system in 1972 via a referendum as unjust because the voting population was heavily skewed in favor of French speakers.

The decades-long tension has led some observers to suggest foreign mediators should be used to find a solution.

But Kah Walla does not believe any foreign nation should mediate in Cameroon's domestic problems.

"To resolve the Anglophone crisis, we need a series of dialogues about different issues," she said.

"So it is less about the conflict with the state, and looking more into what the state of affairs today is. We do not want the future of Cameroon to be negotiated in Switzerland."

Moki Kindzeka and Mimi Mefo contributed to this report.