Fears Of Escalating Violence As Cameroon Waffles On Peace Talks
Canada’s attempt to facilitate peace between the Cameroon government and armed separatist groups is under pressure as Yaoundé calls its participation into question. There are now fears that violence will escalate as diplomatic efforts to resolve the six-year war in the Anglophone regions may falter. In the confusion surrounding Cameroon’s latest move, it seems all ministers in Yaoundé are not on the same page. Observers warn this chaos may try the patience of the international community after years of unsuccessful attempts to conduct serious dialogue aimed at ending the conflict.
On January 20, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly announced a facilitation process that would include the Yaoundé government and multiple non-state armed groups and separatist representatives. It was the latest bid to resolve the war in Cameroon, following attempts by Switzerland and the Vatican to bring about peace talks. Canada was seen as an ideal interlocutor because its constitution accommodates both Anglophone and Francophone traditions, it has no colonial-era baggage or significant economic self-interest in the country, and Canada has long-standing diplomatic ties to Cameroon.
The parties who agreed to participate in the Canada-led talks were the Republic of Cameroon, the Ambazonia Governing Council and the Ambazonia Defence Force, the African People’s Liberation Movement and the Southern Cameroons Defence Force, the Interim Government, and the Ambazonia Coalition Team. Launching the initiative, Canada said the agreement to enter a formal process was a “critical first step toward peace and a safer, more inclusive and prosperous future for civilians affected by the conflict.”
Observers pointed out that it was a significant achievement to have brought so many non-state armed groups on board after years of disagreement and fractionalization. The Canada-led proposal was therefore hailed as a meaningful breakthrough for both sides.
Appearing to pause the Canadian initiative on January 23, a communique ostensibly from the Cameroon government, signed by Minister of Communication René Emmanuel Sadi, stated “that it has not entrusted any foreign country or external entity with any role of mediator or facilitator to settle the crisis in the North-West and South-West Regions.”
However, this statement follows extensive contact between representatives of the Governments of Canada and Yaoundé, including four months of discussions and three in-person meetings. There is now confusion surrounding which elements in Cameroon President Paul Biya’s administration are responsible for trying to change course. This comes at a time when there is growing uncertainty about the successor to the increasingly frail 89-year-old Biya.
The communique cited the government’s 2019 Major National Dialogue as the vehicle from which it seeks to address the problems facing the country, “continuing its efforts for the reconstruction of areas affected by the crisis and providing assistance to the populations concerned.”
The Major National Dialogue included few representatives of the Anglophone conflict, due to fear of incarceration. The dialogue was also faulted for covering too many issues with insufficient focus on the Anglophone Crisis. Its result of ‘special status’ for the regions did not address grievances and had no effect on the violence and devastation, so most deem it a failure.
Anglophone Cameroonians have reacted to the government’s potential U-turn with disbelief and hurt. Already, a petrol station in Mamfe in South-West Region was thought to have been set alight in protest, though later reports suggest a fuel accident. Commentators worry that the government’s commitment to using military means to combat the armed separatist fighters will only escalate the violence, with civilians caught in the middle again.
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC, reacted to Cameroon’s communique with incredulity. “Cameroon has a chance to prove to the world that it sincerely wants peace and prosperity for all its citizens. Disowning the Canadian effort after months of engagement and acquiescence would call into question the government’s credibility and reliability as a partner for the peaceful resolution of the conflict. Refusing to participate in the Canada-sponsored talks will seriously damage the image of the Cameroon government in the eyes of the vast majority of Anglophones and the world.”
Analysts say that the Biya government has been largely immune from criticism of its corruption and human rights abuses because its troops have been active in the fight against Islamist militants in the Lake Chad region–though the Anglophone Crisis has drawn away resources. However, Yaoundé’s reversal on the Canada-led initiative may sever the patience of nations which have been largely silent on the Anglophone conflict until now.
The UN estimates that the violence has claimed more than 6,000 lives and has kept 600,000 children out of school. Due to attacks on villages, at least 800,000 people have fled their homes, surviving in challenging conditions as internally displaced persons and refugees.
In 2016, the Francophone-dominated central government tried to impose French judges on the English common law system in the Anglophone regions. Yaoundé also attempted to force French-speaking teachers on schools that traditionally teach in English using a British curriculum. When lawyers and teachers protested, their peaceful demonstrations were met with what international human rights monitors describe as disproportionate force by the Cameroonian security forces. As the government cracked down on civilians, armed separatist fighters emerged, demanding a country based on the borders of the Anglophone-dominated territory. Violence by all sides has escalated throughout the conflict. As a result, the economy and livelihoods have deteriorated, individuals have been arbitrarily detained, kidnapped and ransomed, mutilated and tortured, traumatized and killed by separatist fighters and security services, with villages burned and schools targeted with impunity. Rights monitors have documented numerous atrocities committed by Cameroon’s Defence and Security Forces and separatist fighters.
The need for peace and justice is evident, and the Canada-facilitated talks offer a path. All eyes are turned to Cameroon’s Presidency to take the next step.