By Boris Esono Nwenfor
An expert on democratization in Africa, Dr Fomunyoh says the grievances raised by Anglophones or former Southern Cameroonians are real and legitimate, and the conflict cannot be resolved militarily. Aiming for a military solution is a setup for failure because to win militarily, government forces will have to kill, but each person killed is a family or village or community antagonized.
The Senior Associate and Regional Director for Central and west Africa at NDI has been a vocal voice in the call for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing crisis in the North West and South West Regions for the past five years. A crisis that has seen tens of thousands of people displaced, scores of people continuing to loss their lives and many other atrocities which have been committed.
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh, speaking in an interview with The Voice Newspaper in Cameroon also x-rayed President Biya’s 39-years in office and said the balance sheet does not make for good readings. He said: “I hope President Paul Biya looks at his balance sheet and realizes he will leave the country worse off than he took it in 1982, and therefore owes the Cameroon people, especially the younger generation, an apology.” PAV shares excepts of the hard charging interview below.
Journalist: President Paul Biya just celebrated 39 years in office: how would you characterize his rule these past four decades? What advice would you have for him, given where things are in the country right now?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: It is a sobering moment to look back 39 years and see what Cameroon has become since Paul Biya became president in November 1982. I worked for Cameroon Airlines in Douala at the time and shared in the euphoria and optimism generated by the hope of a better and brighter future for all Cameroonians. The economy was doing great – we had three major American Banks operating in the country, over 30 parastatal corporations were flying the national flag in different sectors, young University graduates were finding jobs and also creating their own small and medium-sized enterprises, government officials were being held accountable, and we bragged about the country being ‘Africa in miniature.’
Today, four decades later, that hope has been dashed and we now see a very fragmented, divided country in which nepotism, corruption, excessive polarization and violence prevail. Additionally, for the 20 per cent of the population that is English speaking or inhabitants of former British Cameroons, it has been a long rough ride of toiling and tears, culminating in the bloodshed and civil strife of the past five years. I hope President Paul Biya looks at his balance sheet and realizes he will leave the country worse off than he took it in 1982, and therefore owes the Cameroon people, especially the younger generation, an apology.
Journalist: Regarding the ongoing conflict in the North West and South West regions, an increasing number of Francophone Cameroonians — intellectuals and ordinary citizens — are becoming very vocal about the costly war situation. They are critical of the way the government is handling the conflict. What is your interpretation of this trend?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: Many Francophones have been quite a vocal right from when Anglophone lawyers, teachers and students were maltreated in 2016. Some spoke out too when the peaceful civil strife morphed into an armed conflict in 2017. With time, upon learning more about the history of British Southern Cameroons now divided into North West and South West regions, an increasing number of Francophones have come to a better understanding of the legitimacy of the grievances raised. I remember the opinion piece and interviews in 2017 by former minister David Abouem-A-Tchoyi, the only Cameroonian to have been governor of both of the two regions, and multiple interviews and declarations by individuals such as Dieudonne Essomba, Patrice Nganang, Barrister Tsapey, Emmanuel Kougne and various spokespersons of many opposition parties. I believe many Francophones recognize the grievances and marginalization decried by Anglophones, although they would rather the issues be resolved politically than through armed conflict.
Journalist: At the opening of the current session of the National Assembly last Wednesday, November 10, Hon. Speaker Cavaye Djibril spoke about the conflict and asked Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and traditional chiefs from the North West and South West regions to return to the region. What do you make of that?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: Finally, finally, it’s taken Speaker Cavaye Djibril five full years to realize that thousands of people have been killed in the North West and South West regions, that a million are now displaced either internally or as refugees and hundreds of villages and homes have been burnt or destroyed. Had the Speaker listened to Hon. Joseph Wirba in 2016, or had he sent parliamentary teams of inquiry into the regions all these five years or himself visited some of the areas, perhaps he would speak with more credibility on the matter. The Speaker’s passivity, insensitivity and indifference since the crisis began in 2016 make his words ring hollow, and he should be reminded that IDPs, traditional rulers and others from the North West and South West love their families and home communities, but can’t return to the regions for some because the conflict is still ragging, and for others because there are no homes to return to.
Journalist: The government is pursuing a military campaign to end the conflict. What is your assessment of the option of arms to resolve the conflict? Is there a military solution to this conflict? So, what should president Paul Biya do to save Cameroon?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: As I have said repeatedly since the beginning of the armed conflict in 2017, the grievances raised by Anglophones or former Southern Cameroonians are real and legitimate, and the conflict cannot be resolved militarily. Aiming for a military solution is a setup for failure because to win militarily, government forces will have to kill, but each person killed is a family or village or community antagonized. And casualties among the police, gendarmes and military also mean that families are grieving in pain on both sides of the divide. That for me is not only unacceptable; it is unsustainable. Even some people in the government know that too. The right thing to do right now is to have a cease-fire, release all prisoners and detainees, and open up facilitated negotiations over the root causes of the alienation and conflict.
Journalist: We are now seeing random killings such as that of Carolaise Enondaile in Buea, and Tataw Brandy in Bamenda, and homemade explosives in the University of Buea campus and public taxis or buses in Buea and Bamenda. Is this urban escalation inevitable?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: We were all still in shock at the killing of four years old Carolouise Enondaile in Buea on October 14, when we learned of the killing of seven years old Brandy Tataw in Bamenda on November 12. These random killings against all manner of victims, including children, are heinous and despicable. I cannot express enough my sorrow and deepest condolences to the bereaved families, and the populations in Buea and Bamenda and other parts of the two regions being traumatized daily by these occurrences. The killing of Carolouise was shocking, and the mob justice on the gendarme, terrible. Last month it was Buea, and this month Bamenda; and so, when will this cruelty and reckless extrajudicial killings end? These are telling signs of a society on edge. You may remember in 2018, I warned that the armed conflict would have a dehumanizing effect on us all, and you can see today, the loss of life, including of children, civilians, young men and people in uniform is fast becoming part of normalcy. We must take concrete measures to reverse course.
Journalist: Peace and conflict experts in and outside of Cameroon have expressed dismay at the world’s indifference about the conflict in the English-speaking regions. Do you share their frustration?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: I do. Who would have thought that friends of Cameroon will stand by idly while thousands are killed in a senseless war? I have seen policymakers wring their hands hoping the conflict will go away, and others unwilling to speak up for fear of losing favour or jeopardizing other interests. That is truly immoral because, after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, many Africans took the ‘never again’ international proclamation and the responsibility to protect doctrine seriously. Even the recent ‘silencing the guns’ initiative by the African Union hasn’t been felt in the organization’s response to this conflict.
Journalist: This conflict initially started on a low scale of peaceful protests when pent up anger exploded over the treatment of Anglophones in this union with francophone Cameroon. Does the embrace of force by both sides mean that dialogue and a peaceful resolution of the conflict are no longer possible?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: No, we cannot give up on dialogue. Dialogue and negotiations are inevitable given the grievances that are now being embraced even by children of primary school age and regular citizens in urban centres and rural areas. People will not forget the pain and suffering they are currently experiencing, and the only way to get their buy-in for a different future is to provide an alternative platform through which their grievances can be addressed.
Journalist: But two years after the government convened a Major National Dialogue to address the anglophone grievances and to end the conflict, why do you think peace has not returned?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: There are obvious differences between those that saw the Major National Dialogue as the silver bullet that would resolve all matters immediately, and many of us who felt that more needed to be done to have a credible and inclusive process. Given that the conflict drags on even two years later, we were proven right. In short, peace has not returned as killings and atrocities continue because those that hold arms and their backers feel that their grievances have not yet been fully addressed. There are outstanding process issues in terms of who was at the table during the Dialogue, and substantive questions in terms of what issues were debated and what innovative responses were adopted. People are still yearning for their voices to be heard and their dignity and sense of belonging to be restored.
Journalist: What role do you think the church has to play in the crisis?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: In a conflict situation, those that advocate for peace and social justice tend to look around for impartial and respected interlocutors that can speak on behalf of the downtrodden and most vulnerable among us. Churches and religious leaders are peacemakers par excellence; and, if courageous enough to speak truth to power, could be in a strong position to counter the warmongers and those that believe might is right.
Journalist: Alongside the British Lord Alton of Liverpool, you recently called on the Vatican to mediate in the conflict. Now, with the numerous sex scandals rocking the Catholic Church, do you think the Catholic Church still has the moral standing to be a respected neutral or arbiter?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: In fact, the appeals that Lord Alton and I put forward through the Independent Catholic News outlet were directed at the Vatican as a global moral institution and not to individual members of the Catholic Church. The Vatican has credibility in this country, and Cameroonian authorities will answer the Pope’s call at any minute. Priests and Bishops, especially in the conflict zones have been quite vocal about their concerns. They live the insecurity daily and can speak to the atrocities, suffering and hardship in the communities they serve. We need a credible voice to call out the hardliners on both sides so the bloodshed can end and Cameroonians can stop killing each other.
Journalist: If you met the Pope in an elevator, what would be your one-minute pitch to him, in regards to recruiting the Church to mediate the dialogue?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: I would say, “Holy Father, in your quest for peace and justice around the world, can you speak out for Cameroon where 20 per cent of the population now faces an existential threat to its belonging due to an armed conflict that has cost thousands of lives, close to one million displaced either internally or as refugees, and where close to four million or 50 per cent of the population are now at risk of famine in this 21st century? Can you lead the world in saying ‘never again’ to a senseless war in which killings and atrocities abound?”
Journalist: Given your experience of over two decades working for the National Democratic Institute and your background in Law and Political Sciences, with academic degrees from Yaounde and other prestigious universities like Harvard and Boston in the United States, could you resolve this Crisis if tasked to do so?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: A crisis of this magnitude cannot be resolved by one individual, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I could make a substantive contribution to its resolution under the right circumstances and alongside other well-intentioned individuals and social and political actors. That is why, on several occasions, I have made suggestions on steps that could be taken to bring the conflict to an end and to address the root causes. Certain conditions would have to be met, several confidences building measures would have to be taken and all parties must be open to speaking frankly about the hard facts and difficult questions that now divide us.
Journalist: What would be your roadmap for an end to this armed conflict? What are your expectations? What outcome do you envisage?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: First an immediate ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, a release of political prisoners and detainees, a stop to arbitrary arrests, harassment and extrajudicial killings, agreement on a neutral third-party facilitator who can shepherd the negotiations among the warring parties or factions, a review of the rules of engagement for security service still deployed in the two regions, and various confidence-building measures that can create an enabling environment for meaningful dialogue on the issues at stake. In the past five years, the conduct of this war has engendered very hard feelings of bitterness, disaffection and disenchantment within Anglophone communities, and any agreement that is arrived at in the course of a negotiated process would have to be sold back to the population to get their buy-in. I am struck by various surveys of Anglophones that show that a sizable segment of our people wants out of the current political dispensation, and all efforts towards peace and social justice would have to consider that.
Journalist: If you had all the Ambazonian factions around the table, what would you tell them – before the negotiations?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: The task here would be to place before them confidence enhancers that assure everyone their voices will be heard and their safety guaranteed, and then walk them through a road map with viable solutions or alternatives to what it is they want.
Journalist: How is this conflict perceived within the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, an organization that works to strengthen and promote democracy and good governance around the world? Is your Institute collecting any data on the Crisis?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: While NDI is not collecting data on the conflict, I know of other credible organizations and initiatives that are doing so, and that are ready to share their data and information with appropriate authorities and international organizations at the right time. I can assure you that contrary to the impunity that seems prevalent right now, there will come a time when individuals and entities will be held to account for crimes and atrocities committed during this conflict.
Journalist: What have been your areas of focus and your efforts so far?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: Personally, and through the Fomunyoh Foundation (www.tffcam.org) I have focused as much as I can, and alongside many other individuals and civil society organizations, on assisting internally displaced persons within the country and refugees in various camps in neighbouring Nigeria. It is heartbreaking to see what this conflict has done to people who, until recently, lived decent lives.
It is even shocking when an organization such as the World Food Programme warns about the possibility of close to four million people at risk of famine in the North West and South West, knowing that these regions now experiencing conflict used to thrive on agriculture and were among the breadbaskets of the country. I have also tried to raise awareness among African leaders and internationally on the deaths and destruction and risks of further escalation of this conflict. I hope all of these efforts will bear fruit soon.
Journalist: What future do you see for Cameroon in the medium to long term?
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh: Watching the developments of the past five years, it is extremely difficult to keep one’s optimism and not come to the conclusion that this conflict will not be resolved under Paul Biya’s presidency. Biya’s style of governance and his approach to dissent and grievances by citizens has exacerbated the conflict and remain part not of the solution, but the problem. Even today, some government officials still speak and conduct themselves as if this country hasn’t seen enough bloodshed in four years.
It’s also disheartening to realize that the prime minister who seems to be the most desirous of peace and an end to the conflict doesn’t have much wiggle room within this administration to make a difference. On the contrary, one sees dwarfs and Lilliputians positioning themselves to be the next leaders of this country whereas they have neither the heft, the knowhow, background or credibility to bring this conflict to an end and chart a new pathway forward. Oftentimes though, the Good Lord has his plans and we may wake up to surprises that move things in a more positive direction. Even then, a lot of heavy lifting and transformational shifts will be required to give people back their dignity and relaunch the country on a path of peace and reconciliation.