Paul Biya, President of Cameroon since 1982, ordinarily makes two official speeches each year. His December 31 speech is somewhat a State of the Nation Address and his February 10 speech is in view of the National Youth Day of February 11. Exceptionally, a pre-recorded speech by the President was aired on the national broadcaster, the Cameroon Radio Television, CRTV, on September 10, 2019.
The last time this happened was on February 27, 2008, in response to the chaos that was simmering from hunger strikes. Many suspected that his September 10, 2019 speech, would be chiefly about what has been termed “Anglophone conflict” currently rocking the mainly English-speaking or Anglophone regions of the North West (NWR) and South West (SWR) of Cameroon since October 2017, and would contain a major decision in regards to finding solutions to the carnage.
Biya did not disappoint, and even did better. It turned out that his extraordinary speech of September 10, 2019, was entirely about the Anglophone conflict, which he and his regime insist is a crisis certainly as a strategy to dissuade multinational intervention. Biya claimed that he has always been attentive to the conflict that has had dire consequences for compatriots in these regions and on the entire nation.
President Biya recalled the origins of the conflict, arguing that it was, at the start, a question of the corporate demands of the Anglophone lawyers and teachers, following which he duly organised dialogue. He stated that despite the collapse of this dialogue he did not relent in attempting to address the concerns. He recalled all measures he had taken till date including an acceleration of decentralization through the creation of a ministry in charge of the process. He said the upcoming regional elections are meant to complete this process.
According to Biya despite these measures, radical movements with leaders headquartered abroad hijacked the process and started a conflict that has brought untold sufferings on the populations of the North West and the South West regions. He went on to present his condolences to the victims of these crimes and said the families and refugees have the full solidarity of the government that was doing everything for the situation to return to normalcy and for refugees and internally displaced persons to return home.
Biya said that the Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR) program which he created was still in place, operational and ready to welcome those in armed groups who are ready to lay down arms. He added that his humanitarian program was also still working hard to bring relief efforts to those affected.
Biya went on to say that he has heard a lot about the marginalisation of the Anglophones but that he has always tried to ensure regional balance in his appointments reserving the post of Prime Minister for the Anglophones. Based on this he argued that legitimacy nowhere in the world is earned through chaos but through elections.
Biya said that he, however, had taken the full stock of the problem, especially after the Prime Minister’s May 2019 tour of the NWR and the SWR and is now calling on a National Dialogue to be chaired by the Prime Minister at the end of September 2019. Biya said that a wide range of actors will be invited to take part in the dialogue including armed groups and victims of the violence.
The President said he understands dialogue had been called for in many quarters and in what sounded as a denial of allegations that he was not open to dialogue, he highlighted that he was aware that many actors were arguing that it was his government that was preferring a military solution instead of dialogue and even entertaining what he qualified as the absurdity of genocide.
Following his announcement of the national dialogue, Biya argued that the recent life sentences for separatists were no threat to the peace process he was initiating. He, however, went on to recall that he had the power to exercise clemency as bestowed upon him by the Constitution. He nonetheless said that he was inviting foreign nations shielding separatists to help Cameroon bring these terrorists hiding in their countries to book.
The President ended his speech, the conciliatory character of which was unprecedented, with a note of what he expected would be a fruitful outcome of the national dialogue that would be principally about the NWR and SWR.
While Biya’s speech was immediately qualified as welcome in many spaces and his decision for national dialogue that includes armed separatists and diaspora members qualified as laudable, it does have a number of pitfalls, five of which this article highlights.
1. The President completely ignored the root causes of the conflict which many sources, particularly in political and legal studies, have traced back to the decolonisation of the British Southern Cameroons territory that is conterminous with the continguous NWR and SWR and to failed Constitutions since 1961.
2. Biya admonished the separatist fighters and absolved the armed and security forces of any war crimes and crimes against humanity in the NWR and SWR. This is contrary to information from well-informed sources that affirm that the conflict was triggered by violent crackdown on peaceful protests by the Cameroon armed and security forces including pursued burning of villages, killings and maimings.
3. Paul Biya downplayed the historic marginalisation that the Anglophones have suffered in Cameroon which is well documented. It was unfair for the President to suggest to the Anglophones that they should be satisfied with the post of Prime Minister, the fourth personality in the Republic, reserved them whereas the Anglophones have asked for a restoration of their political autonomy as before 1961.
4. Biya insisted on decentralisation, thus suggesting that federalism cannot be part of any resolutions of the national dialogue he has called for. In addition to calling for the arrest of “separatist terrorists” overseas this meant that the dialogue he is announcing is a priori one that has a wide range of conditionalities, contrary to appeals for an all-inclusive dialogue without conditions.
5. President Biya failed to admit that demilitarisation was a very important way of de-escalating tensions whereas many observers had, based on the role of the armed and security forces in the escalation of the conflict, proposed that troops be withdrawn from the NWR and SWR so as to ease tensions. Biya, therefore, appears to pursue a manoeuvre of dictating the terms of conflict resolution.
While Paul Biya’s tone was conciliatory as already highlighted, his national dialogue is largely a departure from his vow to crush the terrorists in the NWR and SWR claming to be secessionists. Contrary to the President’s claims, elections bestow de jure legitimacy while the deployment of guerrilla tactics confers de facto legitimacy.
Also, there are clear signs that international pressure to solve the problem is bearing on the President. It has also become increasingly evident that the military and security sectors, worn out and increasingly running out of finances, cannot win the war and therefore, the pursuit of a military solution will indeed be tantamount to genocide seen the dirty character it has driven the conflict towards with war crimes and crimes against humanity reportedly committed by elements of Cameroon’s armed and security forces.
The President must therefore descend from his high horse and re-think his approach to the national dialogue while it is still in its infant stages in order to secure guarantees for a successful dialogue as it is clear that the odds are stacked against him making him effectively unable to dictate any terms of engagement in the conflict resolution process.
It may, therefore, be more appropriate for the President to do a number of things:
- create more confidence in the dialogue process by admitting, through official government channels, that the conflict has root causes in the decolonisation of the British Southern Cameroons and in constitutional processes since 1961 that have done harm to British Southern Cameroons autonomy.
- show willingness to talk-out the the separatists from their arguably legitimate drive towards independence through the force of augment inclusive of openness to political autonomy for the erstwhile British Southern Cameroons in the shape of a return to Two-State federation.
- Allow, prior to his national dialogue, the organisation of the Anglophone General Conference (AGC) which his administration has stalled several times. The AGC called for by Cameroon’s Christian Cardinal Tumi was meant to enable Anglophones to have a common position before any future dialogue. Blocking the conference creates suspicion of divide and rule;
- free all those arrested in connection to the conflict, including the separatist leaders jailed for life;
- Declare general amnesty;
- make a declaration of ceasefire and take measures to demilitarise the NWR and SWR;
- end security sector impunity in the conflict, and;
- lead the national dialogue himself.
In its present form the national dialogue of Paul Biya continues to transpire his intent to dictate the terms of engagement of any future negotiations to end the Anglophone conflict. The separatists were not at the origin of the conflict, State repression was. Having achieved de facto legitimacy, it is hard to believe that the separatists will gladly go to non-neutral grounds. The President is highly mistrusted by the Anglophones and no real armed group will be ready to risk going to Yaounde for fear of arrest. Armed groups will be present for the dialogue but suspicions are already rife that it would be those created by members of Biya’s regime.
Therefore, Biya’s National Dialogue, while praiseworthy can only be a prelude to mediated talks between the regime and separatists. It is more a forum for Biya to obtain advise on how to enter negotiations with the separatists in the presence of a mediator and in a location other than the seat of his government. This national dialogue is more likely to only fairly reflect instructions to the President on what the nation wants to table in mediated talks between Yaounde and separatists. To think that in its present form riddled with conditionalities and denialism this national dialogue will end the conflict is to entertain a utopia especially as it is viewed as a publicity stunt to avoid international sanctions and allow him to interact with world leaders in the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting.