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A Much Vaunted ‘Grand National Dialogue’ That Never Was

*By Chaifie ZECHIA

Cameroon had always been paraded on the world stage as a ‘peaceful’ country but since 2016, it is hard to make this assertion anymore. In late October 2016, teachers and lawyers in North and South (former British Southern Cameroon under the UN trusteeship agreement) regions of Cameroon took to the streets peacefully to protest the erosion of their judiciary and educational subsystems.

The lawyers re-echoed long-held complaints about the replacement of the common law system which they had before unification with French Cameroun (La Republique du Cameroon- LRC) in 1961, with the French civil law system. Amongst their grievances, were the presence of purely French-speaking lawyers sent to courts in English-speaking Cameroon, and the continuous promulgation and publication of national laws purely in French, even though it is enshrined in Cameroon constitution that English and French are official languages with equal weight. The lawyers argued that the court sessions and judgments are flawed because of the fact they are conducted in a language that most people don’t understand.

The teachers on their part complained of French-speaking teachers in purely English-speaking schools and regions. These teachers, as they argued, do not even master English, consequently, very low learning outcomes and confusion of these institutions and the students. Together with the lawyers, they asked for a reform of these two sub-sectors of the Cameroonian society. Both teachers and lawyers constituted themselves into a consortium in order to be able to articulate their grievances together and consistently. Cameroonian authorities began negotiating with the consortium leaders, but surprisingly arrested and accused them of terrorism, insurgency, rebellion, and destruction of property. The consortium was also dissolved. Students and civil society went out to the streets to demand the release of their leaders but were met with brutal forces; numerous arrests were made, and deaths reported. The government cut off the internet for 3 months.

Unfortunately for the government, this would open historical grievances that were bubbling up for decades but hadn’t a chance of being aired publicly enough. The English-speaking minority that constitutes 20% of Cameroon 24-25 million people demanded the return of the Federal system of governance that both countries came into a union with in1961. After initially refusing and rejecting their grievances as baseless, the government later acknowledged, but since then maintained that the form of the state is non-negotiable. These two opposing views of the form of the state created a stalemate. With the inability to defend themselves as they claimed, some of the protesters took up arms after the president declared war on them on 30th November 2017. This was because the number of casualties rose amongst protesters and arm forces and English Cameroon leadership based out of the country declaration of their independence on 1 October 2017. Since then thousands have been killed (1850 estimated by the International crisis group), at least 50000 as refugees in Nigeria and more than half a million displaced.

Grand National ‘Dialogue’

Faced with internal and international pressure and sometimes sanctions since 2016, Cameroon president, Paul Biya who has been in power since 1982, called for a national dialogue last month. The dialogue was to take place from 01-05th this month. He initially denied that the people of the two regions are marginalised since he has appointed the prime ministers from there since 1992. He, however, insisted that the dialogue should solve the conflicts in the regions.

However, when consultation for organisation of the dialogue began, fracture began to appear even before the dialogue was held. Dialogue should be amongst two parties with a moderator, but this was not the case. The president appointed the Prime Minister to oversee the dialogue, a move which infuriated many given that the prime minister himself is part of the system and even a problem as far as some quarters in the opposing camp are concerned. Many argued that the overseer should be neutral and chosen by the parties to dialogue, but this was ignored.

Secondly, the president outlined the topics that the dialogue must be based on. From these topics, it was evident that not much will be achieved especially as decentralisation that was supposed to start being implemented since 1996 which did not happen, appeared on the list of topics again. At that time, it was clear that the form of the state will not be on the table.

The most curious thing was that those to speak during the dialogue were selected and those not selected were not allowed to attend or speak. The commissions set up were headed by regime barons and party members, most of whom have been rejected in advanced by the opposing camp and even accused of fuelling the war for political gains. With this curiosity still very fresh, the rapporteur was also chosen by the government.

Separatist leaders had asked for the dialogue to take place in a neutral country with international mediators. They insisted on the release of prisoners, withdrawal of troops and ceasefire and immunity to participants. None of these demands were made, so they boycotted the dialogue. The government presented a couple of people as ex-fighters who surrendered but the separatist leaders claimed that was government staged propaganda.

Cracks from the Dialogue resolutions

The dialogue ran from 1st -5th October. Many people, however, feel that it did not solve the problem, firstly because the war is still ongoing. Secondly, the resolutions taken are either vague or treating the symptoms, not the root causes. For example, special status was accorded to two regions without anyone knowing what it means or what its content is. The form of the state that creates the stalemate was not on the table.

Thirdly, Lawan Bako of the United Democratic Party on Oct. 5th, wrote a letter to the president complaining that rapporteur didn’t do his job. He claims that the rapporteur edited the resolutions and did not include the special status accorded, thwarting the possibility of solving the conflict.

Fourthly, the USA and EU are again calling for an inclusive dialogue barely two weeks after the just ended one in Yaoundé. This means that they don’t recognise the last one. A renowned lawyer and former Cameroon Bar counsel President and presidential candidate, Akere Muna walked out the first day of the dialogue describing it as a sham. Jean Jacque Kinge, another politician and former MP and the presidential candidate did the same even though he returned later.

So from all these and more, one is inclined to believe that what took place in Yaoundé from 01-05th Oct 2019 was a monologue, not a dialogue. It seems that to solve the conflicts in Cameroon, a more broad-based, inclusive and representative meaningful dialogue is inevitable. �

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