Can COVID-19 cure COFID-16 in Cameroon?

By Mwalimu George Ngwane*

Cameroon’s quest for silencing the gun and summoning the peace can be challenging but surmountable says Mwalimu George Ngwane.

Pandemics have had great influence minimizing conflict curves and engendering peace settlements. Can COVID-19 pandemic provide scope and space for the management of what I term the Conflict Over Federalism, Independence or Decentralisation (COFID) that reached its manifest stage in 2016 in Cameroon? Can all parties in the ongoing crisis in Cameroon emulate the “Push for Peace within a Pandemic” call to stop the fighting and start the healing? Under the terms of a peace agreement that came into effect on 22 February 2020 (within COVID-19) South Sudan set up a Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity in Juba (capital of South Sudan) under the mediation efforts of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

All the parties acknowledged that the Transitional Government is not a goal but the beginning of a process towards the transition to civil rule. Since 2004, Southern Thailand has struggled under a bloody confrontation between local armed cells and the Thai military resulting in over 7000 deaths. Ceasefires have been repeatedly proposed but never gained momentum in Thailand. But recently the threat of COVID-19 has led to a minor break through as the main rebel faction informally decided to postpone hostilities until the pandemic is brought under control.

United Nations (UN) top envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen told the United Nations Security Council on 28 April 2020 that Syria desperately needed a nation-wide ceasefire after more than nine years of civil war, to enable its war-weary citizens to access the equipment and resources necessary to combat COVID-19. It is in this vein that the Syrian warring sides agreed to the constitution talks that held in Geneva in May 2020 (within COVID-19).

An All Manyu Conference in Cameroon was held on 16 May 2020 following the gruesome murder of Mayor Ashu Ojong of Mamfe. It was a conference that sought to brainstorm over tracks that could lead to sanity and peace in the conflict-prone Manyu division.

Back in time and in December 2004, the Tsunami and the calamitous devastation it caused (130000 killed and 500000 rendered homeless) paved the way for a peace deal that ended 30 years of violence in Aceh, Indonesia. In the wake of the Tsunami, separatist rebels and government started cooperating to enable humanitarian aid delivery, and within 8 months they had signed a peace agreement under the mediation of former Finnish President, senior UN diplomat and eventual Peace prize winner, Martti Ahtisaari. Within the peace agreement, the insurgent groups renounced their claim to a separate state and in exchange Indonesia agreed to afford a large degree of political, economic, and developmental Special autonomy or Special Status to the Aceh region.

On 23 April 2020 the UN Secetary-General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire so that parties to any conflict join forces against the corona virus instead of fighting. By end of May 2020 the UN could cite twelve countries in which one party to a conflict had endorsed the ceasefire appeal. Under these circumstances a nation-wide ceasefire is needed in Cameroon (within COVID-19). If within this pandemic, our government has authorized the opening of public spaces including schools, then all stakeholders to this conflict can open dialogue spaces for a bilateral ceasefire and a lasting peace settlement.

 A pandemic, according to the Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen, can be viewed as a third party that changes attitudes in a conflict. For Minna Kukkonen-Karlander of the Finnish Crisis Management Initiative, COVID-19 can help build the trust needed to resolve more difficult issues, and apply pressure on conflicting parties to engage in practical cooperation.

Cameroon’s quest for silencing the gun and summoning the peace can be challenging but surmountable. Does Cameroon’s four year asymmetrical conflict have a permanent External Mediator or Facilitator (sub regional, regional or global)? Do we have any homegrown Mediator or Internal Facilitator (Church, Media, NGOs, Academia, Traditional authority, Trade Union, or Independent Personality) that can process the peace plan?

Does the government acknowledge the importance and necessity of third party mediation? Are the hydra-headed insurgent groups so organized as to produce an accepted collegial leadership and a realistic common vision towards the resolution of the conflict? Are all conflicting parties prepared to delve into the root cause rather than latent causes of this conflict?

Do the parties know the difference between the Anglophone problem and the problems of the Anglophone in this crisis? Are the stakeholders aware that comprehensive peace agreements are often the result of compromise efforts and not hardened positions? Do they know that peace talks are not often a one-off-event nor a one-stop-shop?

Liberia had over a dozen peace talks before the watershed Accra Peace Agreement of August 18, 2003. Sierra Leone had close to six peace accords before it produced a people-centered democratic rule. The Syrian conflict has had twelve rounds of peace talks in Kazakhstan and eight rounds of Geneva conferences. This of course is not to validate protracted conflicts or legitimize recurrent peace talks even when the conditions for peace discussions are organically rooted. Contrary to some opinion that lays claim to the effect that armed conflicts often take close to ten years or more before they can be resolved, the Biafra-Nigeria war ended after 2 years,6 months,1 week and 2 days (6 July 1967 -15 January 1970).

The Major National Dialogue organized by our government between September 30 and October 4, 2019 was significant in establishing the fact that only through dialogue can we as a people find lasting peace. More dialogue corridors need to be ventilated. The principle of a Special Status emanating from the Major National Dialogue shone a light on the dark chambers of hyper-centralisation. Yet subsequent Follow-up discussions to the content of this Special status need to align this status to the basic universal canons of any Special autonomy worldwide and to design its architecture to reflect the specific container of an erstwhile associated statehood.

 It is on record that on Thursday 14 May 2020 President Paul Biya had a telephone conversation with the President of the Swiss Confederation Simonetta Sommaruga over the prospects of resuming peace talks (within COVID-19). With close to 3000 deaths and more than 700000 internally displaced persons and refugees in COFID-16 any mediation (Swiss, American, German or African) needs no ‘wait until COVID-19 is over”.

While COVID-19 entails that we wash our physical hands with sanitisers so as to stay safe, COFID-16 would require that we fill our political minds with energizers so as to stay relevant. While COVID-19 demands that we put on face masks to prevent viral infection, COFID-16 would underscore that we take off fixed positions to enhance vibrant discussion.

While COVID-19 establishes that we observe social distancing in order to curb contamination, COFID-16 would encourage ideological proximity in order to find common ground. If COVID-19 can provide the decisive impetus to COFID-16 then let the mediation begin.

*Mwalimu George Ngwane is author of the book “Settling Disputes in Africa” ,Senior Chevening Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Resolution, University of York (UK) 2010, Rotary Peace Fellow, University of Chulalongkorn, Bangkok (Thailand) 2015, Commonwealth Professional Fellow, Minority Rights Group, London (UK) 2016, Bilingual Commission Scholar, Cardiff, (Wales) 2016, United Nations Minority Rights Fellow, (Geneva) 2016

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