After years of skirmishing, the English-speaking minority scarcely trusts the government.
For the past three years, civil strife has been tearing Cameroon apart. New public opinion data from Afrobarometer suggest serious — and widening — rifts in fundamental perceptions and attitudes between the country’s Anglophone and Francophone regions.
A snapshot of Cameroon’s turmoil
For more than half a century after independence in 1960, Cameroon’s Francophone majority (formerly ruled by the French) and Anglophone minority (ex-British colonial subjects) lived in uneasy, but largely peaceful, union.
In 2016, occasional protests against what many English-speaking citizens see as discrimination and exclusion intensified and turned violent. Now, militant Anglophone separatists skirmish with government forces almost daily. Human Rights Watch and other observers have accused both sides of killings, kidnappings and other abuses.
According to the United Nations, the violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands who have fled to neighboring Nigeria. In October, English-speaking Cameroon boycotted the presidential election en masse; Paul Biya, who has held that position since 1982, won — but many observers declared the election marred by irregularities and violence.
How deep is the divide between English- and French-speaking Cameroon?
Pulling farther apart on fundamental questions
Public-opinion data show that the Anglophone and Francophone regions have moved quite far from each other since 2016 on fundamental questions of democracy, trust in the state and national identity.
Afrobarometer has interviewed nationally representative samples of 1,200 adult Cameroonians in 2013, 2015, and May-June 2018, producing results with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level. We did our analysis based on region, rather than primary language.
Here’s what we found. Most Cameroonians living in Anglophone regions no longer view their country as a functioning democracy. That’s a drastic shift from four years ago — and contrasts sharply with the views of their compatriots in Francophone regions. The proportion of Anglophone residents who consider Cameroon “a full democracy” or “a democracy with minor problems” dropped from more than half (52 percent) in 2015 to just 1 in 8 (12 percent) in 2018. Among those living in Francophone regions, the proportion of those who agree has slowly increased from 36 percent in 2013 to 45 percent.
Similarly, as you can see in the figure below, satisfaction with the way democracy is working in Cameroon has plummeted among Anglophone citizens, from 43 percent who said they were “fairly” or “very” satisfied in 2015 to just 7 percent in 2018. Among Francophones, meanwhile, satisfaction remains low but fairly steady, at 33 percent.
Fewer than half (45 percent) of Anglophone Cameroonians now say they prefer democracy to any other political system, a sharp drop from 64 percent in 2015. Among Francophones, support for democracy has remained steady at two-thirds, or 66 percent. Popular support for elections as the best way to choose leaders shows a similar pattern.
Political scientists often consider popular trust in the police and the army to be a core indicator of broader support for the state — and so here, too, our survey findings may trouble policymakers. As you can see in the figure below, almost 6 in 10 Anglophone citizens, or 58 percent, say they do not trust the police “at all,” up from 39 percent in 2015 and more than double the proportion of absolute distrust among Francophones, at 24 percent. The divide is even greater when it comes to the army: The proportion of Anglophones who say they don’t trust the military “at all” has nearly tripled since 2015, from 22 percent to 62 percent, compared to just 13 percent of Francophones who say the same thing.
Another key indicator of a growing chasm is identity: Do citizens identify more with their nation or with their ethnic group? If it’s the former, a fundamental national unity may exist that can help prevent civil conflict. Until recently, in Cameroon only small minorities — between 6 percent and 12 percent — of both Anglophone and Francophone citizens identified more closely with their ethnic group than with their nation. But as you can see below, since 2015, the proportion of Anglophones who identify more strongly with their ethnic group than their nationality has quadrupled, to almost one-third (31 percent). Among Francophones, the increase was from 7 percent to 13 percent.
The results reveal that Cameroon’s national unity is fragmenting
These growing divides between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians suggest that beyond the headlines, some citizens may be starting to abandon a belief in the country’s unity. Despite Cameroon’s long history of individual English and French speakers living peacefully as friends and compatriots, these tears in the national fabric will take both time and skilled and inclusive political leadership to mend.
Mircea Lazar (@mircealazar1) is a research assistant for Afrobarometer (@afrobarometer) and a PhD student in political science at Michigan State University. This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.