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Cameroon: Gridlock continues between separatists and Yaoundé

A demonstrator in Cameroon carries a sign calling for the liberation of detained activists (Getty Images/AFP)

There is no end in sight to the crisis in Cameroon's North-West and South-West regions despite initial ceasefire talks with rebels seeking independence from the government in Yaoundé.

The Cameroonian government launched secret talks with jailed Anglophone leader Ayuk Tabe and nine others at the beginning of July in an effort to negotiate a ceasefire with separatists after a four-year bloody civil war that the United Nations says has killed at least 2,000 people.

But the crisis is unlikely to be resolved until all the major forces get around the negotiating table and hammer out a deal that responds to the rebels concerns about the English-speaking regions’ marginalisation and governance.

Little progress is currently being made. Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute and secretary general of the presidency Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh are jockeying for influence over the peace talks, which has contributed to their stalemate.

In the meantime, civil society groups have been putting pressure on national and international actors to take into account the human suffering that the conflict has caused and to push for peace talks to progress.

Talking with Tabe

Tabe, the president of the unrecognised Federal Government of the Republic of Ambazonia, and the nine who participated are serving life in prison sentences for what the government has called terrorist-related activities.

The government’s approach shows that this is a political crisis, not a military one, a point that seems to be penetrating the corridors of power in Yaounde, according to Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director of the US-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI).

“It’s a cumulative effect of multiple events that have now gotten to the point where the country is beginning to think it’s proper to provide some overtures to begin to lay the groundwork for negotiations,” says Cameroon expert Fomunyoh.

A 90-day ceasefire to create a humanitarian corridor and access for medical staff to treat possible COVID-19 cases in the Anglophone regions was initially supported by UN secretary-general António Guterres. It was pushed by the UN Security Council as a way of ending hostilities between the Cameroonian security forces on the ground in the two Anglophone regions and the armed Ambazonia separatists.

“Ultimately, for negotiations to be taken seriously, and for them to be effective, there needs to be a more public affirmation of the government’s commitment to negotiations, and then the ground rules can be laid out,” says Fomunyoh. Although the initial meeting was supposed to be a secret, the fact that it took place shows that there is a determination by the government to try and resolve the Anglophone crisis, according to Fomunyoh.

The four years of fighting in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon has a taken a toll on the country, says Fomunyoh. “The operations on the ground are becoming extremely expensive, both in terms of human casualties and economic exhaustion.”

“It gave pause to a number of people within the regime who’ve been working so hard to make sure that the crisis stayed beneath the radar,” adds Fomunyoh, saying that civil society and the media have also put pressure on the government to help end the conflict. The rebels says that they want the government to withdraw troops from the North-West and South-West to show that is coming to the table in good faith. That is something that Yaoundé has not been keen to accept.

Lack of trust

After October 2019’s government-led national dialogue fell flat, those on the ground argue that the government must make a greater effort.

The Federal Republic of Ambazonia’s communication secretary Chris Anu says the fact that the government chose particular separatists languishing in jail is the same tactic it used to select separatists for the failed national dialogue. “It’s an empty exercise,” he tells The Africa Report.

The skirmishes and killings show that this is not a country that wants a ceasefire, says separatist leader Ayaba Cho Lucas. “We are facing an ongoing, situation of massacres, brutality, burning down villages. Cameroon has refused to commit to any process that can be internationally monitored and implemented,” says Ayaba.

“So we cannot unilaterally declare ceasefire. We cannot commit to a ceasefire…because we are the only protectors of our people at this particular stage in the absence of the UN invoking its responsibility to protect,” he adds.

Suffering populations

The Cameroonian government has called out the separatists for burning down schools and terrorising the population, calling the separatists terrorists.

In light of the attacks that both sides accuse each other of, the ceasefire must be the first step, notes analyst Fomunyoh.

“Every gesture that the government makes without a ceasefire would be interpreted as a ruse to distract, to have the Anglophones lay down their guard, while you try to declare a military victory and not yield on any of the grievances that have been put forward,” he says.

Mediators are watching to see what the government’s next steps are – especially with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “If nothing is done, it [COVID-19] could spread very quickly within a population that’s already on its knees. I believe, though, that were the government to announce a ceasefire, that that would trigger a lot of other positive developments, because it would make it harder for the ‘Amba boys’ to carry out any activities that could be seen as violent,” says Fomunyoh.

Some agreement among Ambazonians

While there are divisions amongst the various Ambazonian factions, Ayaba maintains that they are in regular contact with each other.

Ayaba and Anu lay out their demands for future negotiations:

  • They should take place outside of Cameroon.

  • All separatists should be allowed to come to the table, rather than being handpicked by Yaoundé.

  • A trusted international actor should mediate the discussions.

“If the ceasefire was the first thing on the table, we would be willing to talk about what type of ceasefire” could be carried out, says Anu.

“Ambazonian fighters have not crossed in to French Cameroon to attack, [or] to attack their soldiers in their part of the country,” adds Anu. “The refugees are our people, the internally displaced are our people.”

As the rebels lack the military means to push the government back and the government does not have the political will to end the crisis, the status quo could continue for quite some time.

Published by The Africa Report September 9, 2020.

Copyright © 2020 The Africa Report. All Rights Reserved.

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