Biya's offer of national dialogue over the Ambazonia crisis will hold little value if its not at least preceded by the demilitarization of the Northwest & Southwest and includes the release of the likes of Maurice Kamto and Sisiku Ayuk Tabe.
— Ryan Cummings (@Pol_Sec_Analyst) September 10, 2019
Cameroon’s Biya finally calls for dialogue with Anglophone rebels
Earlier this week, Cameroon's absentee president, Paul Biya, addressed his countrymen – calling for a national dialogue later this month on a multitude of problems facing the Central African country.
Biya’s address came as a shock to the country’s estimated 25.8 million people who are not accustomed to public pronouncements from the reclusive president, who has been in power since 1982.
Chief among the problems is the Anglophone crisis, which has pitted groups from the bilingual country’s two unequal parts – its 80% French-speaking majority versus its 20% English-speaking minority – against each other.
Tensions have been bubbling under the surface between both sides since before the country became a unitary state in 1972. The latest round of conflict began with a 2016 protest by teachers and lawyers about the right of North-West and South-West regions to maintain Anglophone legal and educational systems.
The protests against marginalisation have continued for three years running as soldiers from the Francophone-majority government have been sent to quell the uprising by armed separatists agitating for the secession of the region that has now been described as the Republic of Ambazonia. Ambazonia declared its independence on 1 October 2017.
But opinion is divided on the ground about how to resolve the crisis. The separatist rebels do not have widespread support, with many groups calling for devolution and federalism to increase local autonomy.
In the conflict, more than 30,000 people have fled across the border into neighbouring Nigeria, while another 500,000 have been internally displaced. Many people have also been killed in extrajudicial abuses ordered mostly by government soldiers.
In January 2018, Julius Ayuk Tabe, self-proclaimed president of Ambazonia and members of his ruling council were arrested in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and extradited to Cameroon for trial. In August 2019, they were sentenced to life imprisonment by a military tribunal in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital.
The government is cracking down on other forms of dissent too. Opposition leader Maurice Kamto – leader of the Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun and a former justice minister under Biya – is also being detained at the infamous Kondengui prison in the capital.
Some welcome words
The 86-year-old President claimed the secessionists are faceless and visible only on the internet. He asked them to surrender and receive an amnesty or otherwise face military action. He also claimed peace is returning to areas previously affected by violence.
“In spite of the attempts to destabilise Cameroon, we are happy that our defence forces have fought hard and peace is gradually returning to the restive regions,” Biya said.
The United Nations (UN) has welcomed Biya’s call for dialogue, urging the octogenarian to “ensure that the process is inclusive and addresses the challenges facing the country”.
In a statement released by Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for secretary general Antonio Guterres, the UN urged the Cameroonian government and other stakeholders to participate, saying it was ready to support the process.
Popular human rights lawyer Agbor Nkongho, who has also been detained previously in Kondengui for calling attention to the government’s human right abuses, also welcomed the speech. But he also admonished participants in the dialogue to call for constitutional amendments and the release of political detainees.
Ambiguity on the cards
Observers and analysts say the Cameroonian strongman was ambiguous on dialoguing directly with the secessionists and did not address concerns of human rights abuses or the fate of those imprisoned.
Ryan Cummings, Johannesburg-based director of Signal Risk, an Africa-focused political and security risk management consultancy, said Biya’s call for a national dialogue without a fair hearing for the imprisoned activists and secessionists is an exercise in futility.
Echoing those concerns, Cameroonian-born Bate Felix, a Paris-based Reuters correspondent, said the speech, which was given in French, showed Biya’s tone-deafness.
— Bate Felix (@BateFelix) September 10, 2019
The bottom line: Biya’s speech seems to have been the outcome of international pressure. He has not shown that he is looking to change Cameroon’s status quo. The statement gives no assurance whatsoever that Cameroon’s minority populations will get a proper seat at the table soon. And the government has been opposed to solutions like federalism, so it is unlikely that the talks will reach a swift resolution.