YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Ahead of celebrations to mark Cameroon’s 51st National Day, the government, NGOs and the Catholic Church have stepped up their fight against hate speech which, according to them, threatens the very existence of the Central African country.

UNESCO defines hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses  pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or  a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their  religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other  identity factor.”

Father Humphrey Tatah Mbuy, communication secretary for the Cameroon Bishops’ Conference, says hate speech has the potential to destroy communities.

“If you read the Bible, St. James will tell you that you can control the biggest machine, you can control the biggest ship, you can control even the most sophisticated weapon, but there is one thing that is very small but very difficult to control, and that is the tongue. The tongue can cause any amount of trouble, and the tongue has caused several wars,” Mbuy said.

Such trouble has not been in short supply in Cameroon, with research demonstrating that the current separatist conflict in the country’s English-speaking regions that has so far left at least 6000 people dead, has been partly prodded by hate speech.

For instance, PeaceTech Lab, a US non-profit organization, recently investigated the landscape of online hate narratives in Cameroon, noting that since 2016, “Cameroon has seen an uptake in hateful and inflammatory rhetoric in the context of an intensifying crisis between Anglophone and Francophone communities and political elites.”

Mbuy cited some common examples of hate speech in Cameroon, which he said might have worsened the situation of conflict in the two English-speaking regions.

“For instance, people call government officials working in those two regions ‘colonial masters’, and the government refers to separatists as ‘terrorists, bandits’ etc…These words are meant to stoke anger,” he told Crux.

Mbuy also cited derogatory words such as ‘Anglofou’ or anglofool’ which French speakers use to refer to Anglophones in Cameroon. The term is a contraction of the French words ‘Anglophone’ (somebody who speaks English) and fou, which is an adjective meaning ‘mad’ or ‘foolish.’ French speakers, by using that word, imply that Anglophones are ‘fools,’ behave foolishly, or are stupid (anglo-bête).

“There is someone now in police custody who is on record as saying that women from the Anglophone regions smell badly. That to me is not just hate speech, it is absolute brutality…it is that type of hate speech that destroys a country” Mbuy said.

Across the country, tensions are rising amongst people of different ethnicities, raising fears that even more violence could erupt in several other places. Public authorities, Church leaders and the civil society have now taken notice of the rising potential for violent confrontation, and a degeneration of social cohesion.

On May 17, the country’s Communication Minister, Emmanuel Sadi, addressed the issue during a press conference in Yaoundé.

Doing away with hate speech must be perceived as “an absolute priority towards safeguarding democracy and the Rule of Law, and preserving the values of peace, unity and living together,” Sadi said.

He complained that the phenomenon was so wide-spread in Cameroon that no social strata is spared, as it touches men, women, adolescents, youths and adults.

He regretted that hate speech in Cameroon was being perpetrated largely by civil society players, intellectuals, politicians, activists of all kinds, whistleblowers and other influencers.

“In our country, the most common manifestations of hate speech today include ethnic and social discrimination, stigmatization, tribalism, irredentist claims, calls for insurgency and sometimes genocide, gender violence, violence against minorities, and so on.

This hate speech is also expressed vehemently through media channels, in both conventional media (print press, radio, television) and online media, but especially in social media.”

Sadi cited some of the causes of hate speech, including “the socio-economic environment, where  the cost of living and a certain degree of precariousness provide an  easy pretext for some to vilify the better-off and cry social injustice.”

“There are also the issues at stake in political life, where for some,  the unbridled lust for power has taken precedence over the debate  of ideas, disregarding the basic rules of the democratic game, transforming the political arena into a battlefield where hatred,  invective, verbal violence, bad faith, incitement to insurrection,  intimidation and threats of all kinds and many other abuses prevail,” he said.

Sadi pointed to the so-called Anti-Sardinards brigade, “which has made itself notorious through numerous reprehensible acts abroad, which have seriously undermined the image of Cameroon.”

The Anti-Sardinards is a diaspora movement that claims to stands up to authoritarian regimes in Africa. It has ransacked several of Cameroon’s foreign embassies, and demonstrated against President Paul Biya’s trips abroad.

Sida talked about the emergence of fractious relationships between natives and non-natives “especially in relation to land claims between farmers and herders, situations that are the result of tribalism and xenophobia. In short, situations that result in the rejection of Cameroonians by other Cameroonians.”

He reminded Cameroonians that hate speech was punishable by law, with perpetrators liable to get jail terms or pay fines or suffer both.

Mbuy says there are a couple of steps that must be taken to deal with hate speech.

“The golden rule is, do not do unto others what you would not want them to do to you, so don’t say anything to somebody when you don’t want that same thing said to you,” he said.

“Second, we are all citizens of the same fatherland, and if that is the case, no person should think that he /she owns the fatherland more than another person. Thirdly, we must realize that on our own, we can’t always do things the way they should and that is why we cannot succeed without God.”

Sadi appealed to Cameroonians to “banish hate speech so that Cameroon, which, over the years, has become a haven of peace, where a plurality of ethnic groups, cultures and religions coexist in harmony, remains so in the  interest of all.”