Will the ongoing government-led national dialogue in Cameroon resolve the Anglophone crisis?Leonard Mbulle-Nziege explores why, despite agenda manipulation, absence of separatists and Biya’s self-serving interests, the national dialogue is a glimmer of hope.
On 10th September 2019, President Paul Biya announced, in a rare televised address, the setting-up of a national inclusive dialogue. He said the dialogue will focus on finding solutions to the ongoing socio-political crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The crisis has been ongoing since October 2016, and the International Crisis Group (ICG) estimates that the conflict has resulted in almost 3000 deaths (civilians, security forces and separatists), 40,000 refugees, mostly fleeing to Nigeria, and 530,000 internally displaced persons. In business terms, the Groupement Inter-Patronal du Cameroun (GICAM) suggested that businesses lost an estimated $500,000,000 in revenue. Inaddition, according to UNICEF reports, 4500 schools were shutdown, which affected around 700,000 students.
Back to the dialogue, Biya suggested eight themes, which include bilingualism, cultural diversity and social cohesion, reconstruction and development in conflict-afflicted zones, return of refugees and displaced persons, education and judicial system, decentralization and local development, demobilization and reintegration of former fighters, and roles of the diaspora in the country’s development. Biya also instructed Prime Minister Dr. Joseph Dion Ngute, an Anglophone, to preside over broad-based consultations with domestic stakeholders as well as those based in the diaspora in preparation for the national dialogue.
Some of the measures outlined by Biya included a promise to address Anglophone grievances and grant amnesty to separatist fighters on condition that they lay down arms. Separatists that do not surrender will be pursued by security forces, Biya warned.
Government’s confirmation of the national dialogue was welcomed by the African Union, European Union and United Nations amongst other international stakeholders. Domestically, the announcement of the dialogue, which will take place in Yaounde, from 30 September to 4 October was generally well received.
During the two weeks of consultations prior to the dialogue, Dr Dion Ngute received delegations from various state institutions, political parties and civil society organizations, who made propositions in relation to the themes outlined for the dialogue. Propositions were received from important Anglophone constituencies and opinion leaders such as the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), and the Anglophone General Conference (AGC), in which the latter presented a 400 page report on evolution of the crisis. Cameroon’s leading opposition party, the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (CRM) also attended the consultations, notwithstanding imprisonment of its leader Maurice Kamto and most of the party’s hierarchy.
Despite significant shows of interest in the proceedings, certain aspects of the dialogue have been widely criticized. Despite the government inviting a number of separatist leaders based around the world to attend the dialogue, the separatists have declined the government’s request. Instead, they have countered, demanding that as a precondition imprisoned separatists and Anglophone activists should be released. They also want the negotiations to be hosted in a neutral location and coordinated by an international mediator. They also want declaration of a ceasefire and safe passage of separatist fighters. It appears, the government is not willing, at this stage, to adhere to any of these demands.
The level of distrust emanating from the separatists might have also been aggravated by the sentencing in August of separatist leader Ayuk Sisuku Tabe and nine other co-accused to life imprisonment. They were also fined €381,000,000,000 by the Yaounde Military Tribunal.
The government’s predefined themes of the discussions have excluded key issues, namely, federalism and secession. While in May, Dr Dion Ngute during his visit to the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions expressed government’s willingness to discuss all matters excluding secession, failure to include the two issues might prevent core Anglophones constituents from participating. Moreover, most of the groups and individuals that met with the prime minister to provide input for the upcoming dialogue do not constitute Anglophones, and are persons who have very little connections with the Anglophone regions as well as the grievances which led to the conflict. This has been compounded by the composition of regional delegations for the consultations, which have been made up of ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Party (CPDM) members and high ranking government officials – many of whom have in the past denied or trivialized existence of Anglophone grievances and advocated for the use of military force to resolve the issue. The presence of these individuals and groups in the deliberations might risk drowning out discussions on the genuine concerns of Anglophones and end up conflating them with issues of national interest. This in turn could further frustrate even moderate Anglophones and serve to embolden separatists.
Nonetheless, the decision to hold these talks is a positive development and the first acknowledgement by Biya that military means alone will not end the crisis. However, it remains unclear what the overall objective of the dialogue is. The decision to initiate talks clearly stems from domestic anger at the government’s failure to end hostilities as well as growing pressure from the international community. In July, the French ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement in which it urged Cameroonian authorities to initiate inclusive dialogue and reconciliation channels rather than prioritize military solutions to the crisis. It however remains to be seen whether these discussions will open up possibilities for further deliberations with separatists or whether the government regard current process as a conclusive exercise.
In addition, it is unclear whether international mediation channels will still be pursued. On 27 June, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement in which they offered to act as a facilitator of dialogue between the government and separatists in collaboration with Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD). The Swiss foreign affairs ministry held discussions with the various separatists groups in May and even held a meeting with them from 25 to 27 June in Switzerland. The CHD has been able to organize the various secessionist groups under an umbrella association dubbed the Ambazonia Team Coalition. The Swiss have also been in contact with secretary general at the presidency Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, who is negotiating on behalf of the government. There is hope that these actions will eventually lead to face to face talks between both sides before the end of the year. In July, the Africa Forum, which is an association of former African heads of state and government, announced that they will host a peace symposium on the Anglophone crisis. The initiative was endorsed by the US State Department and former presidents Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo and Benjamin Mkapa were tasked with organizing the event.
The national inclusive dialogue is the first nationwide event to discuss important socio-political matters in Cameroon since the 1991 Tripartite conference. The absence of separatists during the discussions is a setback for the dialogue. The inclusive dialogue on its own will not end the crisis. However, solutions towards attaining sustainable peace can be developed there, but the discussions must be honest and void of manipulation as well as focus on the grievances which led to the ongoing crisis. Moreover, the national dialogue must be followed up by similar deliberations in the Anglophone regions, in order to include the people who have been most affected by the crisis. Failure to undertake these conversations in such a matter could create the risk of further entrenching the crisis.
Mbulle-Nziege Leonard is a PhD candidate and graduate researcher at the Institute for Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa at the University of Cape Town.