After three years of self-destruction, the government and armed groups locked in an armed conflict in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon must yield to calls from the international community for an inclusive dialogue.
The conflict, which could have been avoided, has already consumed some 5,000 lives, including civilians and soldiers. These lives could have been spared and the families of those killed or wounded would be a lot happier today.
The country’s economy has taken a nosedive due to the crisis and the hardship resulting from this man-made disaster is both visible and palpable, both in East and West Cameroon. The country’s second largest employer, the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC), has taken a blow to the liver as a result of the conflict and its chances of surviving are slim.
Threats from the separatists are making it hard for this state corporation to operate normally and its workers are scared of being punished by armed separatists who operate under the cover of darkness. PAMOL, another major employer, has been completely put out of business. Its facilities have been set ablaze by angry and armed separatists who are hell-bent on bringing the country’s economy to its knees.
But the greatest blow to the economy has come from the crashing of the nation’s lone oil refinery (SONARA) which went up in flames a few months ago. This is a huge blow to the government, as one of its major revenue streams has suddenly gone dry.
And this has been complicated by the death of thousands of small businesses that provided services to the oil refinery. Besides those businesses, thousands of small businesses in the two English-speaking regions of the country have also folded up as the fighting between armed groups and the military rages on and spreads even into the rural areas of the country.
The destruction to the country’s economy is visible and its impact shows on many people across the country. But the greatest victims are the children in the two regions who are being robbed of their childhood and future. For three years, children in Southern Cameroons do not know how to play outside. Soccer matches that characterized life in the regions have all disappeared and the only thing the children know is violence.
Some of them have lost their parents and many are hiding in the bushes with relatives who hold that if they return to their homes – that is, if the military has not burned down the homes – they will be arrested and shipped to Yaoundé where the government has set up torture camps for Southern Cameroonians.
Even those who are still in the villages are permanently expecting a resurgence of violence as the military and the armed groups have engaged in a permanent game of mutual destruction.
Children in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon have not been to school for three years and in development terms, a generation is being gradually sacrificed. The education facilities are already crumbling and some of the have been brought down by fire set to them by army soldiers.
The adverse impact of keeping children away from school for long periods of time is usually long term, but residents of the two English-speaking regions are already living with the short-term impact. Banditry is on the rise. Kidnappings and ransom killings are robbing many people of a good night’s sleep.
Young men in the region have found a new lucrative business. Many of them are acquiring sophisticated assault rifles which they are using to intimidate innocent civilians so as to make money and live the gangster life they have been dreaming about. Rapes and unwanted pregnancies are hitting the roof and if care is not taken, the situation will spiral out of control.
Cameroon is gradually descending into hell and what many Cameroonians only heard or read about from the scary tales in Liberia or Sierra Leone is finally taking root in their own country. Africa’s sliding conflicts have finally made their way to Cameroon.
But this self-destruction can be stopped. The various factions have to demonstrate a lot of flexibility if they are interested in finding a peaceful solution. There is no point being stuck in a position that is spreading death and destruction to a people. There are no points to be earned here. The international community is instead making a mockery of Cameroon.
The government in particular has a lot to change if peace has to return to Cameroon. It must restrain its military that has spread a lot of pain in the two English-speaking regions of the country. A country’s military should not be used to kill the same people who are financing its own survival.
Taxpayers’ money could be better used to prevent conflict than to destroy a country’s economic and political infrastructure just because those in power want to prove a point.
There is nothing wrong with complaining. Southern Cameroonians had never intended to fight the government. Theirs was a peaceful demonstration that has been badly managed. Any government in the world owes its people a listening ear and a willingness to make things better and not a heavy hand that will only make matters worse.
The government has to take a long and hard look at its actions if it thinks of restoring peace in the two English-speaking regions of the country. It must also listen to the international community that is ready and willing to support any efforts at resolving the crisis that has put the country in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
The government’s military violence has significantly contributed in keeping children out of school for three years. Instead of spreading death and destruction, the country’s military could have sought to win hearts and minds within the civilian population.
Not every Southern Cameroonian is a separatist and the military’s reckless actions have only helped to swell the ranks of the fighters.
For their part, the armed groups must accept the bitter reality that an independent Southern Cameroons will not be seeing the light of day anytime soon. A clear military victory is unfortunately not within reach.
The international community has very low appetite for secession and even if the secessionists obtain a military victory, it will be hard for them to operate in a globalizing world that is instead fostering larger geo-political entities.
Gaining independence could be possible, but gaining international recognition could be a Herculean task. Puntland, that separated from Somalia and did not even participate in the bloody fighting that has defined Somalia, has never been recognized.
The world still considers it as part of the chaotic Somalia even when Puntland has proven that it can function as an independent geo-political entity. Similarly, Southern Cameroonians around the world must understand that keeping their children away from school only hurts their cause.
Their use of armed groups to deter children from going to school only qualifies them as terrorists and the international community has no admiration for people with a penchant for mass destruction. While school boycotts might have worked in the initial days of the conflict, insisting on using it these days could be a sign of desperation.
The Southern Cameroons conflict has gone beyond a school boycott. The increasing diplomatic victories abroad and increasing international pressure on the Yaoundé government are better bargaining chips that could be used to achieve better results.
Keeping children at home for many years when their rightful place is in the classroom is not only immoral, it is also ungodly, especially as the advocates of a school boycott live abroad and have their children in schools abroad. By God, it is great to go to school.
Keeping children away from school through intimidation only equates Southern Cameroonians to Boko Haram that has drawn a lot of flak for refusing children their birth right to education. Holding that the children will only return to school only after a comprehensive reform of the school system is a clear demonstration of ignorance of how administrative and educational systems operate.
Life is a work in progress and reforms could always be introduced at any time when the systems show signs of failure or fatigue. Both parties in the conflict must now demonstrate that they have attained a good level of maturity after the errors of the past three years.
Mistakes have been made, but it will preposterous to continue making more mistakes just because we have to score points Human life is more important than individual opinions. Let us not let our egos to stand in the way of efforts to restore peace in Cameroon. Cameroonians of all linguistic backgrounds must now support all initiatives that will help bring peace to Cameroon.
They must support the Swiss initiative that has already received the blessing of the United States, Canada and the European Union. The time for flexibility is now and Cameroonians cannot afford to miss it.
By Dr Joachim Arrey in Canada