Following the deaths of at least 400 civilians over the past year in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, an Anglophone community conference scheduled for 21 and 22 November 2018 could offer a decisive breakthrough. To succeed, international powers should encourage buy-in from separatist and government leaders alike.
International Crisis Group has commended the initiative of four religious leaders (from the Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Central Mosques of Bamenda and Buea) in Cameroon to organize an Anglophone General Conference in Buea, in Cameroon’s Southwest region.
Earlier in April this year , the International Crisis Group proposed the Catholic Church as a potential mediator in the ongoing conflict in the Anglophone regions (Northwest and Southwest). On 25 July, Cardinal emeritus Christian Tumi announced that this conference would take place on 29 and 30 August 2018. The date was later to be shifted to 21 and 22 November. This delay which observers see as a welcome development as it allows for better preparation and could help ensure that all parties concerned participate.
The communiqué convening the conference calls on the president of the Republic to initiate a substantive national dialogue on the Anglophone question as soon as possible. It portrays the conference as a preparatory phase among Anglophones with the aim of identifying the issues that a future national dialogue would address and allowing that community to nominate representatives for such a dialogue. The conference could enable Anglophones to adopt a common position, or at least minimize their differences.
In a press statement the International Crisis Group said for the conference to “be successful, the organizers will have to persuade the government to allow Anglophones in the diaspora (including separatists) to return to the country without risking arrest and to release detained Anglophone activists. A meaningful dialogue is not possible without the separatists, given their political importance and the security threat they pose. The organisers also have to convince separatists that attending the conference would reinforce their legitimacy among Anglophones”.
The Group stated further in the statement that the “initiative requires foreign support. International actors should exert pressure on both the government and separatists in equal measure. Since most separatist leaders fuelling the armed struggle are based in the diaspora, they would likely be sensitive to such pressure. Some separatists may not heed these calls. But with violence increasing, it is vital to do everything possible to persuade as many as possible to present their views alongside those of other Anglophones in the hope of reaching a compromise.
“The conference is an important opportunity to restore confidence among the different Anglophone movements and establish conditions for a national dialogue on the Anglophone question after the October 2018 presidential election. Over the last year, the conflict in the Anglophone regions has caused the deaths of at least 400 civilians, 170 military and police officers and hundreds of separatists, with more 250 security officials wounded. Armed separatist groups are now more than 1,000 fighters strong and control large rural areas and a number of main roads. According to the UN, by September more than 180,000 people are displaced in the Northwest and Southwest, and by mid-August 25,085 have fled the violence to Nigeria. The crisis has recently taken a particularly worrying turn as both parties appear to be targeting the population, pro-government militias are forming and, alongside more than ten armed separatist groups, many small criminal groups are emerging. ”
It is not certain the Anglophone General Conference will hold.Most Anglophones, pro-federalism leaders, proponents of decentralization and members of civil society seem to be in favour, the government and Anglophone separatist leaders are resistant.
Government authorization and support is crucial for a successful and productive conference but the government does not appear keen. Although the government has not officially rejected the proposal, its spokesperson has questioned Cardinal Tumi’s impartiality and rejected the confidence-building measures the proposed by the organizers which include a ceasefire, the release of Anglophone militants and the participation of separatists.
This attitude, according to the International Crisis Group,reflects the Government’s reliance on military force and its hope of wiping out armed groups before the election.
In addition to stepping up security, Government has, over the past few months, encouraged the creation of pro-government “self-defense” militias and fueled divisions between Anglophones of the Northwest and those of the Southwest with the goal of driving a wedge between the Anglophone population and the separatists. The most cynical officials see no interest in holding elections in the Anglophone regions, which have always been an opposition stronghold.
France has recently shown support to President Biya reinforcing the perception in the Biya Government that the Military option is best and effective.
According to the Crisis group,this posture may however prove counterproductive as prohibiting the conference or obstructing its smooth running would damage the government’s image both at home and abroad, reinforce the view that it opposes dialogue and bolster the credibility of separatists and armed groups in the eyes of the Anglophone population and international partners.
Expatiating on the dangers ahead the statement continues “In the longer term, blocking the conference, repressing separatists and incarcerating more moderate Anglophones risks preparing the ground for a devastating civil war that would threaten the entire country’s stability and the government’s own survival. Attacks since last July in Francophone West and Littoral regions and separatists’ demands and threats that Francophones leave Anglophone regions underscore this risk. Cameroon’s security apparatus is already under pressure as there are reported defections of soldiers in Anglophone areas, with more than twenty defectors joining separatist groups.
“Such a posture is counterproductive. Prohibiting the conference or obstructing its smooth running would damage the government’s image both at home and abroad, reinforce the view that it opposes dialogue and bolster the credibility of separatists and armed groups in the eyes of the Anglophone population and international partners. In the longer term, blocking the conference, repressing separatists and incarcerating more moderate Anglophones risks preparing the ground for a devastating civil war that would threaten the entire country’s stability and the government’s own survival. Attacks since last July in Francophone West and Littoral regions and separatists’ demands and threats that Francophones leave Anglophone regions underscore this risk. The security apparatus is already under pressure as defections of soldiers increase in Anglophone areas, with more than twenty defectors joining separatist groups”.
In a region already blighted by the raging Boko Haram insurgency , it remains to be seen if Cameroon will heed to the several calls for dialogue to resolve the issue or continue with the Military crackdown with its attendant catastrophic consequences.