By Ajong Mbapndah L
When it comes to issues of peace and conflict resolution in Africa, Roelf Meyer is a revered figure in his own right. As lead negotiator with current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in the late 80s and early 90s, a new dawn was ushered in for South Africa following successful talks that led to the end of the nefarious apartheid system.
The ongoing crisis in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon are largely surmountable but the government needs to prioritize genuine and inclusive dialogue as a matter of urgency, says Roelf Meyer. Interviewed after a recent visit to Cameroon, Meyer says it was shocking how little the outside world seems to understand the depths of the crisis in the North West and South West Regions. The callous killings are unnecessary Meyer says as he urges the international community do more in helping to push for peace and a lasting solution to the crisis.
“We are, based on the South African experience, big advocates for dialogue as the real instrument to bring about change and to resolve conflict and I would say for the case of Cameroon, that is what is required,” says Roelf Meyer. Meyer whose peace initiatives now span the globe believes that there are many lessons from the South African experience that could serve Cameroon.
You visited Cameroon in April, your first visit to that country in which an armed conflict currently pits the Cameroon government against non-state armed groups in the North West and South West Regions, formerly known as British Southern Cameroons. Is this a sign that you and your organisation are interested in contributing to end that conflict?
Roelf Meyer: In 2013, I co-founded In Transformation Initiative in South Africa to share our South African experience with people and countries in conflict situations around the world. We have been very successful in many countries because of interest in the South African experience of how we changed insurmountable conflict, especially in the late 1980s, into a situation where we could make a peaceful transition from a dictatorial state to a democratic state. In fact, we have shared that experience in several countries around the globe including on the African continent, and recently I was asked by a well-respected Cameroonian to take interest in the conflict in the country. Thus, in April, I had the privilege of visiting Cameroon for the first time; it was a brief visit that lasted a few days in Yaounde and Douala. The main purpose was to speak about peace building and development in two academic institutions.
Although this was your first visit to Cameroon, were you able to take the pulse on the conflict beyond your speaking engagements in the two academic institutions?
Roelf Meyer: I had the opportunity while in Yaoundé and Douala to speak to individuals who have close knowledge of the conflict in Cameroon. I received a broader understanding of the conflict and what is going wrong. One thing that struck me was the level of violence that prevails and unfortunately is not known to the outside world. I think it is important that the international community take note of what is happening there to try and support a process that will bring the violence to an end. The unnecessary killing of people, mostly civilians, who have been drawn into the conflict is unnecessary and unacceptable. I also tried to get a better understanding of the underlying factors behind the current bloodshed and unnecessary violent conflict. You may remember that we experienced enormous political violence in South Africa before the release of President Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, and even after his release. Listening to various individuals in-between the speaking engagements, I and my fellow Director of In Transformation Initiative, Mr Junior John, both left Cameroon feeling we could perhaps draw on our South African and other experiences on our continent and globally to help resolve the conflict, but we will have to see how the situation unfolds.
Given your contribution as lead negotiator with current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in your country, do you believe Cameroonians could draw any lessons from the South African experience?
Roelf Meyer: I think Cameroonians could draw from the lessons that we learned from the South African case. Surely, each conflict has its characteristics and has to be respected for its uniqueness, but certain basic principles do however apply across country specificities. For example, we succeeded in South Africa to build a wholly inclusive peace process; all relevant parties that were part of the conflict participated in the dialogue and eventual negotiation that led to a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy. The second was that we succeeded in building trust across the divide that existed. For example, President Cyril Ramaphosa was the chief negotiator for the African National Congress (ANC), the leading anti-apartheid movement, and I was privileged to be the chief negotiator for the government of President De Klerk; and the two of us succeeded in building a bridge between us first of all – we developed trust between us which was hugely instrumental in resolving the South African conflict. The third factor is the fact that we succeeded in taking responsibility and ownership of the problem that we had to resolve. We accepted that it was our conflict and we accepted that we had the responsibility to resolve it. It was a mutual commitment from the opposing sides to indeed contribute to resolving the conflict such that we also accepted mutual responsibility for the outcome.
You were also Minister of Constitutional Affairs, first under President Frederick De Klerk and later under President Nelson Mandela; so would you say certain constitutional models are more amenable to guarantee peace, social justice and human dignity, and prevent conflict? What would be the main characteristics of such constitutional arrangements in a country like Cameroon with a very diverse history and culture, and now going through an armed conflict because of those same factors?
Roelf Meyer: The three factors I mentioned above are all key in helping to resolve the conflict in Cameroon. In the South African case, for example, the one thing that fundamentally helped us to resolve the South African differences was that we accepted that the future South Africa that we had to create had to be built on accepting individual rights on an equal basis for all, to ensure that blacks and whites could live together as equal individuals in a future South Africa. That was the fundamental factor that contributed; we did not see ourselves as the black majority and white minority but as equal individuals, and that foundation is in the constitution that we have today which was negotiated between the opposing parties. That constitution was also the main contributing factor to find a settlement in our conflict and help us to transition from an authoritarian regime like apartheid was to a democratic government which we have had in South Africa since 1994.
Based on your experience in South Africa and engagements in many conflict resolution initiatives around the world, and on your preliminary conversations thus far, how do you think the ongoing conflict in the North West and South West regions or what some people refer to as former British Southern Cameroons or Ambazonia can be resolved?
Roelf Meyer: Yes, I think it is possible to draw from other experiences including that of South Africa in addressing the Anglophone conflict in Cameroon. In my mind, the starting point of the resolution of any conflict is to establish the basis for talks. It often starts with ‘talks about talks’, then the real talks, and then you get to a situation of dialogue which flows into negotiations that address the situation and root causes. If this method can be followed in the case of Cameroon, it is most likely that the starting point is there but also a possible path to an acceptable outcome. Time is also of the essence, and there’s urgency in stopping the bloodshed and further alienation.
AM: Having been Minister of Defence earlier in your career, when you compare the situation you had to grapple with within South Africa, and what obtains in Cameroon today, what are some of the similarities that you see and how challenging can it be to get a solution that meets the expectation of conflicting parties?
Roelf Meyer: In terms of my experience as Minister of Defence, let me emphasize that I was Minister of Defence after the dialogue and negotiations already started in South Africa – my task as Minister of Defence was therefore to lead the process of negotiations within the military so as to address the issue of integration in the military and the paramilitary of the liberation movements. That process was started during my tenure as Minister of Defence and from that experience, I can say some similarities need to be addressed although there are also unique features of the Cameroonian conflict in that regard. In the South African experience, we deployed a very strong military response to uphold the powers of the minority white regime in South Africa, but this too had to be addressed during the negotiations. We successfully integrated the different military and institutional forces but also the paramilitary from the liberation movements. And the day that Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first democratically elected president of South Africa, by his side was the chief of the military of the former apartheid regime which shows how effective that process of integration and successful transition took place in the South African case.
In a conflict of this nature where there has been so much bloodshed, distrust, pain and suffering, divergent views, fragmented groups, vested interests for some actors on both sides and so many other complexities, what would typically be a starting point for addressing the root causes and what other logical steps would follow suit?
Roelf Meyer: In my view, the only real solution to the crisis is genuine, inclusive dialogue, and I can say that from the South African case that was our experience. We are, based on the South African experience, big advocates for dialogue as the real instrument to bring about change and to resolve conflict and I would say for the case of Cameroon, that is what is required. Looking at starting points, it often has to start with discrete talks meaning below the radar; only a few people may know about efforts to test the water and laying the foundation before actually getting into it. That is what happened in the South African case with some talks taking place between the apartheid government and Nelson Mandela while he was still in prison and the same with the exiled leaders of the liberation movements. There were ‘talks about talks’ even three or four years before the actual process started after the release of President Mandela. Maybe that is something that can help us to address the situation in Cameroon. I understand that some of that may already have occurred in diverse forms — the process of talks that could lead to better understanding, preparing the ground with confidence building measures, testing the waters and then eventually delving into dialogue and negotiations to reach mutually acceptable positions for the opposing sides. Watching the situation from the outside, it seems to me that the conflict in Cameroon is not insurmountable in terms of seeking a solution, and one has to address the complexities mentioned one by one and then the result and solution will follow.
With your very rich personal and professional experience, should you and South Africa, which remains a giant on the continent, be called upon to help seek a lasting solution to the conflict in Cameroon; would you and the country consider that possibility?
Roelf Meyer: It is early for me to say whether South Africa or myself can play a role. I think it depends on how things evolve within the next several weeks or few months. I don’t think it is opportune now to say outright ‘yes’ to the question. We must keep in mind that South Africa is a non-interested player as far as the sub region is concerned. South Africa has not been directly impacted by the conflict in Cameroon and that is, I think, quite a neutral, objective, and independent posture as far as the conflict is concerned. For that reason, it could play a constructive role which also describes my own position if I were to take further interest in helping the situation in Cameroon. For now, I would like to wish the people of Cameroon well in their endeavour to find solutions to the conflict. Like I said, one of the most important lessons from the South African experience is that we took ownership and responsibility and, yes, some advisers and people shared their experiences with us but in the end, we internalised the fact that it was our conflict in South Africa and that we had to resolve it through negotiations, and that is exactly what we did.