The constitutional problems to protect the principle of linguistic equality in Cameroon

Author: Frank Maxime Yankam Lemdjo
Researcher, Peace and Security Department, African Union.

Cameroon will soon elect its next President. Whilst preparation of this important event is underway, the country is facing one of its greatest social crisis known as the Anglophone crisis. This reflection aims to point out the fact that the Constitution adopted on 18 January 1996[1] and revised by law 2008/001 of 14 April  2008[2]cemented a constitutional system that has failed to achieve one of the principles that the same Constitution guarantees: the principle of equality between Francophone and Anglophone. Article 1(3) of the Constitution states that ‘the official languages of the Republic of Cameroon shall be English and French, both languages having the same status’. The Constitution sets out the principle of linguistic equality in Cameroon, without further explanation on how this principle would be guaranteed. The same article further states that ‘the State shall guarantee bilingualism throughout the country. It shall endeavor to promote and protect national languages’. In the meantime, the preamble of the Constitution states that: ‘the State shall ensure the rights of minorities […] in accordance with the law’. But the Constitution does not provide a definition for the term ‘minorities’.

The problems arose, among others, after the minority Anglophone Cameroonians complained of marginalisation from the dominant francophone in the leadership and overall management of the country. This marginalisation could also be seen at the level of the operation of the legal systems within the Judiciary. Cameroon inherited two legal systems when areas controlled by Britain and France joined to form a single state after the colonial powers withdrew. Civil law was practiced in the French-speaking part and common law in the English-speaking region during colonisation. The bijural system has not been dealt with accordingly by the Constitution which merely provided for the unicity, indivisibility of the Republic (article 1(2) of the Constitution), without clarifying how the differences of the two legal systems will be resolved within the unitary State. Cameroon has since been engaging with a questionable agenda of unifying the two legal systems. Language rights of Anglophone Cameroonians was addressed in Gunme and others v Cameroon (communication 266/03)[3], a case decided by the African Commission on Human and Peoples‘ Rights in 2009. The complainants, Anglophone Cameroonians, alleged that the entry by Cameroon as a State Party to the Organisation pour l’Harmonisation des Droits d’Affaires en Afrique (OHADA), a treaty for the harmonisation of business legislation amongst Francophone countries in Africa, constituted discrimination against the people of Southern Cameroon on the basis of language. OHADA stipulates that the language of interpretation of the treaty shall be French. The Complainants further argued that the Constitution recognises English and French as the official languages of Cameroon and therefore by signing the OHADA Uniform Acts, Cameroon violated the language rights of the English speaking people of Cameroon. The Commission found the State of Cameroon in violation of articles 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7(1), 10, 11, 19 and 26 of the African Charter and thus recommended the State of Cameroon to ‘abolish all discriminatory practices against people of Northwest and Southwest Cameroon, including equal usage of the English language in business transactions,[4] to stop the transfer of accused persons from the Anglophone provinces for trial in the Francophone provinces[5] and to ensure that every person facing criminal charges be tried under the language he/she understands. In the alternative, [Cameroon] must ensure that interpreters are employed in courts to avoid jeopardizing the rights of accused persons’.[6]

As another symptom of discrimination, Cameroon has been drafting and adopting legal documents such as the criminal procedural code without necessarily addressing all the specificities of the two systems. Even more concerning, quite a  number of French-speaking judicial and legal officers, were appointed to serve in the English speaking regions without necessarily being able to speak English or master relevant Common Law principles.[7]

In October 2016, the Anglophone lawyers went on strike requesting the government to hold an emergency session of the Higher Judicial Council and redeploy all civil law magistrates from the two Anglophone regions. They also requested the government to provide English versions of legal documents that were only available in French such as the OHADA treaty among other demands. They further requested a return to a two-state federation, as the best framework to guarantee the coexistence of both legal systems. As a response to the peaceful protests that were organized, the Government stroke back by cutting off internet services for more than three months in the two Anglophone regions and since then engaged in a violent repression after the original claims of October 2016 were turned into secessionist appeals. Government and secessionist group have since been engaging in a deadly crisis leaving hundreds of thousands people homeless and displaced.[8]

Possible solutions to address the constitutional marginalization and Anglophone crisis

As the ongoing crisis continues to deplorably levels, we reiterate the possible solutions already mentioned by the African Commission. In the Gunme case, the African Commission  recommended that the respondent State ’reform the Higher Judicial Council, by ensuring that it is composed of personalities other than the President of the Republic, the Minister for Justice and other members of the Executive Branch’. On this last point, some reformist steps have been taken by the Government, namely through the appointment of Anglophone lawyers at the Supreme Court, the recruitment of bilingual teachers and the reappointment of francophone magistrates from Anglophone regions and translation of the OHADA treaty. More importantly, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights recommended that Cameroon should ’enter into constructive dialogue with the complainants, and in particular, SCNC and SCAPO[9] to resolve the constitutional issues, as well as grievances which could threaten national unity’. The dialogue in question has to be potentially accompanied by strong healing and reconciliation measures such as through the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, possibly led by an independent African personality.

The question remains if all the constitutional issues discussed in this paper will be addressed accordingly. The crisis in Cameroon requires a progressive Constitutional order that would provide more guarantee for the rights of the linguistic minority of Anglophone Cameroonians.





[4] Gunme and others vs Cameroon (2009) AHRLR 9 (ACHPR 9) Para 251 (1)

[5] Gunme and others vs Cameroon (2009) AHRLR 9 (ACHPR 9) Para 251 (2)

[6] Gunme and others vs Cameroon (2009) AHRLR 9 (ACHPR 9) Para 251 (3)



[9] The SCNC (Southern Cameroons National Council) and the SCAPO (Southern Cameroons People’s Organisation) are two political organisations defending the rights of the people of Southern Cameroons, including their right to self-determination.


About the Author:
Frank Maxime Yankam Lemdjo holds the LL.M in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. He is Researcher at the Peace and Security Department of the African Union.

3 Comments on “The constitutional problems to protect the principle of linguistic equality in Cameroon”

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