The 2016 unrest in the Republic of Cameroon (“Cameroon”) started when a group of Anglophone lawyers demanded an official English translation of a treaty ratified since 1996. While Cameroon has over two hundred fifty national languages, the colonialization past imported French and English. Under the Cameroon Constitution [PDF], French and English are the official languages, both having the same status.
This commentary looks at three international treaties enacted by Cameroon in the 1990s to note how the non-respect of language equality granted by the Constitution favors social uprising.
The colonial past set the tone for two Cameroons
Under French and English administrations, Cameroon was divided into two unequal territories: French Cameroon, called Republic of Cameroon, in the East part of the territory occupied the largest portion. The English Cameroon, called Southern Cameroons, was a smaller portion composed of two federated states in West Cameroon. After the 1961 reunification, the Republic of Cameroon and the Southern Cameroons became the Federal Republic of Cameroon. A 1972 referendum abandoned federalism for a unitary state known as the United Republic of Cameroon. In 1984, United Republic of Cameroon became the Republic of Cameroon.
To this date, Cameroon Constitution maintains both French and English as official languages together with a bi-jural legal system inherited from colonialism, that is French civil law and English common law.
Ratified treaties preempt the Constitution
Laws channeled through the legislative and executive process are published simultaneously in both languages. The Constitution guarantees Cameroon is bilingual, and the government is responsible to promote and protect bilingualism. The benefit of equal treatment granted by the Constitution protects the English spoken minority. Thus, a treaty ratified in French without its English version contradicts Cameroon Constitution.
Under Cameroon Constitution, the President negotiates and ratifies treaties and international agreements. Ratified treaty and international agreements override national laws, once the treaty is approved, ratified and published. During the early 1990s, Cameroon ratified a series of business treaties containing French as the sole working language. An illustration is seen with the following three treaties:
The inter-African Conference on Insurance Markets (“CIMA,” is a French acronym for Conférence Interafricaine des Marchés d’Assurances). CIMA is the regional body for insurance companies with objective to establish an integrated organization of insurance industry. The organization regroups fourteen countries and was signed on July 10, 1992 in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
The Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (“CEMAC,” is a French acronym for Communauté Economique et Monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale). CEMAC is the regional organization regrouping central African nations to promote cooperation and exchange between members; they also share the same currency. The countries signed the treaty on March 16, 1994 in N’Djamena, Chad.
The Organization for the Harmonization of Business Law in Africa (“OHADA,” is a French acronym for Organisation pour l’Harmonisation en Afrique du Droit des Affaires). OHADA treaty promotes business law by providing legal and judicial security for both domestic and foreign investors. There are currently seventeen member states composing OHADA. OHADA treaty was signed in October 17, 1993 in Port-Louis, Mauritius and revised in October 17, 2008 in Quebec, Canada.
These treaties have in common to promote business integration in Africa and establish French as the sole authoritative language. The preeminence of the French language is not surprising since most signatories are French speaking countries and former French colonies. Thus, French is the only working language with CIMA. CEMAC and OHADA had the same approach until subsequent modifications incorporated the working languages of member states. Both CEMAC and OHADA mention documents already published in French shall have their full effect, even if the translation into the other languages is pending. In case of conflicts, French is the authentic version.
The French dominance is obvious, for French laws can be published independent the publication of other working languages. It also means French remains the only language until another language is officially translated. As a practical matter, an English-speaking Cameroonian wishing to establish an insurance brokerage business should be proficient enough to understand the voluminous CIMA treaty and accompanying texts. This insurer is faced with unofficial translations and the possibility of inaccuracies or contradictions. Evidence of translation incoherence are seen with OHADA, the treaty that sparked unrest in Cameroon.
The 2008 revisions of OHADA added English, Spanish and Portuguese as working languages. An unofficial English version found on OHDA website implemented the languages addition but fail to acknowledge other changes, such as the archaization process. It was rectified when the official version was made available on OHADA website . On November 2016, twenty years after Cameroon ratified the OHADA treaty, an official English translation was finally available!
To this date, there are still no available official English translation for CIMA or CEMAC treaties. It is unsettling for English-speaking Cameroonians forced to work with unofficial translations of legal texts. This creates judicial insecurity and favors discrimination among Cameroonians based on languages. Cameroon can only benefit if its national or international laws such as CIMA, OHADA or CEMAC are drawn simultaneously in conformity with the Constitution. The prevalence of one language over the other violates the spirit of the Constitution and frustrates the purpose of unity among Cameroonians.
Doris Toyou received her master’s degree in international economic law from the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in France in 1999, and her LLM from Boston Uni- versity in 2003. She has worked as a legal analyst with JPMorgan Chase in New York City, and has also worked in legal, due diligence and compliance positions with Sullivan & Cromwell, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and others.
Suggested citation: Doris Toyou,International Treaty and Constitution: Contradictions of Cameroon, JURIST – Student Commentary, February 3, 2017, http://jurist.org/dateline/2017/02/Doris-Toyou-contradictions-of-cameroon.php
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