FRANCE 24 | Government-led talks to end a two-year-old separatist insurgency in Cameroon faltered before they began on Monday as separatists and opposition politicians boycotted the event.
The council has called for a withdrawal of the army from the English-speaking Southwest and Northwest regions, for international arbitration over the crisis and for the release of all arrested separatists.
Cameroon’s main opposition party is also refusing to attend until the government releases its leader and former presidential candidate Maurice Kamto, who was arrested in January and could face the death penalty for leading protests against an election last year that he denounced as fraudulent.
Biya, 86, won re-election in that vote, extending his nearly four decades in power.
The Anglophone conflict began after the government cracked down on peaceful protests in 2016 in the English-speaking regions by teachers and lawyers complaining that they were being marginalised by the French-speaking majority.
Demonstrators were shot dead and the movement became radicalised. Now at least a dozen groups have taken up arms and have carried out deadly attacks on army posts and the police. The army has responded by burning villages and shooting dead civilians in the English-speaking areas.
Tens of thousands have fled to Nigeria or sought refuge in French-speaking Cameroon.
A “smokescreen for the international community”
Of the 16 separatist leaders invited to the peace talks, those heading armed groups such as Ebenezer Akwanga and Cho Ayaba are keeping their distance.
Akwanga told AFP that the event was a “smokescreen for the international community rather than an attempt to secure a complete and lasting solution… to the annexation of our country”.
The International Crisis Group said that as the talks do not include separatists or Anglophone leaders, it “risks further frustrating Anglophones widening the gulf between the two sides and empowering hardliners”.
“The government should make greater space for Anglophones, particularly federalists who are willing to attend. It should also seek a neutral facilitator.”
Opposition parties, civil society groups and representatives of the Catholic Church were, however, present in the main conference centre in the capital Yaounde on Monday.
Prime Minister Joseph Dion, an Anglophone appointed early this year in part to jump-start negotiations, was also present.
Dion said the talks were held to end acts of violence and to enable the Northwest and Southwest regions to regain the “necessary serenity”, adding that “all men and women who love peace” had been invited.
Cameroon’s linguistic divide goes back a century to the League of Nations’ decision to split the former German colony of Kamerun between the allied French and British victors at the end of World War One.
For 10 years after the French- and English-speaking regions joined together in 1961, the country was a federation in which the Anglophone regions had their own police, government and judicial system. Biya’s centralisation push since he came to power in 1982 quickly eroded any remaining Anglophone autonomy.
Now, moderates who have long called for a return to some form of federal system to ease tensions say their voices have been drowned out by secessionists on one hand and Biya on the other.
“It is farcical to not have a commission to discuss federalism, which is at the core of all this,” said Akere Muna, an opposition politician and former presidential candidate who is participating in the talks. “Now the federalists are a minority and the separatists are the majority.”
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)