Separatists in restive Northwest Cameroon have, in a rare move, freed a former government minister unharmed after two weeks in captivity. Emmanuel Ngafeson Bantar, a top Ministry of Justice official, was the first advisor to President Paul Biya to be abducted in the Northwest.
Bantar says his stay with the separatists convinced him that an end to the three-year-conflict with the separatists is possible if the government pursues sincere dialogue.
Family and friends sang and danced at Bantar’s Bamenda residence after he was released on Saturday.
Bantar, a former secretary of state in the Ministry of Justice in charge of prison administration, was abducted by armed men in mid-March.
But, while most Cameroon officials kidnapped by suspected separatists end up dead, Bantar says that his captors treated him well.
“Would you imagine that they will come and tell me what is available and ask me what I would want to eat?,” he said. “Would you imagine that they supplied me with mineral water?”
Bantar’s treatment by separatists fighting for an independent English-speaking state in Cameroon is rare.
Cameroon’s government says at least 15 government officials and five traditional rulers have been abducted over the past two years. Nine were later found dead while the whereabouts of eight others are unknown. Others were freed only after large ransoms were paid.
Bantar would not say if he paid a ransom for his release.
Human rights activist Frankline Ndi says Bantar’s release may show that separatists are tiring of the fighting, which has killed at least a thousand people in Cameroon, displaced half a million and brought economic life in rebel areas to a halt.
“War cannot go without an end. We cannot continue fighting when we do not know how the fight will end,” said Ndi. “We have lost many already. We have lost properties. I do believe it is a time for any rightful thinking son of the Northwest and Southwest to put on that thinking cap and reflections on peace.”
Cameroon’s Territorial Administration Minister Paul Atanga Nji says if the rebels are serious about peace, they should drop their guns and be pardoned as President Paul Biya asked.
“Some of the terrorists in certain localities have willfully handed over their weapons to the forces of law and order,” said Nji. “They were realistic because they know that you cannot fight a state. We have pockets of resistance but how long will they last?”
Cameroon’s separatists complain the country’s English-speakers are treated as second-class citizens in the Francophone central Africa country, and want to create an independent state. The international community has condemned violence from both the rebels and security forces and called for a negotiated end to the conflict.