The Southern Cameroons crisis which started with protests by lawyers and teachers in the country’s two English-speaking regions has not only crippled the country financially. It has also created a strange strain of distrust towards the government and this distrust will have dire consequences for the government which has a huge burden of proving that it is capable of leading the country in an objective, serious and honest manner.
Southern Cameroonians in particular and Cameroonians in general do not trust the government because of its constant use of brutality as its weapon of choice for the resolution of issues which could be addressed around a negotiating table.
The government’s excessive use of brutality throughout the Southern Cameroons crisis has sent more than ten thousand Cameroonians to an early grave, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and thousands are now living with disabilities which will be reminders of the mistakes that were made because of a huge dependence on violence as a tool of choice for conflict resolution.
Today, things are improving in the country’s two English-speaking regions, though small crooks and criminals are still on the prowl for possible victims. The two regions are awash with light weapons which made their way into the country through the border with Nigeria, and trigger-happy young men are using these weapons to harass innocent people, kidnap those they suspect of having money and even settling scores with those they disagree with.
This has left many people in fear, though the killings, especially government-sponsored killings, are dwindling. This is giving many people in the two English-speaking regions some hope that someday, things will return to normal. They are looking forward to the day when their children will be able to go to school without anybody harassing them. They are longing for the day they will be able to travel without the little criminals who pass off as fighters will not block the road and make their lives miserable.
In many parts of the two English-speaking regions of the country, civilians are coming together to fight those fake fighters who have made the lives of many Southern Cameroonians a living hell. The crooks are there for their own interest and have nothing to do with the liberation of Southern Cameroons. The people had supported the struggle in the beginning because they thought it would enable them walk away from the Francophone majority whose goal was to subjugate the English-speaking minority.
But their support for the fighters started dwindling when so-called leaders abroad started embezzling money meant for the war and the desperate fighters started using kidnapping and intimidation as a means of raising money to prosecute the war. In any situation where there is a total breakdown in law and order, criminals can easily make hay while the sun shines and that is what armed criminals have been doing to line their pockets.
Many people have been killed not by soldiers or real fighters but by criminals who are taking advantage of the chaos that the government has created and sustained for years. The seeds of oppression sown by the government have produced some of the worst ferocious violence and brutality in the two English-speaking regions of the country and this unfortunate situation will linger for a very long time, especially as unemployment remains a millstone around the necks of many young men.
As the fighting is burning out, many observers are asking if the government has learned any lessons, especially from its own mistakes. The fighting itself could have been avoided if the government had used well-known conflict resolution mechanisms. Dialogue, not arms, will deliver more meaningful results in any conflict situation and the government should be aware of this.
The government’s refusal to sincerely dialogue with Southern Cameroonian leaders when the conflict just started is to blame for the thousands of deaths on both sides. Many young men have been killed in a conflict which does not make sense to many people. Thousands of soldiers have been sent to an early grave and thousands of children will never have the opportunity of seeing their fathers because of the government’s wrong decisions.
Repression will never address the country’s issues and the government seems to have learned that but only after many lives have been cut short and development resources wasted in the purchase of arms that were unnecessary. The country’s economy has taken a beating and it will take time for an economy that has been on life support for decades to recover from another unnecessary shock like the war that is still raging on in Southern Cameroons.
The violence started dying down once the government advised the military against killing civilians just to prove a point. Many Southern Cameroonians killed by the military were innocent civilians. They were not fighters. Fighters do not live in towns and cities. They seek refuge in bushes where they can plan their war strategy without fear. Many civilians were killed either in their homes or at city centers and they were not armed. Those killings only triggered a wave of revenge, and this unfortunate situation only created a large pool of fighters who were dead serious about revenging the death of their loved ones.
Today, Cameroonians know how to build IEDs. Those IEDs have wreaked havoc on the military, with thousands sent to an early grave and expensive military equipment destroyed. The massive human cost and huge economic and military consequences should call the government to reason.
Calling off unnecessary military killings of civilians has helped to reduce the tension and pressure that were hanging over many towns and cities in Southern Cameroons. The government should understand that its faulty policies are to blame for the conflict and a reversal of some of those policies could restore peace and security in the two English-speaking regions.
The current systems are not working and a persistence to use them may only push the country into a downward spiral that might trigger serious adverse consequences for the country. Cameroon needs peace and without peace, meaningful economic and social development will remain a distant tomorrow affair. The government seems to have understood this and the current conflict with teachers speaks to the government’s understanding and vulnerability.
By opting for a speedy processing of teachers’ salaries and benefits, as well as avoiding any physical confrontation with thousands of teachers who have vowed not to return to school until their demands are met, the government has demonstrated that a non-military approach is the best when it comes to dealing with conflict. If this approach can be maintained, many issues will be dealt with, and Cameroon will regain its status as an oasis of peace in a desert of chaos.
By Soter Tarh Agbaw-Ebai