A Letter to My Grandfather: Cameroon in Crisis 20 Years on



Mining for memories of her grandfather and his commitment to decolonization in Cameroon, Ethel-Ruth Tawe gives a poignant testimony on the ongoing violent conflict that opposes Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians, finding its source in the structural inequalities fermented by German, French, and British colonial control, which an unachieved decolonization process (in the midst of French neo-colonialism) never succeeded in addressing.

Blooming only once a year, the Queen of the Night is a night-flowering cactus with a “great sense of drama,” not solely in her aesthetic quality but in the scent that flushes through the winds she rides. She hides in plain sight, only revealing her spectacular performance for those lucky enough to bear witness. I have no visual memory of her, but with a nostalgic inhale, I time travel back to my grandfather’s garden, driving up a steep hill and around the ring road that encircled his home. We ate papaya with lime for breakfast, as he recounted stories from his travels to strange sounding lands like Aberystwyth and Geneva. I called him Tar’kfu, loosely translated as “father of household” or “grandfather” from my mother tongue. Most memories I have of him are elusive, but deeply sensorial. He exuded grace and candor, but was equally forthright on matters of justice, especially in Cameroon.

Tar’kfu instigated in me a curiosity for critical engagement with inequity. There was a mystery around his work in human rights that gripped me. My young artistic mind viewed it as a window of possibility, a space for world-building much like the ones I often depicted in my sketchbooks. I believe his life was divinely orchestrated, but that came with much trial.

Tar’kfu witnessed the invention of our homeland, Cameroon, an immensely diverse region with a complex history of arbitrary colonial borders and challenges facing Africa at large in regards to negotiating citizenship.

Beneath the facade of a legitimate bilingual and multicultural state, lies a history of authoritarian crackdowns and assimilation by a hegemonic government, among other tribulations. In moments of despair and reckoning with the state of affairs today, I recall how Tar’kfu illustrated both the joy and pain in our lineage. I remember lessons in hope and steadfastness, anchored in faith.

What does it truly mean to remember? How do we remember? Twenty years ago to date, Tar’kfu transitioned when I was only about seven years old. I reconnect with him through family heirlooms and the many photographs he captured in his garden, with friends, families, and strangers. His open house policy meant young ones, and friends of their friends, made the most of the flora that ‘bouqueted’ the compound. Memory requires sensory input, attention and a process of rehearsal that encodes into our long term conscience. However, ancestral memory disrupts this linearity. It is an embodied memory, a genetic memory, of unrehearsed histories carried forward. It may include trauma, an experience familiar to those of us who come from what was formerly known as Southern Cameroons, a former British colony which forged the “Anglophone” identity in the country.

It has been over 100 years since the League of Nations conferred Trust Territory status on Cameroon, transferring rule from Germany to France (80%) and Britain (20%). Despite independence in 1960, the federal system in 1961, and the creation of a “unitary state” in 1972, the vestiges of colonial domination linger on. It continues to fuel what has been coined as a long-standing “Anglophone problem,” into the ongoing civil war. Over time, Cameroon bifurcated into two separate societal cantons of “Anglophones” and “Francophones,” polarized, unequal and now hostile towards one another. Anglophone separatists argue that this has always been the case; their region being governed by the capital as a mere colony. However, the origin of these identities are fundamentally political, based on colonial constructs and maintained by postcolonial regionalism. Cameroon is not a nation-state. Numerous ethnicities and cultures widely overlap and ambiguate. A significant Anglophone population has settled in the Francophone regions for decades. Some Francophones have undergone Anglophone education, and vice versa. While language is the most pronounced distinction, it often masks decades of state-pioneered contention between the groups. It now seems near impossible to divorce these lived-realities from the social imaginary. For the minority Anglophone population, this has equated to precarity in their sense of belonging and sparked an increase in secessionist tendencies, from an emergent consciousness of their marginality. These political identities are a consequence of fragmented state-building. The country’s political history has been riddled with nepotism and new constitutions without constitutionalism.

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Their Tears and Blood and Sweat Their Soil Did Water (2022) by Ethel-Ruth Tawe. / Digital décollage, archival photograph.

Tar’kfu dedicated his life to the struggle for human rights. I often wonder: what would he think of the state of Cameroon today? He is recalled as an “architect of reunification,” taking the stance that our beloved nation would find strength in unity. In early years, education was his weapon of choice, with decolonizing the curriculum being a top agenda against epistemic injustices and colonial legacies. Ironically, this became the impetus for the current moment of uprising in the country. Despite its mixed constitution, Cameroon’s government has maintained systematic repression of the Common Law system by dominating the legal sphere with Francophone practitioners; an offense that ignited protests by Anglophone lawyers in 2016. The crisis escalated when teachers went on strike in Bamenda, followed by “Operation Ghost Town,” which garnered attention through curfews, closure of schools and commercial spaces, bringing public life to a halt in some places to date. Reported armed secessionist groups could be aggregated into two categories. The first comprises rebel militias like the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF) and the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF). The second category consists of splinter groups and smaller rebel networks colloquially known as “Amba Boys.” While many youths are joining armed militia, others are mobilizing online. The Anglophone diaspora—the displaced, exiled, and economic migrants—have also used cyberspace to activate, fund and champion the cause. While some dissemination of information online has built consciousness, a plethora of nebulous concepts and untruths surrounding events are rampantly reaching audiences and fueling violence. There remains concern over strategies that bring old fields to the ground without planting new seeds.

This was not the same Cameroon I appeared to grow up in. I witnessed privilege in a country where some yards were green while others were bare and red—a red soil that now masked bloodshed in one of the Continent’s most silent wars. This was also not the Cameroon Tar’kfu witnessed from the frontlines during independence. So whose Cameroon is this?

At the onset of the independence era, pan-African theorists used a blueprint for a “united Africa” to foster emancipation, self-sufficiency, and development, contending that the “balkanization” of the Continent essentially perpetuates the global peripheral positioning of African states. Examining the utility of pan-Africanism as a tool to resolve state fragmentation, paradoxes emerge in the critical case of Cameroon and its government. The language of pan-Africanism has been co-opted by hegemons to validate their actions. They continue to personalize power and subvert those in the margins with impunity, often leaving them at the politically-driven hands of international intervention. However, pan-Africanism has simultaneously inspired class struggle and the reimagining of statehood for Africa’s insurgent movements. There is a contradiction between its ideological expansion and the persistence of intra-African conflict. It is part of the postcolonial dilemma of addressing the past without reproducing it. In Cameroon’s case, little to no pan-African solidarity has met the baseline demands of marginalized cries. West African states have particularly tended to find solidarity based more on a common colonial history than on geography, and the crisis has been notoriously minimized by the international community.

In October 2017, Anglophone separatists declared an independent state known as Ambazonia—a neologism derived from the region’s Ambas bay—situated within the borders of former British Southern Cameroons. In this unprecedented moment, when secessionist rhetoric and anti-regime violence has re-erupted, the crisis cannot be resolved through cosmetic change. Polarized grievances, politics of recognition, and the reimagining of statehood are amongst pertinent concerns for the future of Cameroon’s divided population centering themselves against contentious odds. The revolution must foster conscious resistance against colonial legacies, neocolonialism, and state coercion of citizens to consent to their marginalization. It must give voice to alternative accounts of politics beyond election polls, where select demographics are disenfranchised by the constructs of law and order. Electoral processes have become a facade, creating a culture of despair amongst citizens. They fuel insurgency, sustain performative politics and the installment of elite puppets who remain loyal in this case to the French state and its neo-colonial project in West and Central Africa—Cameroon’s currency itself is the Franc CFA, indexed on the Euro.

An immense sense of pride for my Tar’kfu’s contributions is often marred by the setbacks I have witnessed in my own lifetime. His line of work was under scrutiny within a state that repeatedly failed to fully serve its people, and continues to do so. Tar’kfu was a complex, yet simple man. He was like his garden; tender, with a great sense of drama. He remained dedicated to exposing impending crises, even when detained or silenced by political actors. But what did it mean for him to operate internally towards disrupting a system? How did he cope with identifying abuses without actionable antidotes by the government he served? Would he still hold the same stances today? What does it mean to come from this lineage? As I pass time in the diaspora, away from the insecurities of home, my memory shifts onto a different axis, longing to return to a peaceful home. A home where I can someday witness the spectacle of the Queen of the Night. To return from these strange lands Tar’kfu once told stories about. ■

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Tar’kfu (2022) by Ethel-Ruth Tawe. / Digital décollage, archival photograph.