Cameroonian ruler Paul Biya’s surprise decision to free hundreds of detained opponents after a stinging crackdown on separatists is seen by some experts as a way to ease tensions but short of a major policy shift.
Main opposition leader Maurice Kamto walked free from jail Saturday after a military court ordered his release at the behest of Biya, who has firmly ruled the west African country for nearly 37 years.
The conciliatory gesture comes as the president faces a number of domestic crises, including a two-year secession drive by anglophone separatists which has claimed some 3,000 lives, and international criticism over political freedoms.
He also ordered talks last week on the crisis in the Francophone country’s two English-speaking regions which ended with a proposal to give them more autonomy.
The announcements “surprised everybody”, said political analyst Stephane Akoa, adding: “Why now… when for three years Mr Biya has been toeing a hard line?”
Even up until August, the government cracked the whip, sentencing separatist leader Julius Ayuk Tabe to life in a high security prison in the capital Yaounde.
But on September 10, the government announced a five-day “national dialogue” aimed at ending the anglophone crisis.
Held last week, it was shunned by the majority of separatist leaders but ended with a proposal for more autonomy for the two regions — home to most of the country’s anglophones, who account for about a fifth of the country’s 24 million population that is overwhelmingly French-speaking.
“In terms of public relations, the dialogue was a success for the government which gave the impression of completely changing its strategy,” said Akoa.
“However, it’s not clear if it’s going to settle many things. It’s hardly likely that these measures will reassure those who have taken up arms against Yaounde.”
The anglophones complain of discrimination and marginalisation, especially in education, the judiciary and economic opportunities.
“This doesn’t correspond to the expectations of the majority of anglophones who want federalism at the least,” said Cindy Morillas from the French research centre Les Afriques dans le monde (Africa In the World).
– International pressure –
Morillas said that Biya reacted to international pressure “as well as from domestic civil society and he just had to move.”
Since the start of the year, the US, European Union and even France had been pressuring Biya to assume a softer approach in dealing with separatists and calling for Kamto’s release.
Kamto, 65, was arrested in late January after months of peaceful opposition protests over the results of an October 2018 presidential election in which he came in second.
More than 100 people in detention are also now set for release “if they have not been detained for anything else”, the military court said.
The move drew immediate applause.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that he “encourages the Cameroonian authorities to continue to adopt further confidence-building and reconciliation measures”.
The United States called it a constructive step towards easing political tensions, while Amnesty International hailed it as “a welcome step towards ending the long repression of dissenting voices in Cameroon”.
But the organisation also called on authorities to “go further by releasing all other individuals arbitrarily detained for having exercised their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.
Morillas said the measures were slightly “grandiloquent” but underscored that they “were a small step forward.”
Cameroonian newspapers were divided on Monday on what it spelt for the future.
The pro-government Cameroon Insider daily spoke of “The entire Nation in Peace Mode” while the Mutations newspaper tempered the titled with the question “Resolutions… and then?”