A united family.
In the foreground sits a gold and coral tiered cake which matches the first lady’s dress. An immaculately dressed Paul Biya wears the hint of a smile.
For his 87th birthday, the head of state is surrounded by his loves ones: Franck, his son, two of his granddaughters and, of course, his wife Chantal. On this day, 13 February, only the sound of the water streaming down into the fountains of his home in Mvomeka’a seems capable of disturbing the calm of the Biya clan.
On 14 February, the din of bullets put an end to the tranquillity of the presidential fountains in the south.
At 2 p.m., soldiers burst into the neighbourhood of Ngarbuh in the North-West region. The death toll: 23, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, including 15 children, nine of whom were under the age of five. According to witness accounts, their bodies were burned at the same time as homes.
As the smoke subsides, indignation rises. Felix Agbor Mballa, lawyer and chairman of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), condemned “the horrible murder” of women and children “by the state defence forces,” with army spokesperson Colonel Cyrille Atonfack Guemo tersely retorting that “the Cameroonian defence and security forces were not involved in this massacre.”
Who can be believed? A few hours later, the defence minister called the killings a “regrettable incident.” The army is believed to have attacked a “fortified camp” of Ambazonian separatists and “the explosion of several fuel containers” killed “five victims, including a woman and four children, far from what is reported in social networks.”
An investigation has been opened by the national gendarmerie and military security.
Mballa tweeted that “an independent commission of inquiry should be set up to investigate the killings” and “should include members of the civil society, clergy and government.” Opposition figure Akere Muna lamented that “Suffering, death and killing are now the new normal.” At the time of this writing, President Biya had not publicly addressed the crisis, despite the growing violence these past months.
On 15 January, a young man was killed and his father injured near Bamenda as they tried to avoid the security checkpoints manned by separatists. On 23 January, soldiers attacked the village of Ndoh in the South-West region, killing 14. An endless litany of such acts has been perpetrated since 2017.
At least 8,000 Cameroonians have fled to Nigeria in the past three weeks, taking the number of refugees up to more than 60,000. In addition, some 680,000 people have been displaced by the conflict. In three years, the violence has killed at least 3,000 people.
Acts of violence and retaliations
Local communities, caught in a vice between an army accused of committing acts of violence and separatists keen to launch retaliatory attacks, are living in the grip of fear.
On 9 February, the day of parliamentary and municipal elections, polling stations in the Anglophone regions were empty.
A person close to the country’s top leaders commented: “Why did the government organise elections when they knew that the Anglophones couldn’t go out and vote? It just reinforces the idea that they’re not a part of Cameroon. The government has focused on a political solution, but that doesn’t change the fact that, facing poorly equipped guerrilla forces, the army isn’t capable of resolving the situation.”
Recently, there have been calls for the withdrawal of military forces and the introduction of African Union (AU) or UN peacekeeping forces. A letter on the matter was even recently sent to President Biya, but it has not received a response.
In reality, Cameroon’s diplomats have been working to discourage any foreign intervention. The country’s Minister of External Relations Lejeune Mbella, who represented Biya at the AU Summit held in Addis Ababa in early February, passed on a message to the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, who has expressed concern over the deterioration of the situation.
In essence, Mbella claimed that things are starting to go back to normal and repeated the dictum hammered home by Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute over the past months: a firm response on the ground and the implementation of measures put forward – namely increased decentralisation – at the Major National Dialogue held in October 2019.
According to Eric Chinje, a former journalist who took part in the dialogue, “We’ve been waiting for four months now, but nothing has been done. The government needs to give its Anglophone citizens grounds to believe in its good faith.”
“The time for dialogue has passed. We’ve entered the reform implementation phase,” said a Cameroonian adviser in Addis Ababa. “Foreigners have to respect our sovereign will. We’re well aware that the only motive behind their interference is to drive out President Biya,” he added, referring to the Americans.
As it happens, the response of Tibor Nagy, Assistant Secretary for the US Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs, to the crisis has been very active, from Washington DC to Addis Ababa, not to mention within the United Nations Security Council in New York City.
A game of influence
According to a diplomat involved in the feud, “The US and France are in a battle. The Americans are promoting a sanctions-based policy, while the French are supporting the Cameroon government’s narrative and blocking any initiative by the UN.”
Moreover, the UN prefers to err on the side of caution and wait for the AU to take a stance. But can the AU intervene? In Addis Ababa, Biya (who never goes there) is backed by his Central African peers, particularly Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno.
According to a document we obtained, the Cameroonian conflict was discussed during a closed meeting at the most recent AU summit.
However, the pan-African organisation restricted itself to commending the government for “having held a national dialogue” and “giving peace a chance.” The same diplomat quoted above commented: “Cameroon can just grin and bear it until the West starts to look away.”
In Yaoundé, the game of influence playing out within the president’s inner circle is further paralysing the situation. Some members have taken on the role of “hawks,” such as Samuel Mvondo Ayolo, Civil Cabinet Director, and Paul Atanga Nji, Territorial Administration Minister.
Others, like the prime minister, act tough while simultaneously attempting to quietly negotiate with Ambazonian separatists.
Lastly, a few people from the inner circle of Ferdinand Ngoh, the president’s Secretary-General, are encouraging talks entrusted to a third party outside Cameroon.
Will the possibility of a succession battle for the president’s top spot, the date of which everyone is clearly in the dark about, encourage the war’s continuation?
“Biya lets different policies co-exist without giving official guidelines, which blocks the entire process,” said a person involved in the matter. He has made a political art of this management style for several decades now.
According to a source close to the president, “He seems paralysed by a system he himself was the architect of. But does he want his political legacy to be a country torn by bloodshed?”
According to our sources, the government does not intend to send a representative to the symposium organised in Kenya in April by the Africa Forum, a grouping of former African heads of state and government. “It’s a foreign initiative that doesn’t concern us,” said a Cameroonian diplomat.
As for the talks initiated with the Ambazonians under the auspices of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), they have reached a standstill. The government decided to withdraw from them at least until the measures set out at the Major National Dialogue in October 2019 are implemented.
Two other international meetings that seek to find a solution to the crisis will be held at the end of March in Potsdam, Germany and Washington DC, but once again, Cameroon’s authorities will not be in attendance.
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