Push for Inclusive Dialogue in Cameroon
Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis has claimed around 3,000 lives since 2017 and taken a severe toll on citizens. Fighting between separatist rebels and security forces in the Anglophone North West and South West has left around 700,000 people internally displaced and forced 52,000 to flee to Nigeria, according to the UN. Half of all Anglophones now need humanitarian assistance – fifteen times more than three years ago when the conflict began. For the fourth year in a row, schools are closed in Anglophone areas and 800,000 children (85 per cent of the Anglophone school-age population) now have no access to education. Without externally mediated talks between the government and separatist leaders, conditions almost certainly will get even worse. The AU needs to move Cameroon up its peace and security agenda and encourage the warring parties to engage more deeply in an inclusive dialogue. It should also push the Cameroon government to allow an AU observer mission for February’s legislative and municipal elections, and press all parties to defuse ethnic tensions across the country ahead of the polls.
A recent government-controlled national dialogue, held at the end of September 2019 has done little to prevent the Anglophone crisis from deepening. Separatists, whose leaders are mostly based outside the country or in prison in Yaoundé, were not invited to the consultations, and viewed them as a government ploy to deflect international criticism. Even those Anglophones who seek a federalist solution rather than their own state were given little room to present their views. The officials responsible did not provide the dialogue participants the chance to discuss recommendations that were transmitted to the president. These included the idea of special status for the South West and North West under the decentralisation provisions of the 1996 constitution, but overall offered little new. If anything, the national dialogue strengthened the separatists’ resolve to pursue their rebellion and empowered hardliners on both sides.
The AU has so far taken only limited steps to help resolve the worsening conflict. Among the most recent was a tripartite mission to Cameroon in November 2019 along with the Commonwealth and the International Organisation of la Francophonie aimed at reducing violence and, in the mission’s own words, “increasing national cohesion”. The African Commission of Human and People’s Rights has condemned abuses committed during the crisis. But the AU PSC, the body charged with maintaining continental peace and security, has declined to add the Anglophone crisis to its agenda, largely due to lobbying from Yaoundé. If Cameroon joins the PSC in April 2020, as seems likely, it will be even harder for the council to discuss the conflict.
It is critical for the government to build on its national dialogue and enter mediated talks with Anglophone leaders of all stripes, which would likely mean shuttle diplomacy by a third party. Confidence-building measures on both sides are also required: the government should release a number of detainees and rebels should signal their willingness to accept a ceasefire. The government also should talk directly to all dissenting Anglophones in order to draw them away from the armed struggle. As a first step, it should allow an Anglophone forum, the Anglophone General Conference, to meet. The conference would bring together a wide range of Anglophones and help them forge a united position.
The PSC should urgently consider tabling Cameroon as part of a strategy of public pressure aimed at pushing both sides to compromise and enter negotiations. Optimally, it would ask Faki to appoint a special envoy for Cameroon, who would seek to liaise between the government and rebels. The AU should also renew its offer to mediate and help mobilise other key actors, such as the UN and the Catholic Church, to press both sides to agree to talks. AU leaders and potentially influential current and former African heads of state could be instrumental in moving President Paul Biya to agree to an inclusive dialogue.
Cameroon’s February municipal and legislative elections risk fuelling further violence, both in the Anglophone regions and elsewhere. Most Anglophones appear uninterested in the contests. In any case, many would struggle to vote: hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and there are no provisions for their participation; at the same time, separatists have kidnapped candidates, attacked election offices and vowed to obstruct the polls. The government has assured Anglophones they will be able to cast ballots, deployed additional troops and clustered polling centres to better secure them. But voters will still be unable to travel safely on election day. The main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto, a Francophone, has called for voters not to take part, fearing that holding the ballot without Anglophone participation would only strengthen the separatists’ claim to their own state. The AU should also urge the government to engage with Kamto and other political party and civil society leaders to address rising ethnic tensions, especially between the Bulu, President Biya’s community, and the Bamileke, that of Kamto.
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