Colonial legacy may split Cameroon


The simmering secessionist movement in Cameroon will come to the boil tomorrow when a group representing the West African country's English speakers declares that at least 1.3m of the 4m population are in favour of breaking away. The Southern Cameroons Nuclear Congress wants the south of the country - formerly a British colony, unlike the North, which was ruled by France - to gain independence.

Though the SCNC claims to have strong links with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it is unlikely to mobilise much international backing. Still, the declaration will embarrass the country's francophone government which, as Cameroon prepares to become the 52nd member of the Commonwealth, claims to have reconciled the language divide.

President Paul Biya is no doubt hoping that Commonwealth membership will bring respectability at home and abroad. Cameroon will be only the third Commonwealth member never wholly governed by Britain.

The SCNC has filed its own application for Commonwealth membership on behalf of the Southern Cameroons. Its delegation will be a thorn in the side of Mr Biya when he attends the Commonwealth summit in Auckland next month.

Commonwealth membership is a sign of a growing distance between France and its former colony. President Jacques Chirac left Cameroon out of his recent tour of West Africa and is said to be impatient with reports of corruption and mismanagement there.

English- and French-speaking opposition groups have united to lobby the Commonwealth to reject Cameroon's application. They argue that there has been no progress on human rights and the democratisation requested as a precondition for Cameroon's membership at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in October 1993. Specifically, they want long overdue local elections to be held, an independent electoral commission, the lifting of pre-press censorship and constitutional reform.

Parliament sits for only two months of the year and the President has wide powers to rule by decree. Opposition groups also fear collusion with Nigeria; a high-level government delegation is reported to have visited Nigeria with assurances that, if admitted, Cameroon would oppose sanctions against Nigeria's military rulers.

French Cameroon became independent in 1960. The following year a UN plebiscite was held and the northern half of the former British Cameroons joined Nigeria while the southern half joined the former French territory. But independence calls have never quite died. The SCNC says the plebiscite was illegal and complains that while the Southern Cameroons agreed to join a republic of "equal status" they have since been "re-colonised" by the francophone region.

The two areas have different legal and educational systems. English-speakers have long said that the government exploited their region's natural resources, particularly oil, but did little to improve living conditions. Anglophones also feel neglected by the French, who directed almost all of their post- independence aid to the francophones and whose Mafia-style business links are popularly believed to be responsible for much economic mismanagement.

Moreover, the French ignored fraud at the 1992 presidential election, because they could not bear to see an English-speaker - John Fru Ndi - head the government.

Many observers feel that if there is surge of support for the secessionists, it has more to do with economic decline than any real cultural difference. Cameroon has the same level of poverty as it had in 1964. Unemployment and inflation are high, social services disintegrating and evidence of government waste is everywhere.

Just one example, reported by Africa Analysis, is that the government has ordered a pounds 190,000 statue of the President's late wife - this from a government with a debt of $2.7bn (pounds 1.7bn) and plans to make 25,000 of its employees redundant.