By Yerima Kini Nsom
One of the main causes of the Anglophone Problem that degenerated into a full-blown crisis in 2016, is the fact that many official documents are published only in one language, French. One of such documents is the official list of reference prices and rates, known in French as mercuriale.
This is an important document that every businessman and woman, that is doing business in the public sector, is supposed to master. But how will the Anglophone business person in Akwaya and Furu-Awa, who speaks and understands only English, use such a document that is only in French?
English-speaking Cameroonians have been complaining about such a document for decades. But it has been business as usual as if Cameroon is a monolingual French-speaking country. Even the law on the promotion of official languages in Cameroon has not pricked the consciences of the authorities to make haste while the sun shines by quickly translating this document into English. Can the authorities whose responsibility it is to translate this document claim to be helping President Biya to provide solutions to the Anglophone Crisis? The Ministry of Trade, just like any other Government departments, has a translation unit. So, why has this document not been translated into English since 2016? Already, the regional as well as local councils in the Northwest and Southwest Regions are complaining that they are unable to use the document that is exclusively in French. Many Anglophone business people can only successfully use the document with the help of translators, which means an additional sum in their bidding process for contracts. This ugly situation, that puts the typical Anglophone Cameroonian in difficulties, holds sway in almost all spheres of national life as some officials violate, with impunity, laws that define the country’s bilingual status.
If the law on the promotion of official languages in Cameroon is applied both in letter and spirit, the country will move out of the doldrums and walk tall as an exemplary bilingual country. On that premise, President Paul Biya’s country will be free to rub shoulders with Canada as one of the frontline bilingual countries of the world. That way, the Anglophone Cameroonian will feel at home and there will be less tension.
In that light, Cameroon’s bilingualism would be liberated from the shackles of scornful remarks and denigration from critics. For, many an expert dismisses our bilingualism as a feat of linguistic osmosis. In such a situation, the French language is considered as the stronger solution that is drawing the English language considered as the weaker solution.
Worst, some unscrupulous public servants add corpus to this misdemeanor by scornfully turning away from their offices, Anglophones who cannot speak French. Thus, many civil servants and retirees who come from the Northwest and Southwest Regions to follow up their benefits in Yaounde, suffer enormously because of the language barrier. Some Francophone civil servants in Yaounde are quoted as telling off Anglophones who address them in English.
“Je ne comprends pas votre patoire la” (I don’t understand that your dialect,” one of them reportedly smacked in a public office in Yaounde.
And so many Anglophones who are not bilingual have suffered humiliation when they come face-to-face with such French-speaking public servants. It is on account of this violation that the late celebrated translator, Soule Amadou, once described Cameroon in very contradictory terms as a “French bilingual country”.
Before Parliament adopted Law No. 2019/o19 of December 24, 2019 on the promotion of official languages in Cameroon, the bilingual status of the country was sanctioned, rather tersely, in the 1996 Constitution. Article 1(3) of the Constitution states laconically that: “Cameroon shall be a bilingual country with French and English as its official languages”. Until December 24, 2019, Cameroon had no other law on the promotion of official bilingualism. Thus, the December 24, 2019 Law fills a very big void that ailed the country’s bilingual policy. For one thing, the law goes the whole gamut of promotion, compelling public servants to serve users in the language of their choice. It guarantees the right of every citizen to obtain information and official documents in the language of their choice. The law equally provides for the simultaneous publication and dissemination of legislative and regulatory instruments in both official languages. It gives the citizens the right to freely communicate with public administration, and obtain the services they desire therefrom in the language of their choice. It is now an obligation for all public notices to be in both languages
In order to facilitate the implementation of the bilingual policy, Section 25 of the Law provides that: “Regional and local authorities shall have translation and interpretation structures. It equally stipulates that: “Where necessary, simultaneous interpretation may be provided during the debates and proceedings of regional and local authorities.
From every indication, public servants who are conservatively monolingual will no longer be very relevant in the new bilingual dispensation. The Law discourages the suicide ignorance of the some Francophone officials who still address English-speaking Cameroonians in French even when they can babble a few words in English.
If such Law is well applied, it will avert ugly incidents like the one that the former SDF Member of Parliament, Hon. Cyprian Awudu Mbaya, created at the Ayaba Hotel in Bamenda in 2014. He destroyed all the signposts and public notices in the hotel that were only in French.
The Francophone-led management of the hotel created unnecessary tension by putting notices only in French. They read as follows, Entrée, sortie, ascenseur and piscine, without their English equivalence of entrance, exit, lift and swimming pool, respectively.
Everything being equal, the Law ought to have opened a new page in the country’s bilingual policy. By virtue of its Section 18, it makes it mandatory that signposts, logos, placards and various notices shall be prepared and displayed by all public entities in English and French, with respect to equality of formal presentation in terms of font color, type and size. But many people ignore this with impunity
Section 17 reads: “Press kits and all other institutional communication documents must be produced and made available in both official languages”. It adds in section 21 that road signs throughout the national territory shall be in both official languages, according to international standards.
However, the loopholes in the law are that, it does not specifically provide sanctions to those who would eventually violate its provisions. However, there is a provision in criminal code that empowers victims of such violation to seek redress in court. That is why critics hold that laws in Cameroon are only as good as the political will to implement them by the authorities and other stakeholders. Otherwise, no one would have believed that the “mercuriale” would be published without the English version. Is this not a flagrant violation of the Law?