Cameroon President Paul Biya appeared to extend an olive branch to his rivals as the curtain came down on the much-heralded major national dialogue over the future of the western English-speaking regions of the country.
A separatist movement set off by a civil servants strike in 2017 has morphed into a full blown war that has left more than 3,000 dead and 500,000 others displaced according to the International Crisis Group.
On October 3, President Biya, 86, appeared to dispel the fears that the talks were just a publicity stunt and nothing much would come from them after boycotts by separatists and opposition leaders boycotted the dialogue.
He ordered withdrawal of charges against 333 people facing military tribunals in connection with the anglophone Cameroon crisis. He ordered the Minister of Defence to immediately effect the directive.
“This is guided by the resolve to give our young compatriots in these regions who wish to renounce violence and get back to the right path the opportunity to once more participate in nation building,” a statement from the secretary general of the Presidency Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh said.
He added that President Biya reaffirms “his determination to relentlessly explore ways and means of ensuring peaceful solution to the crisis affecting these two regions of our country.”
Such gestures, however, have failed to convince in the past because of surging unemployment in the regions caused by investors fleeing to more stable environments such as Douala.
This has hurt burgeoning IT innovation hubs in places like Buea, the capital of the south west region and stymied productivity in the cocoa and coffee sectors.
The regions contribute about a fifth of Cameroon’s output in the two crops. Without a source of livelihoods youths quickly relapse to being henchmen of the armed groups.
“I have strong conviction that something good will come out of this dialogue. Convince the people who want secession not to think about it any longer by carrying out concrete actions on the field,” said Willibroad Dze Ngwa, a political scientist attending the talks.
In a telephone briefing on September 2 following the UN General Assembly US assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs Tibor Nagy Jr said conflicts in Africa—Sahel, Chad, Burkina Faso, Central Africa Republic, Sudan, Cameroon, Libya, South Sudan, Somalia and the coastal states of west Africa—required a multiplicity of solutions just like a doctor treats a virus.
“It cannot be just on the security side. We can get rid of terrorists. But if we do not have development, governance filling that space, another group of extremists worse than the ones who left will show up.
“It has to be multifaceted working with governments, friends and partners from across Africa and farther afield whether from Europe or North America,” Mr Nagy said.
President Biya had last month announced a major national dialogue rather than a military solution to the crisis. He was convinced to soften his stance while in Switzerland in July by the Centre for International Dialogue.
He had made overtures to community leaders in the two regions in May through a visit by Dr Ngute that took in views of community and religious leaders and the opposition.
In 2017, some 55 detainees including the president of the outlawed Cameroon anglophone Civil Society Consortium Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla, Dr Fontem Neba and Justice Ayah Paul Abine were released from detention, alongside journalists Atia Tilarious Azohnwi and Amos Fofung. Another 289 people were freed last year.
President Biya’s gesture was reciprocated by a section of the separatists with five ex-militia commanders from the Southwest and nine others from the Northwest committing to a peaceful resolution at the Major National Dialogue on Wednesday.
They posed for pictures with Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute, who chaired the talks boycotted by frontline activists of the Ambazonia secessionist movement.
Such camaraderie, however, was the exception at the talks as tensions ran high during heated exchanges within the eight thematic groups. In one incident, members of the decentralisation and local governance committees almost came to blows to get their divergent views across.
Decentralisation is the path preferred by President Biya, leader since 1982, to address of economic and political exclusion by the majority French-speaking population.
Moderates prefer a federal system of government with anglophone regions wanting complete autonomy and a rotational presidency limited to two terms of five years.
On the extreme left are the separatists who want an independent state of Ambazonia hived off the rest of Cameroon.
President Biya has all along insisted that the presidency and secession were taboo topics in discussing the country’s future, a position Dr Ngute stressed on the eve of the dialogue.
Despite collecting volumes of memoranda from interest groups, political leaders, individuals and diplomats, the presentations were not collated to form the basis of discussions. It is this reluctance by the government to cede ground on the future of the state that caused disquiet during the discussions.
“People have come to me saying we have to discuss the form of the state. But when you have a patient who is dying doctors will first try to stabilise him before they start looking for the cause of the problems. That is where we are; there is a strong need to stabilise these regions,” he said in pre-dialogue briefings.
Former presidential candidate Akere Muna walked out of the talks in protest at the restricted scope of discussions while the US found itself in a sticky situation after separatists claimed its former diplomat was representing them in the talks.
“Certain topics such as the form of the state and the situation of political and economic prisoners which are important in the current context have simply been avoided,” said Muna who bowed out of the presidential race last year in favour of Maurice Kamto of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement.