IF Scotland is to prove to ourselves and the international community that our claims to self-determination have substance, then we must stand in solidarity with the Anglophone people of Cameroon.
A central African nation more famous for its footballers than anything else, Cameroon is gripped by waves of violence, rooted in the legacy of imperialism in which, lest we forget, Scots were eager participants. A British government aspiring to global relevance has been predictably silent in defence of its cousins in Cameroon, leaving Scotland with an opportunity to fill that void and speak up for the rule of law and human rights.
Until it gained independence in 1961, the formerly German colony was administered by the French and British. In the largely Anglophone Southern Cameroon, children studied for O and A Levels, and the courts used English common law. The departing British promised Anglophones the right to self-determination but offered them only a binary referendum, in which they chose federation with Francophone Cameroon rather than neighbouring Nigeria.
However, it was not long before the government effectively nullified the federation, marginalising English speakers. At times, there was only a single Anglophone in a Cabinet of 30.
Cameroon has been ruled by Paul Biya, aged 88, since 1982. He continues to win elections that no international monitor considers free and fair, and his country is ranked among the world’s most corrupt and repressive by Transparency International and Freedom House.
In 2016, his regime tried to impose French-speaking judges and teachers on the Anglophone regions, which represent 20% of the population.
The peaceful demonstrations which followed in defence of their Anglo-Saxon courts and schools should have heartened any British conservative, but were crushed while the British government let slip hardly a word of protest.
The Johnson ministry, unsurprisingly, has been far more interested in a trade agreement than in questioning whether the Biya regime is an appropriate partner for a “global leader” in human rights.
What impartial human rights groups have described in typically understated language as a disproportionately forceful response led to a familiar sequence of events. Armed secessionist militias emerged, demanding an independent country called “Ambazonia”. Rights monitors believe that all actors in this conflict are behaving indefensibly, with unarmed civilians caught in the crossfire.
So many villages have been burned that the UN estimates 700,000 civilians (out of six million Anglophones) have fled to the bush and beyond. Unicef says more than a million children are out of school. As a means of forcing Cameroonians to prove their loyalty, both sides brutally enforce arbitrary, incompatible “ghost town” rules about either staying inside or leaving the home on Mondays.
Following the rules set by the separatists means risking death at the hands of the military, and vice versa. Meanwhile, hundreds of opposition figures are imprisoned without due process. The Norwegian Refugee Council has described it as the world’s most neglected displacement crisis for the second year running. It is difficult to judge how far President Biya is willing to go to bring the rebels into line, or what the separatists will do to secure independence.
The will of the Anglophone people is clear, however. In a 2020 survey by the Coalition for Dialogue and Negotiation, more than 80% of English-speakers chose independence. Yet they have no high-profile international supporters attempting to raise the issue. Regrettably, it seems that black lives only matter when they are here, within the well-policed borders of Europe and North America.
In Africa, death is “just what happens”, and new nations do not have the legitimacy of centuries.
As an investigator for the Edinburgh International Justice Initiative, an organisation run by students at Edinburgh University, I am part of an international effort to create the Cameroon Database of Atrocities. We aim to establish accurate casualty figures, to write reports on human rights violations for use in litigation, and, after the recent election in Scotland, to bring these issues to the attention of people in Parliament and elsewhere.
The Anglophone conflict may seem obscure, but it acts as a litmus test for those demanding an independent Scotland, as well as for those urging us to stay bound to a government which is determined to flout all standards of global decency.
The Conservatives, who simply want the constitutional question to go away, could scarcely have a less satisfying offer for a country which seems torn between forever defining itself against its perfidious neighbour, or growing into a mature, outward-looking democracy. Neither course is well-served by allowing Westminster to speak for us when we see the suffering of people in Cameroon and elsewhere.
The question is perhaps more pressing for Scotland’s party of government. It is manifestly in the interests of the SNP to make an issue of Johnson’s complicity in the Biya regime’s atrocities.
But it is worth asking those of us who support independence what our country is going to be for. Criticising the Tories is comfortable terrain for many Scots, but the SNP might be surprised by just how many of us are waiting to be represented by a government that speaks about self-determination in terms of what Scotland can do, and with whom we stand in solidarity, rather than merely what we need to escape
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