Expectations Vs Results of the 2019 Major National Dialogue in Cameroon
Background to the Dialogue
The Anglophone regions of Cameroon since 2016 have witnessed a crisis which has evolved into many stages. In the second quarter of the year 2016, the Common Law Lawyers staged a protest for the translation of the OHADA Law into English and against the presence of French magistrates in the English courts; the Teachers followed suit with demands for respect of the Anglo-Saxon system of education which they felt was threatened with the presence of French teachers who could not speak English but are sent to teach in English schools. These plights were not given immediate considerations by the government. Early 2017, the Anglophone Civil Society Consortium was formed with its mission to advocate for the rights of the people of English-Speaking Cameroon, the former British Southern Cameroon. The consortium advanced its demands when they began clamoring for a return to a two-state federation as was the case in 1961. As a government’s reaction to this, the leaders of this Consortium; Barrister Nkongho Felix Agbor and Dr Fontem Neba, president and Secretary General respectively, were arrested and detained for eight (8) months under charges of terrorism, public disorder, attempts to change the form of the state, amongst other. This orchestrated the violence in the two regions. A fraction of the Anglophones changed the rhetoric by advancing the demands from a return to Federal System to the demand for separation from the French speaking regions and a complete independent state of Southern Cameroon which they referred to as “Ambazonia.”
The struggle turned violent when many armed groups were formed within the Anglophone society to “fight” and “defend” the state of “Ambazonia.” This was faced with a counter action by the government which sent troops to the North West and South West regions to combat the activities of the separatists. The presence of these two forces on the ground had devastating effects on the people and their properties; over 206 villages were burnt completely or partially (Ref: Cameroon’s Unfolding Catastrophe, Evidence of Human Rights Violations and Crimes against Humanity by CHRDA), according to Human Rights Watch, about 2,000 persons have died as a result of the crisis, hundreds of thousands displaced both internally and others seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
The government of Cameroon for more than two years (from 2017- last quarter of 2019) has been holding onto the use of force to resolve the crisis in the two regions. International organizations and communities, Civil Society Organizations, Political Parties and individuals had called on the President of the Republic to convene a dialogue with all opinion holders and sectors represented to seek a peaceful and lasting solutions to the Anglophone Crisis. The president took action, as a yield to these calls, in 2019 when he sent the Prime minister to the two English-Speaking regions to assure the people that a dialogue will be convened to solve the problems. Amidst and after the Prime Minister’s visit to the two regions, the killings and destructions did not stop; instead the situation became worse with unarmed civilians caught in between the wrath of the government military forces and separatist fighters. The Prime minister whom many described as the ‘John the Baptist’ of the dialogue stated clearly to the people that the dialogue will be open to all subjects “except separation.” The government’s stand point on the conditions for the dialogue was criticized by many CSO’s and other international figures who thought that these conditions will not help the situation but make it worse because the main topic that was sidelined is considered to be what consist the main agenda in order to stop all the violence in particular and the crisis in general. Nobody was safe at the time as persons from all sectors of life including; politicians, government officials, CSO actors especially Human Rights Activists, journalists, teachers, students, and even the common man were targets and victims of circumstance.
In January 2018, leaders of the Ambazonia government including Sisiku Ayuk Julius Tabe, Tapang Wilfred and others were abducted from Nigeria where they were seeking asylum and taken to Cameroon where they were detained and finally were slammed a life sentence on the 20th August 2019, based mainly on the terms of the Cameroon 2014 Anti-Terrorism law, also were jointly fined with the sum of 250 billion CFA. They were charged for terrorism, non-possession of the Cameroon National ID cards amongst others. This decision by the Yaoundé Military Court which did not help the situation raised many concerns via the different reactions, especially condemnations by the counsels of the accused persons, Civil Society Organizations, Political Parties, Human Rights Lawyers who considered the trial and sentence to be “unfair and unjust.” A leading Human Rights Lawyer Barrister Nkongho Felix Agbor described the sentencing as a sham. He said “sentencing Sisiku Ayuk Tabe and Co will not solve the problem we have in Cameroon. It will instead aggravate the problem.”
The Head of State, Paul Biya, who could no longer act indifferent to these happenings and the calls for him to address the state based on this crisis, unceremoniously addressed the country on the 10th September 2019. His address which brought satisfaction to some and disappointment to others was applauded by many as they considered it to be the gateway to solving the crisis. The Prime Minister’s message when he visited the North West and South West regions was not objective as compared to that of the president because the latter included the Armed separatists as members of the dialogue of which the former said separation will not be a topic of discussion. The call for a Major National Dialogue with the primary aim of resolving the Anglophone crisis was still considered by many to be uncharitable and doubtful of its worth because the President, in his speech, promised all those sponsoring the war from the Diaspora that they will face the law. The president made it clear that there is no Anglophone marginalization based on the fact that the position of prime minister has been occupied by Anglophones since 1992 till present. This to him was enough to make Anglophones feel the spirit of belonging and eradicate the conceived mindset of marginalization.
Call for Dialogue and varied expectations
The president’s call for dialogue was a highly awaited call both by the national and international community. Though it was regarded as a major step towards reaching the solution to the crisis, making it a National Dialogue with representations from all regions of the country was an idea which was criticized by many stakeholders of the Anglophone society who considered it a way of underrating the crisis in the English-Speaking regions. This was because eight (8) out of the ten (10) regions of the country are French speaking and they are rather affected indirectly with effects which cannot equate the level of pain felt by North West and South West which are directly affected. The representation of the former on the dialogue table may reduce the level of focus on issues that are of primordial concern for the Anglophones. Prof Abangma James Arrey expressed discontent for the President’s call for National Dialogue when he said “In the national dialogue, how can you be thinking of armed groups? I feel that they would have organized two dialogues; one that is specific for the Anglophone crisis and one that is national. The one on the Anglophone crisis should have limited participants to the two Anglophone regions.”
Amongst the proposals received by the prime minister during his consultations, the form of state was common on most of the lists, with diverse demands for Decentralized Unitary state, federal state and separate independent states. Those clamoring for the return to a two-state federal system like Nkongho Felix Agbor argued that “decentralization has been for 23years, it is enshrined in the 1996 constitution but it is not implemented.”
Prior to the dialogue, the watch word of most government ministers on issues concerning the Anglophone crisis was that “the state is one and indivisible.” The defense point of the government so far has been that phrase found in the Article 1(2) of the 1996 constitution. This, to some opinion holders is rather a weakness because they hold the view that the 1996 constitution can still be amended despite the Article 64 which prohibits any attempts to change the form of the state. Some said “nothing is static when the makers want to amend it” as was the case of the 1961 federal constitution which also protected the form of the state in its Article 47 but the form of state was later changed, thus led to a change of constitution in 1996.
Many Cameroonians of the North West and South West regions expected the detained Separatist leaders to be released and invited to the dialogue table for them to state and defend the aspirations of the separatists. Separatists’ leaders in the Diaspora were invited but did not show up for fear of being arrested despite all the safe-space guarantees promised by the Prime minister who said “nobody will be arrested, the military will be around to protect them not to harass them. This is Africa; you cannot invite someone to your house and detain the person.” The media was another great tool through which citizens expressed their wish on how the dialogue should be. It was unfortunate to know that persons were arrested because of their opinions. A case in point is that of Abdul Karim Ali, a Muslim scholar. After he gave his abhorrent views to the dialogue when he said “it is not an important subject for me, it is a monologue,” he was arrested after his return from Switzerland where he was invited by the Swiss government. He was allegedly charged for secession, complicity to terrorism and apology of terrorism.
Dialogue and what it offered
The dialogue which was slated to be convened for five (5) days from the 30th September to 4th October 2019 began with lots of uncertainty and disappointments as expressed by most participants, especially those from CSOs, opposition political parties and delegation from the Diaspora. Eight commissions were put in place to pilot the different aspects which Government considered to be the main problems of the Anglophones. The commissions included; Bilingualism, Cultural Diversity and Social Cohesion; Educational System; Judicial System; Decentralization and Local Development; Reconstruction and Development of Crisis-Affected Regions; Return of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons; Disarmament and Reintegration of Ex-combatants; Role of Diaspora in the Crisis and its Contribution to the Country’s Development. Paddy Asanga, a member of the delegation from the Diaspora expressed dissatisfaction with the process. He said “we came here because we did not want to play the politics of empty chairs. But if they want to continue to do things like this, they are going to alienate us, and we are going to start making affront here. If they want, they can arrest us here in Cameroon. We are not going to accept this ‘supercherie’ (trickery) again, for them to waste the taxpayers’ money that we come here and everything is readymade.”
The dialogue’s credibility to solve the crisis has been questioned by some Political Scientists based on the absence of some leading personalities in the country. Munjah Vitalis, a Political Scientist and Researcher made this remark, “Major National Dialogue: president of the Republic, number one citizen, not present; president of senate, number two citizen, not present; president of National Assembly, number three citizen, not present; the Minister of State, Secretary General at the Presidency, who is visibly the Head of Government, not present; and Separatist leaders who armed the citizens, not present.”
Ex-combatants from both regions, led by Kawa Yanick who addressed the entire participants of the dialogue proposed Federation as the solution to the crisis. Some members of the ruling CPDM party also reiterated on the need for Federation to resolve the crisis which failure to do so the situation may tend worse than it was. In course of the dialogue, groups of persons who identified themselves as “armed fighters” were continually received as they surrendered by yielding to the call by the president as they preached peace and urged other armed members to join the peace crusade.
The eight committees worked independently and brought up some recommendations. The Anglophone communities, through their representatives focused more on the “form of the state” as they revealed in most of their interviews with the media. On daily meeting sessions of the dialogue, disappointments and pessimism overrode the positive remarks made by Anglophone delegates. Some of them had to quit from the dialogue like Barrister Akere Muna and others.
On the eve to the end of the Major National Dialogue, the president of the Republic began reacting to some of the demands by signing for the “discontinuance” of the cases of some 333 Anglophones who were detained in relation to the crisis. This is a step which was applauded by many Cameroonians especially those from the regions directly concerned. Many critics said this was unsatisfactory and questioned the criteria used by the president for the release of some while others were left in detention for the same crime. The form of state which was the main proposal by Anglophone delegates was ignored. Decentralization was overemphasized with a recommendation of granting “special status” to the two regions, this is in accordance with Article 62 of the 1996 Cameroon Constitution. Special status without clear definitions meant very little or nothing to the Anglophones beacause the government may grant them favor or exceptions on very insignificant authorities and/or institutions in order to justify the status.
Recommendations from the various commissions included the creation of a Law School in Cameroon; Magistrates, Bailiffs and Court registrars in the NW/SW must mater Common Law and English Language; creation of a Common Law Bench in the Supreme Court to cover Administrative Audit, criminal benches; appointment of Anglophones at the helm of supreme court; another ENAM exam to be launched for Anglophones; discontinue trials in connection with Anglophone crisis and grant pardon and amnesty; arrest and prosecution of lawyers must be authorized by the Minister of Justice; access without restriction of lawyers to all detention centers; reinstitution of the House of Chiefs; Double Nationality; the two educational systems to be maintained each with its specificities; reconstruction and development of crisis affected areas; representation of Diaspora in Government and in parliament with a ministry in charge of the Diaspora to be created; compensation of victims of the crisis, create jobs for young people in war areas; creation of a team to meet radicalized Diaspora; translation and simultaneous publication of all legal instruments in both languages; suppression of posts of Government Delegate; substantial reduction of powers of supervisory authorities; effective and accelerated setting up of regions; allocation of funds to each council of North West and South West for rebuilding; amongst other.
The dialogue ended with the Prime Minister calling on participants and all Cameroonians to collectively take part in the implementation of the “three main objectives” of the Major National Dialogue which include; the effective resumption of schools in the North West and South West regions, Resumption of businesses in the two regions and the return of all Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees to their villages/towns and country respectively. The dialogue is hoped to be the beginning of an end to the crisis that has brought untold suffering to the populace of the English peaking regions of Cameroon.
The “Dialogue” as referred by many including the convener (government), the “monologue” as referred by few, ended on the 4th October 2019 with mixed feelings by Anglophones in particular and the nation in general as most expectations were not attained, though considered a good step for the restoration of peace in the country.
Enowbachem Agbor, B.Sc. holder in Political Science from University of Buea-Cameroon, Democracy Officer/Human Rights Monitoring and Reporting Officer at Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa. Facebook @ Enowbachem Agbor, Twitter @EnowAgbor_T