Cameroon starts a national dialogue on Monday in a bid to end a separatist conflict in the country’s anglophone provinces though key rebel leaders have already refused to participate.
Nearly 3,000 people have died and half a million fled their homes since fighting broke out in 2017 between the army and armed fighters who want independence for Cameroon’s two English-speaking provinces.
The talks, led by Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute, are scheduled from September 30 to October 4 at the Congressional palace in the capital Yaounde.
President Paul Biya, who has been in power for 37 years, hopes the talks will end crisis that is also hurting the economy of the coffee and cocoa-producing Central African state.
October 1 marks the second anniversary of the spiral towards conflict – the declaration of the self-described “Republic of Ambazonia” for Cameroon’s English-speaking minority.
Even before it began, the national dialogue ran into trouble with many activists arrested and experts voicing scepticism that it would yield tangible results.
English-speakers account for about a fifth of Cameroon’s population of 24 million, who are majority French-speaking.
Anglophones are mainly concentrated in two western areas, the Northwest Region and the Southwest Region that were incorporated into the French-speaking state after the colonial era in Africa wound down six decades ago. Many locals here complain of discrimination and marginalisation.
In a report published last week, the International Crisis Group (ICG) estimated that around 3,000 people have been killed by separatist violence and the military crackdown.
The ICG said the talks do not include separatists or Anglophone leaders who support more federalist solutions.
“It thus risks further frustrating Anglophones widening the gulf between the two sides and empowering hardliners,” the group said.
“The government should make greater space for Anglophones, particularly federalists who are willing to attend. It should also seek a neutral facilitator.”
Biya’s government has rejected both a return to more federalism and any proposed separation.
But Anglophone supporters are also divided between those two options for their regions.
The government’s dialogue spokesman George Ewane said Cameroonian authorities had held preliminary discussions with some separatists, adding that even hardliners were welcome to join the talks.
Mark Bareta, a separatist leader who is very active on social media, was the one most open to dialogue and it was through him that invitations to the others were sent, Ewane said.
But on Friday, Bareta announced that he was pulling out, saying that “the only way to have real negotiations is to hold them on neutral territory.”
Of the 16 separatist leaders invited, those heading armed groups such as Ebenezer Akwanga and Cho Ayaba are also snubbing the talks.
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, Southern Cameroons”.
Most of the leaders have expressed willingness to hold talks with the government but in the presence of an international mediator and in a foreign country with the terms for secession the main item on the agenda, according to the ICG.
However, more moderate Anglophones like Cardinal Christian Tumi, the influential archbishop of Cameroon’s commercial capital Douala, have welcomed the initiative and urged the separatists to participate.
‘We can’t talk to ghosts’
An official from the Southwest region said traditional chiefs had asked armed groups to attend the talks but they had spurned the offer.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, however asked the groups to “emerge from the woodwork”, adding that “measures have been taken to ensure the security of those who attend.
“We cannot talk with ghosts,” the official said.
Locals are meanwhile divided about the outcome of the talks.
“No good can come of this. It’s a game,” said a hardcore secessionist who identified himself as Agbor.
“If we must go for talks, it would be to discuss the terms of separation and not anything else,” he said.
But Jeannette Benga, a prominent figure of civil society in Buea, the capital of the Southwest region, voiced hope that “the two come to an agreement.”
Blaise Chamango, the head of an NGO said the five-day talks were not enough to “debate the anglophone crisis and the other major problems in Cameroon.”