The about-face came just as final adjustments for the talks were being made. The Swiss claim the initiative has the support of the international community and denounced these new manoeuvres, saying it would be a step back in the dialogue process.
There have been growing doubts, however, about the neutrality of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre), the institution mandated by the Swiss authorities to conduct the talks. The main grievance relates to possible collusion between Geneva and Yaoundé.
Facilitator or mediator?
At the beginning of July, when President Paul Biya was in Geneva on a private visit, the secessionist leader of the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC) Lucas Ayaba Cho issued a statement denouncing the “too close” relationship that he held existed between Geneva and Yaoundé.
He called on Switzerland to clarify its position. “[It] must clearly tell us if they are just a facilitator or a mediator. We will agree to work with Switzerland if it agrees to discuss with the mediator who will speak on behalf of Ambazonia, while it represents Cameroon,” he said. The AGC is one of the secessionist factions with an armed wing on the ground in Cameroon.
Apparently, during discreet preparatory meetings on 25 and 27 June, there was no direct dialogue between the English-speaking separatists and Cameroonian officials. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) clarified its role as mediator in a communiqué on 27 June, stating that it had been “mandated by a majority of the parties to facilitate an inclusive negotiation process”.
A source within the HD Centre, supported this, claiming that it was the main separatist groups “who approached Switzerland first” in order that it could open up a path of dialogue with the Cameroonian government.
Transparency should be the rule
The source went on to state that: “Our work has consisted in making contact with the multitude of groups that abound in the diaspora, in order to have a fairly representative range of the Ambazonian movement. We invited about ten of them and had two meetings with them. We also made an offer to the Cameroonian authorities through their ambassador, which was endorsed by the President of the Republic.”
The Swiss FDFA said it adhered to “the principle of discretion, in order not to compromise the process”. It further stated: “Discretion was a request from both parties to avoid controversy in the contact phase, to protect the process and to allow everyone to agree on the basis.”
This so-called discretion, however, is at the root of the suspicion of some participants, who believe that “transparency should be the rule”. The Consortium of Anglophone Civil Society Actors (CACSC), the organisation behind the first political demands made 2016, stated in a press release on 8 July, that transparency is a guarantee of trust.
“Trust is essential when engaging in such debates because it is only what can ensure that all parties accept the conclusions,” said the CACSC in its statement.
Call for mediation
There has been silence in Yaoundé about the follow-up to the first steps of the dialogue initiated by Switzerland. Having returned from his private trip to Geneva disrupted by Cameroonian political opponents, President Paul Biya has yet to comment on the subject.
Within the Cameroonian administration, however, the dissent expressed by secessionist groups did not go unnoticed. “These secessionists are making an unhealthy overbid,” said an anonymous official from the Ministry of Territorial Administration. “It is purely bad faith, they were all unanimous when they called for dialogue. They say they are fighting for their people, but in reality they do not care about them at all or they would not make that kind of decision when we are on the way out of the crisis. Mediation is the only way to resolve the conflict and end the violence.”
Swiss approach not inclusive
Geneva has not commented since its last communiqué but has received the support of the international community, including the United Nations and the United States, whose leaders have welcomed the initiative. Swiss officials anonymously condemned “false information that tends to undermine the credibility of the process”. They also indicated that the time is right for the final adjustments, and that talks should begin “within three months at the latest”.
On the ground, however, local observers point out that, despite it being a positive initiative, the approach by the Swiss mediators has its limitations. Joseph Léa Ngoula, a security expert, said the Swiss approach is not sufficiently inclusive to allow all parties to express themselves.
“The Swiss approach, although beneficial, remains insufficient to stop the spiral of violence that is spreading to the different regions of Cameroon,” he said. “It includes only a limited number of actors, leaving aside all the social and political forces that have a very important role to play in stabilising crisis zones in Cameroon.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.
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