Retired Cameroonian Archbishop Cornelius Fontem Esua of Bamenda says the coronavirus pandemic could also bring about “unexpected positive effects” for the country’s embattled Anglophone regions.
“The spread of the pandemic in Africa is an epoch-making drama, but in some cases, it can also have unexpected positive effects,” the archbishop told the Rome-based Catholic news agency, Fides.
Esua was speaking following the decision by some separatist groups to call for a unilateral ceasefire to enable medical teams and humanitarian assistance to reach the most vulnerable people at risk from the COVID-19 coronavirus.
One of the armed groups, the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF,) agreed to the United Nations’ call for a worldwide cessation of hostilities during the pandemic.
On March 25, Ebenezer Akwanga, the group’s leader, said that “SOCADEF are prepared to support the ceasefire and will ensure the security and free circulation of international observers and humanitarian organizations in Ambazonia … in accordance with human rights law.”
Ambazonia is the term used by the separatist rebels for the English-speaking regions of the majority French-speaking country. However, no country has recognized Ambazonia’s independence.
The release, addressed to Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, also called on the “authorities and security forces of the Republic of Cameroon to respond to the call made by the secretary-general of the United Nations.”
Akwanga added that “we are ready to meet with representatives designated by the Republic of Cameroon to work out the appropriate implementation of the ceasefire.”
The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, on March 23 called for an “immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world” to protect the most vulnerable civilians in conflict-ridden countries from the “fury” of the coronavirus pandemic.
Esua has welcomed the developments, saying that as bad as the coronavirus may be, it might be an agent of peace in Cameroon.
“Here, for example, clashes between the separatists of the Republic of Ambazonia and the army have greatly diminished, if not suspended, and we have had no news of fighting for weeks. A dozen days ago, Samuel Ikome Sako, interim president of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia, announced a total lockdown, with the closure of the borders of the English-speaking regions due to the virus. So far, the separatists are respecting the directive: There is a general calm in the area, there have been no cases of direct confrontation with the military or kidnappings by the ‘Amba Boys’ (the name of the separatist groups in action,” the archbishop said.
However, the peace is not universal, and Bishop George Nkuo told Crux the fighting has not abetted in the Diocese of Kumbo.
“As for the cease fire I am not aware that anything like that had taken place here in Kumbo,” he said.
“I guess those who are calling the shots here are not ready to use the coronavirus to derail their struggle. There is obviously a need to take this virus seriously and it is a common enemy, and in the face of such a war the warring parties need to review their goals. So far, nothing has changed as I see it. I think it is unfortunate because if we don’t fight it together, if it ever reaches Kumbo many people will perish.”
Some armed separatist groups have made it clear that there would be no ceasefire on their part.
On March 27, a statement from Julius Nyiawung, the vice president of the Ambazonia Governing Council – one of several separatist groups claiming to be the legitimate government of the area – said there shall be not be a “unilateral ceasefire in the Ambazonia war of independence because of COVID-19 pandemic.”
The statement explained that “to permit such unilateral action will be to provide Cameroon unhindered access to everywhere in our towns and villages.”
Those fears are not unfounded, since there is no indication that the Cameroonian military is ready to implement a ceasefire.
Esua admitted the army “continues to patrol the streets with tanks and in some cases, especially in the villages, there have been ambushes or killings.”
The current conflict began in 2017 after government forces ruthlessly put down strikes organized by Anglophone teachers and lawyers over perceived attempts by the government to destroy the common law and British-style education systems practiced in Anglophone regions. The breakdown in attempts at dialogue resulted in the growth of several separatist movements.
The resulting conflict, now in its fourth year, has killed over 3000 people, with about a million forced from their homes. Esua insists the ceasefire by at least one of the separatist groups offers a lot of hope.
“Overall, we hear fewer gunshots or gunfights here in Bamenda and we really hope that the emergency due to the spread of the virus will lead all actors involved to rethink their strategies and reach an agreement,” the archbishop said.
He added that he believes such a ceasefire could offer a pathway towards a resolution to the Cameroon Anglophone crisis.