Potential Breakthrough in Cameroon’s Civil War?

Since 2016 Cameroon, a country of 15.7 million people on the west coast of Africa, has been experiencing violence, and a de facto civil war, between the central government controlled by its dominant Francophone (French-speaking) citizens and its minority Anglophones (English-speaking).[1]

On September 10, 2019, there was a potential breakthrough in that conflict with a lengthy and rare public speech by the country’s President Paul Biya. That speech and some of the subsequent developments will be reviewed in this post while a subsequent post will review the U.S. reactions to recent events, including this speech and National Dialogue.

 President Biya’s Speech[2]

Recognition of Initial Causes of Conflict. The “crisis was triggered by corporate demands made by lawyers and teachers calling for the translation of the OHADA Uniform Acts into English and the preservation of the specificity of the Anglo-Saxon judicial and educational systems in the two regions.”

Government’s Response to Initial Causes of Conflict. The Government made the following responses to these concerns: (a) “the translation into English of the OHADA instruments which are now available in the two official languages;” (b) “the creation of a Common Law Section at the Supreme Court to handle appeals filed against the decisions of lower courts in Common Law matters;” (c) “the creation of a Common Law Section at the National  School of Administration and Magistracy” and “a Common Law Section at the National  School of Administration and Magistracy” for “the training of judicial and legal officers;” (d) the creation of “a programme for the recruitment of English-speaking pupil judicial and legal officers and court registrars;” (e) “the launching of the special recruitment of bilingual teachers in secondary schools;” (f) “at the level of the judiciary, the stay of proceedings against some persons arrested in connection with the demands; (g) “the setting up of a national Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and  Multi-culturalism to, among other things, carry out an in-depth review of all the sources of frustration suffered by our compatriots in the North-West and South-West Regions; (h) [fast-tracking] “the decentralization process, with the creation of a new ministry devoted thereto;” and (i)”the upcoming regional elections will complete the process by enabling our compatriots nationwide to fully participate in the management of their local affairs.”

Emergence of Secessionist Movement and Violence. Ignoring the above Government’s responses to the initial causes of the conflict, “radical movements . . . have hatched a secessionist plan to partition our country” . . . [and] have formed and financed groups that have caused untold harm, to the population of the North-West and South-West Regions [the Anglophone  regions]. Their “atrocities” include “ maiming, beheading, assassination of elements of the Defence and Security Forces, administrative authorities and defenceless civilians, destruction of public infrastructure and buildings, and burning of schools, hospitals, etc.” These atrocities “have forced thousands of our compatriots to seek refuge in other regions of the country and, for some, in neighboring countries where they have been reduced to living under precarious conditions.”

Government’s Response to Secessionist Movement and Violence. The Government responses to these radical actions included: (a) “ the Defence and Security Forces have taken energetic measures, often at the risk of their lives, to perform their duty of protecting citizens and their property; “ (b) the President “ordered the discontinuance of judicial proceedings pending before military tribunals against 289 persons arrested for offences committed during this crisis; “ (c) the Government called on armed secessionists “to lay down their arms and benefit from the process of reintegration into society. A National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Committee was thus set up [along with] Regional Disarmament Centres;” (d) the Government is working to meet “the challenges we are facing in order to improve the welfare of our population, especially in terms of infrastructure, water and electricity supply, healthcare delivery and youth employment;” (e) this January the President appointed a new Prime Minister, who is from the South-West Region,” which is consistent with other major government posts since April 1992; (f) the President has continued “to wage a ruthless war against corruption and the embezzlement of public funds, and to promote good governance.”

New National Dialogue. Recognizing “the strong desire of the people of the North-West and South-West Regions to return to a normal life, to be able once again to safely carry out their economic and social activities, to witness the return of refugees and displaced persons, and to see their children return to school,” the President at the end of September will convene “ a major national dialogue that will, in line with our Constitution, enable us to seek ways and means of meeting the high aspirations of the people of the North-West and South-West Regions, but also of all the other components of our Nation. The dialogue in question will mainly concern the situation in the North-West and South-West Regions, [but since] it will focus on issues of national interest such as national unity, national integration and living together, it is obvious that it will not concern only the population of these two regions.” The dialogue also will “focus on issues that can address the concerns of the population of the North-West and South-West Regions, as well as those of the other regions of our country such as bilingualism, cultural diversity and social cohesion, the reconstruction and development of conflict-affected areas, the return of refugees and displaced persons, the education and judicial system, decentralization and local development, the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants, the role of the diaspora in the country’s development, etc.”

Rejection of Pardon or Amnesty for Certain Secessionists. Recent court decisions against certain secessionists are not obstacles to this new dialogue.[3] “Respect for the rule of law and the fight against impunity are pillars in the consolidation of a State ruled by law to which we all aspire. Violating the rule of law and granting impunity to some citizens is paving the way for anarchy. It is therefore crucial, at this stage, to dispel rumours that one can quietly loot, rape, burn, kidnap, maim, murder, in the hope that a possible dialogue will erase all these crimes and provide impunity to their perpetrators.” However, “ in the context of a dialogue, a peace process or national reconciliation, the possibility of pardon may be considered, under certain conditions.”

President’s Peace Offer. Under the presidential power of pardon under the Constitution, the President offers the following: “Those who voluntarily lay down their arms and place themselves at the disposal of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) Centres have nothing to fear. Their fellow armed group members who are already there can testify to this. Conversely, those who persist in committing criminal acts and violating the laws of the Republic will have to contend with our Defence and Security Forces and will face the full force of those same laws.”

“The same applies to promoters of hate and violence who, comfortably settled in foreign countries with impunity, continue to incite murder and destruction. Let them know that sooner or later they will have to face justice.” The President also appeals “to the countries sheltering these extremists to take action against these criminals if they really care about the situation of the people of the North-West and South-West Regions.”

Cameroonian Reactions[4]

The day after this speech, the country’s Prime Minister Joseph Dion began discussions with political party leaders, civil society activists, opinion leaders, traditional rules, lawmakers and clergy.

Julius Sisku Ayuk Tabe, the leader of a separatist movement who the priormonth had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, called the speech a “non-event” and “non-starter.” He said Biya’s call for a dialogue was “an awkward and grudging attempt timed to avoid UN sanctions,” considering that the UN will be deliberating on the anglophone crisis this month.

The opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), called for a “general amnesty” for detainees linked to the separatist crisis and a “ceasefire” before participating in the “grand national dialogue.” That gathering “cannot effectively prosper without a calm environment: the declaration of a ceasefire and the guarantee of a general amnesty for all those involved at any level in the English-speaking crisis,”

The president of the United Socialists Democratic Party, Prince Ekosso,  said among the recommendations they are strongly making for the dialogue to be successful are the unconditional release of all people allegedly illegally held in prisons and detention centers and an end to the separatist war in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon.

Cameroonian civil society groups and opposition political parties have called for the unconditional release of Anglophone separatist leaders and other political prisoners before the beginning of the dialogue.

Justin Roger Ndah, assistant secretary-general of the opposition party MRC, said they are urging discussions on the form of the state.

Nkongho Agbor Balla, an Anglophone activist, told Al Jazeera that “the call for an all-inclusive dialogue is very appreciate,”, saying the announcement “should signal the end of arrests of Anglophones for their political ideas. Whilst my expectations were not fully met in the speech, we should give peace a chance by supporting the dialogue process. I urge those who will be attending the national dialogue to call for the release of all those detained in connection with the crisis, the need for constitutional amendment and also to ensure that the form of the state is equally discussed at the dialogue table.”

A BBC report said Biya’s “offer of peace has been rejected by the separatists who say they are horrified at the “callous indifference” the president and his regime have shown towards the crisis. Analysts are now worried that rejecting dialogue could mean more bloodshed.”

A senior official of Biya’s political party, Siddi Haman, said all Cameroonians should see Biya’s true will to bring peace to the country and his desire for maintaining Cameroon as a peaceful and indivisible state with everyone living in harmony.

Foreign Reactions[5]

The United Nations and the African Union welcomed and endorsed President Biya’s call for a national dialogue in Cameroon.

The U.N. Secretary-General through his spokesman, “welcomes the announcement made today by President Paul Biya on the launch of a national dialogue process in Cameroon. He encourages the Government of Cameroon to ensure that the process is inclusive and addresses the challenges facing the country. He calls on all Cameroonian stakeholders, including the Diaspora, to participate in this effort. The Secretary-General reiterates the readiness of the United Nations to support the dialogue process.”

The Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, welcomed “the commitment of the President of the Republic of Cameroon . . . to organize a national dialogue to resolve the crisis in the English-speaking regions of the country.” The Chairperson also “encourages all Cameroonian stakeholders, including the diaspora and armed groups, to take part in the national dialogue and to seize the opportunity to discuss the root causes of this crisis.”

In addition, the Chairperson “reiterates the readiness of the African Union Commission to support Cameroon in the search for a consensual and lasting solution to preserve Cameroon’s unity and integrity.”

U.S. Reactions

Surprisingly for this blogger, there was no public reaction by the U.S. State Department to the Biya speech and the Cameroonian National Dialogue. But the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon made direct and indirect public comments on these matters, which will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Conclusion

Although this blogger is not Cameroonian, he has a number of Cameroonian friends, has maintained contact with these friends, has visited the country once with a group from his church (Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church) and has followed the news from that country. The Cameroon president’s call for a national dialogue prompts the following questions:

  1. Was his account of what the Government has done in response to the initial conflict truthful?  If not, in what respect was it not truthful?
  2. Was his account of what the Government has done in response to the separatists movement and violence truthful? If not, in what respect was it not truthful?
  3. What is your reaction to the proposed national dialogue?
  4. What are your opinions to the above reports about Cameroonian reactions to the Biya speech and call for national dialogue? Are there other Cameroonians who should be mentioned?
  5. Should Cameroon invite international observers or monitors to attend the dialogue?
  6. What do you as a member of the Cameroonian diaspora want to say to the Government.

I encourage Cameroonian readers of this blog post to add their comments and answers to these questions.

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[1] See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CAMEROON.

[2] Republic of Cameroon, The Head of State’s Message to the Nation-10 sept. 2019; Assoc. Press, Cameroon’s President Calls for National Dialogue, Surrender, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2019); Reuters, Cameroon Leader Says Government Will Organize Talks to Solve Separatist Crisis, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2019).

[3] In August 2019 the Yaounde military tribunal gave life sentences to Julius Ayuk Tabe, the leader of the separatists movement,and nine others after having been found guilty of secession, terrorism and hostility against the state. In addition, opposition leader Maurice Kanto, who came in second in last year’s presidential election, is on trial with dozens of others in a military tribunal on insurrection charges. (Voice of America)

[4] Kindzeka, Calls for Release of Separatists, Political Prisoners Intensify in Cameroon, Voice of America (Sept. 15, 2019); Cameroon opposition demands amnesty for separatists, africanews (Sept. 13, 2019); Cameroon to hold ‘national dialogue’ on separatist crisis, Al Jazeera (Sept. 11,2019); Ngala, Analysis: Biya’s call for dialogue in Cameroon, BBC News (Sept. 11, 2019).

[5] U.N. Secretary-General, Statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on announcement of a national dialogue in Cameroon (Sept. 10, 2019); Republic of Cameroon, Major National Dialogue: Reaction of Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission (Sept. 11, 2019).

 

 

 

U.N. Human Rights Council Considers Cameroon’s Human Rights Issues 

In  early 2019, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on behalf of the U.N. Human Rights Council visited Cameroon to assess its human rights record in the Francophone-Anglophone crisis. Afterwards the Council published a press release about the visit.[1] Here is what it said.

The High Commissioner “welcomed the Government’s openness to work with the UN Human Rights Office, and the rest of the UN, to seek effective solutions to the major human rights and humanitarian crises caused by the serious unrest and violence taking place in the west and north of the country.”

She said, ““I believe there is a clear – if possibly short – window of opportunity to arrest the crises that have led to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, as well as the killings and brutal human rights violations and abuses that have affected the northern and western areas of the country,” Bachelet said. “But it will not be easy to turn these situations around. It will take significant actions on the part of the Government, and substantial and sustained support from the international community – including us in the UN.”

She added, ““The challenges are immense, and the situation involving some ten or more separatist movements in the North-West and South-West regions risks spiraling completely out of control, if serious measures are not taken to reduce tensions and restore trust. There is also a general understanding that the root causes and underlying grievances must also be tackled if long-term stability is to return to a country that had, until just a few years ago, been one of the most settled and peaceful in the region.”

These problems coincide with “other major challenges, including cross-border incursions by armed groups and criminal organizations along its eastern border with the Central African Republic. At the same time, in the north of the country, the armed forces are struggling to cope with the depredations and suicide attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram and, in the far north around Lake Chad, the population is being terrorized and  attacked by another extremist organization, the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). In addition, Cameroon is hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Central African Republic and Nigeria.”

“In several regions, civilians and soldiers have been killed and mutilated, and entire villages have been burned.  Children have been abducted and forced to join the armed groups, and have even been utilized as unwitting suicide bombers by Boko Haram. In the two western regions, schools, hospitals and other key infrastructure has been targeted and destroyed by the various separatist groups; and government employees, including teachers who have dared to continue teaching, have been targeted and killed or abducted.”

“The security forces have also been accused of committing serious violations, including extra-judicial killings and torture, against civilians and captured fighters in both the north and the west.”

Bachelet said she believed that two new Cameroonian bodies—the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism and the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Committee—“can potentially make important contributions over time to better understand and deal with the crisis in the two western regions, and to encourage increasing numbers of fighters to lay down their arms and reintegrate into society in both the north and the west. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the daunting challenges both bodies are facing, and I offered to share advice and important lessons we have learned from similar efforts in other parts of the world.”

She “also offered to provide advice and assistance to the Government – similar to that being provided to the G5 forces in the Sahel – to help ensure that military operations are in compliance with international human rights standards and violations are prevented, when military forces are engaged in counter-terrorism operations and combat against armed groups.”

Although government troops faced great challenges, “it is essential that members of the security forces who commit serious violations are held accountable.” Indeed, “every violation committed by Government forces is not only unlawful, but also counter-productive as it plays into the hands of the extremist groups, by feeding local resentment and aiding recruitment. The armed forces must win and keep the trust of local populations, and to do that they must keep scrupulously within the framework of international law and standards. If they fail to do that, they will not defeat an enemy that thrives on civilian mistrust of the authorities. In the meantime, the civilians trapped between these two powerful, if asymmetric, opposing forces, are increasingly vulnerable to lethal abuses and violations by both sides.”

The High Commissioner urged the government “to be fully transparent about such cases. It is essential that crimes are punished, and are seen to be punished. If there is impunity, then there is an assumption of immunity – and this will lead to more crimes being committed, and a further decline in trust in the armed forces, which will only compound the challenges they face. The maintenance of morale is important, but deterring unlawful actions by members of the security forces is imperative. This particular issue is damaging Cameroon’s international standing, and undermining international support for efforts to combat the armed groups operating on its territory.”

Another condemnation was leveled by the High Commissioner at “the targeting of civilians by all armed groups, as well as the torching of schools and medical facilities by the separatist groups in the North-West and South-West regions. “There is no logic to their behavior,” she said. “If they are arguing for more autonomy, why seek to deprive their own children of education, why kill the teachers, and destroy the health facilities? This is not idealistic, it is nihilistic. The only way to solve the issues in the two western regions is through dialogue, including in-depth analysis of the root causes of the unrest, and I urge all sides including the Government to make a strenuous effort to end the fighting and begin peace talks.”

Bachelet “also raised the issue of lack of access for both international and national human rights workers – including the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms – and the humanitarian agencies, to the affected regions. The lack of access is feeding international and local mistrust: including mistrust of the casualty figures; suspicions and competing narratives about who is responsible for which violations and abuses; and reluctance to give full support to the Government’s efforts to deal with these crises, for fear that the lack of access and lack of clarity is masking something untoward. Limited access is also hampering the efforts of the humanitarian agencies to reach victims, and this in turn may fuel further population movements. So, as much access as possible – within the limits of what is safe – would be an important positive step forward in terms of building confidence, and I appreciate the attention the Government has given to this particular request.”

Yet another concern was “the shrinking of civic space in Cameroon, noting that some of the civil society organizations, religious leaders, opposition politicians and diplomats she met with described how certain rights and freedoms, especially those of peaceful association and assembly, had been eroded in recent months. Human rights defenders described how they have been facing harassment by the police, and many of the High Commissioner’s interlocutors raised the issue of the arrest of leading opposition politician Maurice Kamto and more than 150 of his supporters.”

A specific criticism was raised about the “practice of charging civilians before military courts.”

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[1] UN Office of High Commissioner, Bachelet welcomes Cameroon’s willingness to cooperate to tackle human rights crises (May 6, 2019). Also relevant are previous posts about Cameroon.