The story of modern Africa is turning out to be one that is full of contradictions, an inconvenient mix of smiles and tears, of the uplifting and the gory. The chronicler may tell how Ethiopia and Eritrea went from war and destruction to peace, and then played that scenario all over again. Or write about the two Congos and the river that flows between them and holds the hydraulic power to light all of industrializing Africa. The old and the new will be seen in a dynamic process of redefinition, as the continent seeks to find its true core; its soul!
The 21st century Africa story could focus on innovations in energy, transportation, health sciences and agriculture in Benin, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, and so on; or on political gerrymandering and constitutional finagling in Burundi, DR Congo, Togo and Zimbabwe. Then, maybe, attention will turn to a country where the clash of colonial histories and the possible emergence of new rules of coexistence will inspire political scientists everywhere: Cameroon.
Cameroon, located in Central Africa on the Gulf of Guinea, is currently on the verge of a civil war. The national army is caught up in what amounts to guerrilla warfare with armed citizens who believe that the post-colonial bonds that bind two parts of the nation have weakened to the point of rupture. One part of the country, East Cameroon, was a French colony that was granted political independence in 1960; the second half, Southern Cameroons, was British and was freed of its colonial chains in 1961. The two agreed to become a bilingual federal state in October 1961, with a population that was 80 percent Francophone and 20 percent Anglophone. The demographic dichotomy has remained that way over the years.
In 2016, a law-and-order “policing” problem that started with lawyers and teachers in the English-speaking regions of the country quickly degenerated into an armed conflict, spewing a foul stench of war and death that is spreading and leaving none of the country’s 23 million citizens indifferent. The threads of the union were stretched to the limit as the lawyers and teachers complained about increasing marginalization of the Anglophone, the expanding use of French as the primary language of education and legal business, and what seemed like a steady process of assimilation of the minority group by the Francophones. Public discussion of the marauding hands of France in the affairs of the state did not help matters.
What brought a peaceful nation, often described as an island of tranquility in a Central African sea of chaos, to this gruesome place? Why is the emerging global narrative on Cameroon and the dominant internet picture one of gory killings, burning villages and a country on a slippery road to Armageddon?
At the heart of the current situation is a culture war that regurgitates all that is wrong with the country’s colonial past when the territories served as little more than sources of raw materials for the industries of colonial masters. Over half of Cameroon’s foreign exchange comes from resources in the Anglophone zone, and French multinational companies have always been suspected of wanting to maintain permanent access to that wealth. Paris will do anything, everything to keep it that way. And today, the Anglophones are just as determined to end what they see as unbridled plunder. Could this be the beginning of the end of the neocolonialist culture that, with the prevailing international system, has conspired to keep Africa poor? Africa’s history is on trial. The future of Cameroon and other countries facing outcomes that will redefine communal living will represent the way forward for a new Africa.
WAKANDA, here we come! The clash of historical legacies in Cameroon pits an unyielding government against an unrelenting set of freedom fighters. A resolution will have to be found as the voice of a silent middle majority rises out of the thunder and gloom, the chaos and growing sense of despair in the country. That voice will, imperatively, have to dig deep into a pre-colonial cultural past, seek the wisdom of the ancestors, find new arguments for living together in a sophisticated and complex new world; discover the roots that hold steady the tree of life for one billion inhabitants of the continent. Out of this nation on the precipice, often referred to as “Africa in Miniature,” may come the elements of a new future — the Africa we want!
Eric Chinje is a consultant and former manager of communications at World Bank and head of the Kenya-based Africa Media Initiative.