It all started just like any other protest. Teachers and lawyers went out to protest against Anglophone marginalization. The regime responded just like every dictatorship does with the military to quickly quash dissent. This was no ordinary protest. The protest was fueled by decades of suppressed anger, the relegation of the Anglophone minority to the sidelines.
Marginalized to the extent that many had come to accept their status as second class citizens. Citizens who are given positions in government as favors and not as a right for constituting a significant part of the population.
Stories of senior Anglophone members in government who had to show deference to junior Francophone members for fear they may not last long in their positions often trickled through the media. If you were Anglophone, your French was never good enough to be Francophone. This was always good for political expediency. That begs the question of who is Anglophone and who is Francophone in a country that initially had German as its only official language.
As the years went by, the fissure separating Francophones and Anglophones only grew wider. Francophones who spoke little to no English were posted to Anglophone schools. Anglophone lawyers had to now defend cases before Francophone judges. Judges whom by virtue of their position and connections in the government would choose to communicate only in French with no fear of censure.
In 2016, that frustration spilled out onto the streets. By the end of that year, the umbrella group representing the lawyers and teachers had been banned, some of its leaders jailed while some went into self-exile. Their concerns were not addressed. They were perhaps told one thing. Maybe something was written on a piece of paper, but having known the regime for decades, they were keenly aware nothing was ever going to be seriously addressed.
Here is a regime that after 3 years of fighting a rebellion which has crippled several critical sources of revenue has never brought the issue up for debate in its parliament. No government official has visited the tens of thousands of displaced persons in refugee camps in Nigeria. Not even as the government doles out large sums of money to foreign public relations firms.
Some members of parliament say they discuss the issue on the sidelines and that makes you wonder what is going on in the minds of these people. How could they be so oblivious to the country’s imminent collapse?
Some will tell you this was just some issue the government mismanaged ignoring that the regime has never really managed any protest peacefully. It has responded over and over with the same tactics that you can literally predict what the government’s response is always going to be. That response has made some fearful, but it is the same response that drives the conflict in the Anglophone regions.
Short of Mr. Biya immediately ceding to a federation or resigning, the country is collapsing slowly like a river meandering its way into the sea. Taking with it anything it can carry. The government is struggling now to seize the initiative, but the goal post has moved too far out already.
The government’s decentralization plan will take years before it could ever be felt. Worse, a majority see it as a caricature of the old system. The government has been talking about decentralization since the 80’s. Those who see an immediate financial gain are already out to grab what they can.
Given the insecurity in the Anglophone regions, it is unlikely any major developmental projects will be realized there. Money allocated for projects will likely end in private hands. This will only go to feed the feeling of hopelessness that is pervasive and continue to breed the cycle of violence.
Many people point to the disunity among the separatists, the infighting, the petty squabbles between activists as a sign of their demise. In fact, it is this infighting and the social media vitriol that sustain their struggle. It is the equivalent of a bitter primary campaign that only goes to generate more awareness, interest and anger. Anger is what this unleashes. That anger sucks people in.
On social media, videos are shared around, likes and comments are counted creating its own form of reality show. These bring out the most basal instincts and rile up those who matter to the frontlines. The war of words may be on social media, but the real war is on the ground. Social media words often end within a small bubble of friends who sometimes never matter. On the busy walls of frontline leaders and activists, the depth of comment penetration is quickly drowned by even more comments.
Those who matter, the diehard followers, those who are actually doing the fighting are those who have already lost hope. These are not civil servants who because of insecurity have abandoned their jobs and still get paid. They are the most enthusiastic, no room for apathy, they get no pay.
These are people who have lost businesses, people whose livelihoods have been shattered by the carnage. They have lost family members, neighbors, friends. Death is all around them, they see it, they feel it, they touch it and even when they sleep, they hear it coming. Even death no longer frightens them. They carry it in them.
The social media noise is only a sideshow, but it is this sideshow that drives interest. They appear to feed their followers, give hopeless, traumatized minds something to distract and completely redraw their own art of guerrilla warfare that thrives on little money and social media, whether knowingly or unknowingly. The fighting and military reprisals have grown worse year after year demonstrating that the ranklings on social media are just that, ranklings.
Separatist factions are now clearly united on one thing and that is separation. This would not have been possible without disunity. The disunity has pushed some to prove to be more extreme, created competition, competition on authenticity, competition on accountability.
Competition on what faction can achieve separation faster. This is not good news for the regime. The last thing it wants is groups competing to defeat it. Competing to take credit when an ambush occurs. This competition and disunity is often misconstrued as a sign of their weakness, but that is far from it. That is in fact their strength.
This is no campaign for votes the regime is used to. They may appear small, as some groups to be discounted, but their roots run deep. They are a trunkless tree. The trunk has been cut off far too often by the regime that they have learned not to grow one, but to expand their roots. To expand and make gains into the foundations, where it matters. Their gains speak for themselves.
The regime has tried to counter with its own social media surrogates. These are unlikely to make any dent as many years under a dictatorship have made it too easy to spot fakes. All it has done is acknowledge the obvious, that the country is in real danger of collapse.
For these people to go out there and fight with dane guns, with some guns only capable of a single shot before a reload, fighting against soldiers whose guns fire 50 rounds in a second, does not show desperation. It indicates the separatists have done what the regime is unlikely to ever achieve, short of an immediate federation and that is to give their diehard followers hope. Hope, that even death brings more hope.