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British Cameroons

Cameroon MapEnglish is spoken by about 20 percent of the population. Cameroon has parallel legal systems inherited from its two former colonial rulers. Francophone regions follow the French legal tradition while anglophone areas use British common law.

The British mandate consisted of two separate, narrow strips totaling about 20,450 square miles of land running along the northwestern border with Nigeria. The first strip extended from the coast to the Alantika foothills; the second strip extended from a point just above the Benoue River to the shore of Lake Chad. The administrative division of the mandated territory, however, did not directly follow this geographic separation. The name Southern Cameroons was given to that portion of the southern strip south of the Mambila foothills to the coast — an area that in 1973 formed the Southwestern and Northwestern provinces. Northern Cameroons was the designation given to a portion of the southern strip running north of the Mambila foothills, as well as the entire northern strip.

The British did not establish a separate administrative structure for the mandated territory but placed the two territories under the colonial administration that operated in neighboring Nigeria. Northern Cameroons was administered by the lieutenant governor of Northern Nigeria; Southern Cameroons was under the supervision of the lieutenant governor of the southern provinces. Both areas of the British mandate were divided into districts headed by a district officer. The districts were further divided into units called subdistricts, which were headed by appointed local officials.

The British colonial administration functioned on the basis of indirect rule. This system operated most effectively in the Northern Cameroons among groups, such as the Fulani, who had centralized military and bureaucratic institutions. In the case of Southern Cameroons, however, the application of indirect rule was complicated by the diversity of the area's ethnic groups, most of whom lacked traditions of centralized political authority. The British searched carefully for the source of traditional authority in the fons of the highlands and the chieftancies of the south and attempted to avoid the creation of artificial administrative units as had occurred in French Cameroun. The compromises resorted to by the British for administrative efficiency were nonetheless unpopular with indigenous peoples.

The local officials appointed by the British on the basis of traditional roles were responsible to the district officer. They held broad authority, however, over various aspects of local government, including the police, legal jurisdiction over minor crimes tried under customary law, the collection of taxes, health and sanitation matters, and the mainte- nance of roads. For their services they were granted half of the revenue from taxes and fines collected in their areas of jurisdiction.

The restricted scale of the British budget for neighboring Nigeria resulted in minimal investment in infrastructure and social services for the entire area. Development in the Cameroons, moreover, was tied to the needs of Nigeria rather than to the particular needs of the man- dated territory. The isolation of British Cameroons further restricted government activities, and the attempt of Christian missionaries to establish medical and health facilities was resisted by Muslim peoples of the north. The economy of Southern Cameroons was based on plantation agriculture. Most plantations were owned by German nationals.

The British had confiscated all German holdings during World War I. These properties were offered to the public at auctions in the early 1920s. Lack of interest by British investors led to the removal of restrictions initially prohibiting sales to German nationals. As a result, about 75 percent of the plantations were returned to German investors. Economic ties remain strongest with Germany, which served as the major trade partner of the Southern Cameroons; in contrast with French Cameroun, the German missionaries were allowed to return to their missions.

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.

The surge in protests by the anglophone minority, which began as lawyers and teachers strikes in October 2016, was 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 complained that the wealth hadn't been shared out fairly.

In 2017, some firebrands agitated for secession from francophone Camerooon, but more moderate Anglophones favored the federalism that existed from 1961 to 1972 when Ahmadou Ahidjo was president. This added to the volatility engulfing Cameroon as the country gears up for a presidential election in 2018.

The government of 83-year-old President Paul Biya was not prepared to countenance secession nor federalism. Biya, who had been in power since 1982, 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.

Lawyers and teachers in those areas, the northwest and the southwest, have been on strike since November. Most schools in the affected zones remain closed and business is paralyzed. The strikers are demanding reforms to counter what they say is the overwhelming use of French in the bilingual country. While some strikers demanded a return to federalism, other activists are calling for total independence for the English-speaking zones, ratcheting up tensions and violence.

Cameroon’s government said 03 April 2017 that secessionist groups in the English-speaking regions were behind arson attacks on public buildings, most recently a large market in the town of Limbe. The destruction prompted renewed calls for dialogue to end the five-month strike in the English-speaking areas. President Paul Biya has on several public outings declared that he is open for dialogue, but that he is not ready to release arrested suspects and that he is not open for any discussions that call into question national unity.

A strike in English-speaking parts of Cameroon approached its sixth month mark in April 2017. Schools in those areas remain shut and business paralyzed. As tensions deepen, Cameroon began grappling with some of the deeper grievances underpinning the divide. The government blamed secessionist groups in English-speaking zones. The unrest in those areas, the northwest and the southwest, began shortly after English-speaking lawyers and teachers went on strike in November 2016, demanding reforms. The situation intensified as the strike pulled in other activists who say the English-speaking minority is marginalized and that those regions should declare total independence. The government has rejected secessionist discourse but announced some changes, including the recruitment of more bilingual teachers and more anglophone judicial officers.

Cameroon's government said on 20 April 2017 it had restored the internet to its restive anglophone region, three months after cutting it amid protests against the predominantly French-speaking government of President Paul Biya. Cameroonian forces had cracked down on protests in the English-speaking region that erupted last October, beating and arresting protesters, some of whom face the death penalty in military courts. The unrest had exposed national divisions between the regions of Cameroon that were historically colonised by the French and the British. It had also been a lightening rod for opposition to Biya's 35-year rule.

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Page last modified: 03-05-2017 19:11:10 ZULU