Cameroon: The secret history of Canada’s role in negotiations with Anglophone secessionists

By Jeune Afrique

Posted on Monday, 13 February 2023 17:38
Cameroon's President Paul Biya in Yaoundé, 26 July 2022 ©Ludovic Marin/AFP

Ottawa has confirmed that Yaoundé opened confidential talks with secessionist factions, asking Canada to facilitate. Here is our account of this intense diplomatic phase.

On 20 January, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly revealed that her government had been mandated to play the role of facilitator in the conflict that has been bloodying Cameroon’s North West and South West – two regions with an Anglophone majority – since 2017. Four days later, however, the Cameroonian authorities denied having entrusted this role to any country. What really happened?

It all began in September 2022, when Cameroon’s President Paul Biya instructed Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute to reopen negotiations with the armed Anglophone secessionist movements.

Paul Biya’s initiative…

The president was thus yielding to American and French pressure while at the same time agreeing to mandate Canada. The aim of the roadmap drawn up that same month was to achieve a ceasefire in December 2022, so the head of state could announce the good news during his end-of-year speech on the 31st.

This mission followed two failed negotiation attempts. The first had been a discussion between Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, leader of a separatist wing, and Maxime Léopold Eko Eko, then head of the Directorate General of External Research (DGRE). At the end of these talks, the president of the “Republic of Ambazonia” issued a communiqué, which the government immediately rejected.

The second attempt had been led by the Swiss, under the auspices of Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, Secretary General of the Cameroonian Presidency, who had received oral instructions to negotiate. This mediation allowed a first step to be taken: to ensure that the various secessionist groups were represented by a single negotiator.

Biya’s September 2022 initiative, therefore, delighted PM Ngute, who never appreciated the idea of Swiss facilitation led by his rival Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh. He blamed the latter for having torpedoed the Major National Dialogue, organised in 2019.

In addition, the prime minister was a fan of Richard Bale, who was, on the contrary, not welcome at the Etoudi Palace, where he was never received during his three-year stint as Canadian High Commissioner to Cameroon (November 2019 to November 2022).

And so the Canadians accepted the role entrusted to them, despite the fact that their country did not have much experience in this area. They saw it as an opportunity to restore their image, tarnished by the withdrawal strategy that led them to close many embassies on the continent. They sought the expertise of the NGO Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), which they had been funding with 50% of its budget since 2019. HD, which had previously worked with the Swiss, was thus changing partners.

…and the Toronto discussions

The second week of December 2022. Negotiations opened in Toronto. The most radical factions of the Anglophone secession were involved, such as the Ambazonia Governing Council, in the person of Lucas Ayaba Cho.

Cameroon sent emissaries, but no one from the government. It wanted to be able to deny any participation in the dialogue in the event it was leaked to the press. The parties signed two documents. The first ratified their entry into negotiations and evoked a cease-fire.

The second, a communication protocol signed at the request of Yaoundé’s envoys, stipulated that Canada would announce the existence of a peace process, that the secessionists would confirm it, and that President Biya would unveil, in his end-of-year speech, its happy outcome.

The negotiations were difficult. When the negotiators agreed on certain points, the Cameroonian government was brazen and reproached its emissaries for having made too many concessions. For example, Etoudi rejected the use of the term “Ambazonia” as well as the idea of releasing all those who had been imprisoned during the crisis. They were not too far from a stalemate.

Negotiations resumed, however, by mutual agreement. Except that the 23 December deadline had passed and in his 31 December speech, Paul Biya made no mention of dialogue. Canada and the Anglophones were dismayed, but they did not give up and everyone agreed on a new communication protocol. It was now agreed that Canada would make its announcement on 20 January 2023, followed by the Anglophone side and finally the Cameroonian government.

Followed by the disavowal

On 20 January, Canadian FM Joly released her statement, but made the mistake of referring to “the crisis in the North-West and South-West regions” and not “the British Southern Cameroons”. The secessionists did not appreciate this and demanded a correction.

The next day, they nevertheless kept their commitment and acknowledged that, over the past four months, emissaries from the state and the secessionist movements “held pre-talks as a first step to address, in a comprehensive manner, the root cause of the Ambazonian liberation war”.

Some leaders, such as Chris Anu, who had refused to join in, came on board. On 22 January, Pope Francis rejoiced over the news in his Sunday homily. Despite the euphoria, the international community was concerned: the Cameroonian government’s communiqué was late in coming.

On the 23rd, the American and British governments posted tweets encouraging the peace process. Kerplunk! The same evening, the Cameroonian government refuted Joly’s remarks. Prime Minister Ngute was disavowed. Back to square one? Not really.

The process was not completely dead. Despite the government’s retraction, the secessionists showed restraint. To date, no party to the negotiations has leaked any document signed in Ottawa.

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