UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed the importance of dialogue as a means of resolving differences when he fielded questions at a news conference on Wednesday in Cameroon, the last leg of a five-nation trip to West and Central Africa.
“I am leaving Cameroon knowing that there is one multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic Cameroon and it should not be separated because of one language or the other,” Annan said, according to a transcript of the news conference.
He was referring to what has become known as the “Anglophone issue” in Cameroon, where a section of the English-speaking population has been clamouring for a separate state.
What is important is to have dialogue, Annan said, “to have an open political atmosphere, to have the rule of law, and respect for the rights of others and assure each individual, each ethnic group that everyone belongs to Cameroon”. There is no need to divide the people of Cameroon or create another state, he added.
What is now the republic of Cameroon used to be two UN trust territories, one administered by Britain and the other by France, up to four decades ago. At independence in 1961, the northern part of English-speaking Cameroons decided by referendum to join Nigeria while Southern Cameroons (Northwest Province and Southwest Province) decided to become linked to the French-speaking territory.
A federal system which guaranteed the English-speaking minority (about one-fifth of the population) a certain amount of autonomy was replaced in 1972 by a unitary state. This was followed years later by claims of marginalisation by sections of the English-speaking minority, and later calls for self-determination, especially by the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC).
In March 1997, 10 people were killed in Northwest Province in attacks which the authorities blamed on the SCNC. Dozens of Anglophone Cameroonians, members and suspected members and sympathisers of the group, were imprisoned and later charged.
On 6 October 1999, a military tribunal sentenced three to life imprisonment, imposed sentences ranging from 1 to 20 years on 33 others, and acquitted another 30 in what Amnesty International called a flawed trial.
Just under three months later, on 30 December, a group of SCNC activists occupied a branch of the national radio in Buea, a main town in the Southwest Province, and broadcast a message calling for secession, according to media reports.
In January and April, AFP and RFI reported the arrest of scores of suspected SCNC members and, on 2 May, AFP reported that a decree banning the organisation in the Southwest Province had been issued.
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