Cameroon’s president has ordered officials to enforce a 2019 law on bilingualism and make life easier for English speakers in the French-speaking majority country. Complaints of discrimination against English speakers sparked a separatist conflict that, since 2017, has left more than 3,500 people dead.
Civilians assembled at Yaounde’s city council this week to complain about difficulties they encounter in Cameroon’s public offices because they speak only one of the central African state’s two official languages.
Emmanuel Ngong, a 26-year-old engineer, said he was denied service in a public office because he spoke English.
“Many government workers behave as if French should be the only language that should be spoken in Cameroon,” Ngong said. “I was irritated when I went to an office and I spoke in English and one man said “je ne connais pas votre Anglais la.”
The French sentence means “I do not know your English.”
Civilians who fled the fighting in western Cameroon between troops and separatists say they often face discrimination in public offices when speaking English.
A December 2019 law states that English and French have the same value and should be used equally in public offices, and says Cameroonians should be able to express themselves in either language.
Jean Marie Bodo, one of the officials dispatched to enforce the bilingualism law, said people abuse public office by refusing to attend to civilians who speak either in English or French.
Bodo said Cameroon President Paul Biya will no longer tolerate French-speaking workers imposing the French language on English-speaking citizens, and English- speaking workers should also be patient when they receive French speakers in public offices. Bodo said all official documents should be translated into both English and French languages and English and French speakers should be given equal access to jobs to stop marginalization that is causing tensions and threatening Cameroon’s unity.
Bodo said messages on all signboards should be in the two official languages, printed in the same character to stop giving the impression that one language is superior because characters are larger.
The government says after educating citizens on the importance of the two languages co-existing peacefully, it is now ordering people who do not speak the two languages to register in language schools. Signboards written in one language are being pulled down and replaced.
Among the 10 towns the delegation is visiting this week are Yaounde, Garoua, Maroua and Cameroon’s economic capital, Douala.
Tamandjo Jeanneaux, an official in Douala’s 5th district, said that to encourage living together and stop the dominance of the French over the English language, his council made it compulsory for French speakers to speak only English every Wednesday, and English speakers are expected to speak only French on Wednesdays. Tamandjo says many French speakers tell him that council workers are reluctant to speak English.
The crisis began in 2016 when English-speaking teachers and lawyers took to the streets to denounce the dominance of French.
The government responded with a crackdown and separatists took up weapons, saying they were defending civilians from government troops. Cameroon rights groups say at least 3,500 people have since died in five years of fighting.