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Cameroon’s elusive peace: Rivals, rifts, and secret talks

‘What we desperately need is for both sides to humble themselves by sitting down with one another as brothers.’

Four years of conflict between the government and separatist fighters, like these in the Southwest region in 2018, have left nearly 800,000 people homeless and upended the lives of millions more. (Emmanuel Freudenthal/TNH)

Last April, a convoy of vehicles left the forbidding Kondengui Central Prison and drove the six kilometers to the National Episcopal Conference Center, a large, imposing building in the heart of Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.

In one car was Sisiku Julius AyukTabe, serving a life sentence on charges of terrorism for leading an armed separatist movement that is demanding independence for Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions.

He was about to meet with government officials in secret talks to explore the possibility of a ceasefire in a four-year conflict that has now left close to 800,000 people homeless and upended the lives of three million people.

President Paul Biya has consistently spurned contact with the separatists. Publicly, he has referred to them as “terrorists” or “murderers” who, he claims, do not represent the views of the people of the anglophone regions.

But despite the public disavowal of dialogue, since 2019 both Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute and intelligence chief Maxime Eko Eko – part of a small pro-talks group within the government – have quietly reached out to separatist leaders. The meeting with AyukTabe and members of both mens’ teams was their most significant step so far.

News of that meeting did not emerge until three months later, after a second meeting in July. When it did, it caused shock and anger among hardline members of the government and among some key members of the separatist movement, who are firmly opposed to direct negotiations with the government. 

The response revealed the difficulties in crafting an agreement to bring peace to the residents of Cameroon’s anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions. Challenges include not only the need to bring the government and separatists to the negotiating table; there’s also a lack of consensus within both groups over how the peace process should move forward – or, in the case of government hardliners, whether a peace deal is needed at all.

International pressure has been building in recent months to try and find a solution – with Canada, France, the United States, and the Vatican all showing renewed interest. Civil society groups in the regions impacted by the conflict have frantically been signaling the urgency of ending the violence, pointing to the disruptions to civilian lives caused by the attacks on rural villages, schools and teachers, to kidnappings and the abuses against women

But all initiatives – including an effort by a Swiss-based NGO – have been stymied and are now stalled. The search is on to find a way to break the deadlock.

For AyukTabe, a former university administrator, talking to government officials was a political risk. He had been a popular and unifying leader at the launch of the separatist “Ambazonia'' movement in 2017, but his detention in 2018 in neighbouring Nigeria and subsequent transfer to Cameroon created a leadership vacuum that others vyed to fill. 

Months after the July 2020 meeting, speaking to TNH from his prison cell in Yaounde, AyukTabe said that on the drive to meet with staff from the prime minister’s office, he was still “trying to fathom” how a government that had “killed thousands of innocent Ambazonians now claims to be willing to discuss a ceasefire that they had previously said was not needed”. 

Handshakes and selfies

What swayed his decision to sit down with government representatives was his belief that something had to be done to end the violence and suffering. Should Yaounde prove insincere, “it will only underscore [their preference for conflict]”, he reasoned.

ayuktabe-letter.jpg

An image of a press release in which AyukTabe announces the start of ceasefire talks
The separatist faction led by Sisiku Julius AyukTabe announced the start of ceasefire talks in a July 2020 press release.

The talks did seem to result in some progress. In the April meeting, AyukTabe and a small group of separatist leaders detained with him set tough pre-conditions for a ceasefire. In July, the government called the men in Kondengui back. Both sides appeared to reach a mutual understanding on all points, including the confinement of the security forces to their barracks; the release of all prisoners; and the acceptance of a third party mediator in future talks, AyukTabe told TNH days after the talks occurred. 

The meeting ended with handshakes, he recounted, and members of the government delegation took selfies with the separatists – who wore the few nice clothes they had with them in prison, with AyukTabe in traditional robes.

But the optimism was short lived. When AyukTabe shared news of the meeting on social media, there was uproar from within the diaspora-based separatist ranks – and initial denials by an embarrassed government that there had been any talks at all.

Chris Anu, a fiery Texas-based separatist spokesman, noted witheringly on the separatist’s digital broadcasting platforms that AyukTabe and the other detainees “don’t have the right, they don’t have the mandate, to discuss the future of Ambazonia while they remain in chains”. 

The negativity of the response to the July meeting caused confusion amongst fighters and civilians on the ground and among the diplomatic community over who has the loyalty of the fighters – and the authority to speak for the movement.

‘Individual interests have clouded their minds’

The separatist cause is deeply split. There are, broadly, two rival “Interim Governments”: One is led by a US-based former pastor, Samuel Ikome Sako, who was selected to be the “acting interim president” of Ambazonia after AyukTabe’s detention. The other is still headed by AyukTabe, who has retained the respect of the majority of separatist fighters in anglophone Cameroon. 

Relations between both men were cordial at first. Sako and his group provided support to AyukTabe’s family, who are seeking asylum in the United States. Yet friction arose between the loyalists surrounding the two men, and the official split between the groups took place in the spring of 2019. Animosities between the two have only intensified since. 

President Biya, in power for close to four decades, has consistently shrugged off calls for dialogue. He is backed by a number of hardliners within his government.  

They include the powerful secretary general of the presidency, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, who was blindsided by the talks last year, and Atanga Nji, the minister for territorial administration. He has refused to accept anglophone claims of marginalisation or to acknowledge the violence of the counter-insurgency operations – abuses that have added to the ranks of the separatists.

READ MORE: International Diplomacy

In early January, the US Senate unanimously agreed to a resolution that demanded the warring parties in Cameroon “end all violence, respect the human rights of all Cameroonians, and pursue a genuinely inclusive dialogue”. Antony Blinken, the new US secretary of state, said at his confirmation that he was particularly concerned by the “violence directed at the anglophone population”.

Yet it’s unclear how his statements and the resolution will translate into any action by the United States.

Canada has also joined the diplomatic signalling. A subcommittee in the Canadian House of Commons in early March urged Ottawa to “rally allies through multilateral organisations to call for an immediate ceasefire and an end to hostilities.” Canada provides funding for the “Swiss process”.

And then there is France, with a complicated relationship with Cameroon. Overall, it is viewed as a supporter of Biya and is thus distrusted by the anglophone population. But there are some exceptions. MP Sébastien Nadot regularly criticises the Biya government and has urged French officials to condemn the violence in the anglophone regions. Recently, he received a response from the French minister of foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, which did just that.

President Emmanuel Macron has also expressed unease, most notably when he was confronted in public by an emotional member of the Cameroon diaspora who pleaded with Macron to intervene in the wake of the Ngarbuh Massacre in February 2020. Cameroon’s ruling party accused Macron of a neo-colonial attitude and reportedly enticed university students to protest outside the French Embassy in Yaoundé.

The African Union has hesitated to get seriously involved. The continental body defers to its sub-regional groupings in such matters, in this case the Central African Economic and Monetary Community. That group includes Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, and Congo-Brazzaville – countries with their own internal problems, which tend to be addressed militarily.

The pro-talks wing is led by Ngute, the prime minister, who is also a traditional ruler from the Southwest anglophone region. Ngute is a devout member of the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) party, but he believes a negotiated settlement is the only way out of the crisis, officials close to him confirmed to TNH, speaking anonymously as the talks process remains highly sensitive. 

The party divisions are not linguistic – anglophone and francophone members of the government are on both sides of the debate. The divide is more related to existing tensions within the CPDM over who will succeed the octogenarian Biya.

The separatists face even starker choices over how to end the conflict. While AyukTabe has opted to talk directly to the government, Sako has preferred to wait, building the negotiating capacity of mainly diaspora-based groups through an initiative organised by the Geneva-based conflict mediation NGO Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), and known as the “Swiss process”.

The two rival peace approaches – AyukTabe, who is willing to speak directly with the government, and Sako’s group, which will only engage through the “Swiss process” – have spurred intense infighting among separatists.

“Individual interests have clouded their minds,” Reverend Samuel Fonki, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon, told TNH from the city of Buea in the anglophone Southwest Region. “They tend to disagree over minuscule issues instead of trying to resolve the [bigger] conflict,” he added.

In the war zones, civil society leaders are simply calling for an end to the violence. Civilians are the victims of the conflict – targeted by both the separatists and the government. Women face indiscriminate sexual abuse, and community “lockdowns”, school boycotts, and extortion and kidnappings by separatist fighters have also taken their toll.

“This pointless war has taken away too many lives,” Esther Omam, the executive director of the women’s empowerment NGO Reach Out, told TNH. “What we desperately need is for both sides to humble themselves by sitting down with one another as brothers.”

The diaspora connection

From his base in Maryland, Sako presides over well-resourced, largely diaspora-based factions. Through a sophisticated online media network, they have been able to raise considerable amounts of money for the separatist cause – although there has been concern over the probity of some of the campaigns. 

Sako has had a rapid rise from a pastor advertising apostolic healing services to the trappings of power leading a so-called government in exile. He has now staked his political credibility on the “Swiss process”.

That effort groups together mainly diaspora-based separatist leaders under the umbrella of the Ambazonia Coalition Team (ACT), created by HD to unite the factions ahead of future talks with Yaounde. But the initiative has stalled since the last meeting of participants in the fall of 2019.

The Cameroon government has consistently rejected the efforts of HD, refusing to discuss even the idea of secession. The conflict mediation NGO has acknowledged the challenges it has faced working in such a “highly polarised environment” – including the basics of “nominating negotiators, designing negotiation strategies”, and adopting “confidence-building measures”.

READ MORE: Humanitarian needs and the roots of the conflict

As a result of four years of conflict, close to a million people cannot access all the food they need, more than 80 percent of schools have closed, and over 1.1 million children are out of class. More than 60,000 refugees shelter across the border in Nigeria.

The root causes of the conflict go back to 1961, when British administered “Southern Cameroons” became part of the larger French-speaking Cameroon under a federal system. But a unitary constitution in 1972 put an end to federalism and the anglophone region’s autonomy.

The trigger for the current troubles was protests organised by anglophone lawyers and teachers in 2016 over what they saw as the undermining of the region’s separate legal and education systems. In a response to those protests widely seen as heavy handed, security forces cracked down, killing at least six demonstrators.

Mass arrests ensued and the demands of the protestors became more radical – from federalism to out-right secession. In the wake of more shootings by security forces and an internet blackout in the region, separatist fighters launched their first attacks on police and military posts in late 2017.

The detention of AyukTabe in 2018 shook the separatist movement. He was picked up along with nine other separatist leaders at the Nera hotel in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, by Nigerian security police and swiftly flown to Yaounde. The group became known as the “Nera 10”.

The separatists responded with new attacks on military positions, and the government retaliated by burning down entire villages. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to the bush – or across the border into Nigeria.

Sako frames Yaounde’s position and the lack of progress as a conspiracy to hurt him personally. “French Cameroon has one last card – destroy the image of Sako/IG [Interim Government] and discredit or kill the Swiss process on the argument that they cannot talk with terrorists,” he told TNH in a WhatsApp message this month.

He and his subordinates regularly claim that AyukTabe “may have struck a deal” and is now key to what they charge is the government’s strategy of subversion. 

Although Sako dismissed the leadership of AyukTabe as “insignificant”, in his WhatsApp message he added: “The only way they can proceed now with the compromised moderates [imprisoned in Kondengui] is to discredit the actors behind the Swiss [process and] take me down”.

Locked away in Kondengui, AyukTabe has thus far refused to accept a Swiss mediation role in resolving the conflict. He argues that because Biya is a frequent visitor to Geneva, a city where he reportedly does his banking, his links to the Swiss authorities – who openly support the "Swiss process" and are among the funders of HD – are too close.

Civilians eager for any solution

While the separatists are split over which path to take to peace, for civil society groups in the anglophone regions it is not an either or choice. AyukTabe’s initiative last year was welcomed as a step forward: If the Geneva-based approach ever gets off the ground, that too would be supported.

“There is too much contention on the name of the process and not the substance of it,” said Agbor Nkongho of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, based in Buea – the city separatists aim to make the capital of an independent Ambazonia.  

“Going forward, it is important to have a holistic process that brings in people from all of the separatist camps and brings in bodies such as the African Union and those willing to serve as mediators – including the Swiss,” he told TNH in September.

International impetus to end the conflict is now growing. During his confirmation process at the end of January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken signalled that President Joe Biden would reverse the largely hands-off approach of his predecessor. “I think the United States can make a difference,” Blinken said.

France – which still wields some influence in Cameroon, its former colony – has recently begun to voice concerns over the war’s humanitarian toll more loudly, and the Vatican has also added its moral weight to the call for talks. At the end of January, a senior Vatican official, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, visited Yaounde to deliver that message.

As an alternative to dialogue, Biya has offered decentralisation and a “special status” for the anglophone regions – steps seen as too little and too late by his critics. He also continues to pursue a violent counter-insurgency strategy.

Even if the Biden administration and its international partners were able to pressure the two sides into negotiations, the internal divisions within both the government and separatist camps remain significant hurdles to any meaningful talks to end the bloodshed.

Independent civil society groups – largely ignored by both the government and the separatists – say they must be part of any solution and part of efforts to break the deadlock between and amongst the government and separatists.

“The role of the grassroots in these talks is imperative,” said Alhadji Mohammed Aboubakar, the influential imam of the Central Mosque in Buea.

“They are the ones who are suffering the brunt of this conflict.”

The next articles in this series exploring the potential for peace in Cameroon are a who’s who of the main players in the violence, followed by a look at the role civil society can play in peacebuilding.

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