The Major National Dialogue convened by Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya, is finally over with no major decisions taken. Many Cameroonians have been looking forward to this dialogue known by many Southern Cameroonians as “die-lock” as the situation in the two English-speaking regions of the country deteriorates daily.
The recommendations of the dialogue convened by the government, organized by the government and chaired by the government will be sent to the head of state who many distrust and see as the architect of a messy conflict that has put the country in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Though many Southern Cameroonians, especially those in the Diaspora, do not expect much from the dialogue, there is however a ray of hope that something positive might come out of the noise and partying that have characterized the process.
By organizing the dialogue, Biya has acknowledged that the country’s military, which is supposedly well-trained and well-armed, cannot roll back a hastily built ragtag armed group. It is also an acknowledgement that the government has failed in many respects. It has failed to enhance unity in the country. It has failed to grow the economy and it has failed to grow the peace that made Cameroon unique.
However, the dialogue must also be given some credit. It has created an opportunity for all issues facing our country to be discussed, though the time was short for any real solutions to be delivered. The discussion of those issues is, of course, an effort to address them.
While the dialogue itself is commendable, there are still many doubts in people’s minds. Cameroonians do not trust their leaders and they fear that the resolutions of the dialogue, though not meeting the expectations of Southern Cameroonians, may not be implemented as recommended by participants of the dialogue.
For more than three decades, the Biya government has not been honest to Cameroonians. Its cardinal objective has been to sustain itself in power and this has implied getting everything by crook. With such a political philosophy, the days ahead do not look promising. The government might simply pursue its own policy without thinking about the consequences of its actions.
It should be recalled that the Southern Cameroons crisis was born of the government’s arrogance and inefficiency. For years, the country has been slipping into chaos and calls by citizens only fell on deaf ears.
Those who were considered as being too vocal by the government were arrested and thrown to rot in jail. Instead of addressing the issues, the Yaounde government has been chasing shadows. For over three decades, it made sure only those who flattered the head of state had a huge chunk of the national cake. Every single achievement in the country was ridiculously attributed to the head of state, including even the delivery of children in hospitals without equipment.
As for the two English-speaking regions of the country, they were simply neglected and though most of the country’s wealth comes from the two regions, they have remained poor and there is no sign that their fate will change anytime, soon.
It worth mentioning that the country’s oilfields are in the southwest region, but the oil-producing areas of the region are unfortunately the poorest, with no modern infrastructure. Bad roads imply that many people are losing their lives daily and poor health care facilities mean many women and children cannot get the care they need.
The South West region accounts for more than 30% of the country’s wealth. It is also the region that accounts for more than 25% of the country’s cocoa production. Its fertile and volcanic soil makes it the country’s food basket. It accounts for more than 40% of the food that is exported to Cameroon’s neighboring countries like Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
But the conflict that that has ruined the country’s economy has also robbed the region of its production capacity. The region’s economy has collapsed, and many farmers and fishermen have simply left the region. The holding of the national dialogue may therefore be good news for many in the two regions. Even those living out of the region are feeling the impact of the crisis.
The effects of the crisis have been rippling out to the other regions of the country. Inflation is on the rise and crime has increased in many cities in East Cameroon. Checking the impact of the crisis implies taking a hard and long look at the issues that triggered the crisis with a view to seeking lasting solutions. But will the government take such an approach and even when it does, will it listen to the wishes of the people? Will it ever hold that the will of the people is supreme?
While it has been recommended that the two English-speaking regions be given a special status as prescribed by the country’s constitution, it must be highlighted that Southern Cameroonians in their immense majority will never accept anything short of a federal system that will grant them the right to run their own affairs.
Before calling for a restoration of their independence, Southern Cameroonians had called for a federal system which was clearly and violently rejected by the government, and the leaders of the movement were hastily arrested and jailed in Yaoundé. Many have since escaped and are living broad. They have swollen the ranks of the Diaspora that has become a nightmare to the government.
Federalism may not satisfy many Southern Cameroonians, but it will calm down many minds that have been hurt. While it is impossible to bring back those who have lost their lives in the conflict, it is however possible to rebuild lives and to design a better future for all through consultations and dialogue instead of war.
However, if the government does not listen, the guns will start delivering death and destruction once the Prime Minister closes his hastily convened dialogue. While the dialogue was going on Friday, there was a shootout between government forces and Southern Cameroonian fighters in Bali, North West region. The fighters want an independent Southern Cameroons and in their minds their land must be liberated. If the fighting must end, the government might have to declare a ceasefire and grant amnesty to all those who have directly or indirectly been involved in the conflict.
Since erupting in 2016, the conflict pitting Southern Cameroonians against the government has resulted in the deaths of some 3,000 Cameroonians, including more than 1,000 soldiers. Besides the numerous deaths, government forces have also deleted more than 200 villages from the country’s map following orders from the president and the country’s defense minister, Joseph Beti Assoumo.
On many occasions, these forces were caught red-handed torching many homes and firing indiscriminately at innocent civilians who simply wanted to have a decent life. The government need to apologize for some of these atrocities if it must douse the fire that is in many minds.
If the past must be forgotten, the government must listen. It must avoid making this dialogue a platform for Mr. Biya to reinvent himself as the benevolent leader who wants to bring peace to the country. He declared war without engaging in any impact analysis. He conducted himself as if his army was killing national of another country. It will be hard for Southern Cameroonians to trust, talk less of forgiving for bringing death and destruction to their towns and cities.
The government has a huge crisis on its hands. If its efforts to end the war must bear any fruits, then it must also seek to repair its relationship with the country’s Diaspora. Long speeches and condemnation of Cameroonians living abroad will never bring peace to Cameroon. The government must go beyond its usual rhetoric. The Major National Dialogue might not provide solutions to all the issues, but it is a moment for the government to take a long and hard look at its actions; those actions that have gone a long way in shattering the peace that was the country’s hallmark for decades.
By Dr. Joachim Arrey