An unsettling calm is quietly prevailing in Cameroon after the much-totted Major National Dialogue called by Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya, who has been in power for 37 years. Though the Major National Dialogue fell short of the expectations of many groups, especially the country’s Diaspora and Southern Cameroons separatists who have been locking horns with the Yaounde government for more than three years, many around the world thought that with a huge dose of objectivity and rare honesty on the government’s part, Cameroon, a country once considered as an oasis of peace in a desert of chaos, could make giant strides forward towards peace.
Cameroon, the Central African sub-region’s engine of growth, had been caught in a downward political and economic spiral following demonstrations and protests by the country’s English-speaking minority in October 2016 which met with a tough response from the Yaounde government that is wont to military violence and averse to negotiation or dialogue.
Since then, the two-English-speaking regions have become ungovernable. The country’s military has killed some 3,000 civilians and erased some 200 villages from the country’s map by torching homes and destroying property. Separatists, for their part, have also taken a page out of the government’s book of violence and since 2016 when the conflict erupted, more than a thousand soldiers have been sent to an early grave, with many killed in the most horrible manner.
Some of the armed groups have resorted to beheading soldiers and dismembering those they accuse of betraying the cause. However, observers have been arguing that some of the gruesome acts captured on video are the handiwork of armed groups created by the country’s Territorial Administration Minister, Paul Atanga Nji, to commit some of those atrocious crimes with the objective of giving the rebellion a very bad name.
The violence playing out in the two English-speaking regions has resulted in the internal displacement of more than half a million people, while a similar number is currently living in neighboring countries such as Nigeria, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Many Southern Cameroonians have escaped to unknown destinations and millions are targeting countries such as Canada, the United States and Great Britain where they can find a sanctuary after decades of marginalization and persecution by the Francophone government.
The country has continued its onward march to the bottom of the abyss, as the violence escalates. The country’s economy has taken deadly blows to the liver following the destruction of the economy of the two English-speaking regions of the country and there are no indications that it will soon come off the life support equipment it has been hooked up to. Major state corporations such as the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC), the National Oil Refinery (SONARA) and PAMOL, all located in the country’s Southwest region, have been put out of business due to the conflict and this has cut the government off some of its major revenue streams.
The devastating impact of the conflict has been worrisome to the international community which, for long, has been calling for an inclusive dialogue. With Mr. Biya’s announcement of the dialogue, many around the world thought that the penny had finally dropped and that all the issues plaguing the country would be discussed during the week-long Major National Dialogue, which some analysts say was hastily convened by the government to subvert the Swiss Initiative that has been welcomed by Southern Cameroonians and the armed factions.
But true to its nature and logic, the Yaounde government ensured that only those items it had included on the agenda could be discussed to the displeasure and chagrin of many Cameroonians living abroad. The international community was taken aback, but it welcomed the initiative, arguing that it was a first step towards the search for a peaceful and sustainable solution to the conflict that has put Cameroon in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
The government did not only design the event’s agenda, it also chose the participants. It is generally held that you make peace with your enemies, but the Yaounde government decided to make peace with its friends. Only those who could play by its script were given an opportunity to share their perspectives.
Though a few opposition faces were brought in, government agents kept a close eye on them and their effort to change the event’s agenda met with stiff resistance from government representatives who had received firm instructions from the presidency not to yield to any pressure, if ever there was any. The government even invented its own Amba boys – a name for the ferocious Southern Cameroonian fighters who have given government troops a run for their money – to come and demonstrate in front of the cameras and international community that they had renounced violence and were seeking the country’s clemency and rehabilitation.
But the “comedians” who passed off as Amba Boys turned out to be prisoners and a few impostors. The impostors have melted into the crowd while the prisoners are back in their jails reflecting on their fate. For the impostors, they know they are not supposed to cross the Mungo – the boundary between East and West Cameroon – as their lives will never be the same again.
Many of such “comedians” have already been beheaded, including one who was received by the Northwest region’s governor. He had claimed that he was a fighter and wanted to walk away from the fighting following the government’s launching of its demobilization programme. He also promised to talk his former colleagues into abandoning their weapons. Unfortunately, he never had the time to convince even a single fighter, as he was dismembered the following day and his body dumped in a public place.
The Major National Dialogue that had inspired a lot of hope is turning out to be a hullabaloo, a scheme designed by the government to hoodwink the international community into believing that it was finally prioritizing peace over military violence. Some recommendations had been submitted to the country’s long-serving president, but many Cameroonians, especially Southern Cameroonians, are not expecting much from a government that is both judge and jury in a devastating conflict. The Biya regime has a way of solving its problems. It simply sits out the issues, hoping that time will settle the matter.
Some agents of the government have been working hard to sell the “Special Status” that has been recommended for Southern Cameroons, but this will not cut ice with the English-speaking minority that has complained about marginalization for decades. The separatists are still in action and they hold that they still have a huge stomach for a fight. Their war chest might have diminished over the last year, but their determination to roll back the Yaounde government from their land seems to be paying off.
On October 1, 2019, the separatists celebrated their independence in many parts of Southern Cameroons, and it was clear that the Yaounde government had run out of gasoline. There were no soldiers or gendarmes to stop Southern Cameroonians from celebrating their independence. Today, it is normal to see some government officials who had caused the conflict to escalate go on bended knees to call for peace. Some who thought it would be easy to silence Southern Cameroonians have now become apostles of peace and are crisscrossing the country to preach peace according to the corrupt ruling party.
Some are calling for a federal system as a middle ground that will calm minds and bring about peace in the country. But after more than three years of fighting and killing, will it be possible to reunite the country and reconcile? From every indication, the anger runs very deep and the separatists have gained a lot of ground that they might never want to yield.
The international community has recognized them and even the Americans and European Union now recognize them as forces that must be at the negotiating table if peace must be a reality in Cameroon. Last week, the United States ambassador in Cameroon said the world was still looking forward to the inclusive dialogue the international community has been calling for, a message that has been reiterated by the European Union. This really rattled the Yaounde government which finally forced its communication minister, Rene Sadi, to hold a press conference on the matter.
The U.S message simply implies that the Major National Dialogue has not been recognized abroad and will surely not deliver the goods. If the Yaounde government is looking forward to genuine reconciliation, it must walk away from its old ways. The Southern Cameroons crisis has shaken the country to its core and the country’s unity has been put through its paces. If proper actions are not taken to bring about genuine reconciliation in Cameroon, the country might continue to drift into more chaos that could linger for a long time, making reconciliation impossible.
By Joachim Arrey
About the Author: The author has served as a translator, technical writer, journalist and editor for several international organizations and corporations across the globe. He studied communication at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and technical writing in George Brown College in Toronto, Canada. He is also a trained translator and holds a Ph.D.