YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Cameroon’s president said during a public address Tuesday night that he is organizing a national dialogue for the end of the month on all the crises facing the country, including violence that has killed thousands in its Anglophone regions.
President Paul Biya, who rarely addresses the nation, also called on all separatists in the English-speaking regions to surrender and be forgiven. Their alternative, he warned, will be to face military action.
Many Cameroonians said they had expected Biya to grant amnesty to arrested separatists and political leaders as a way to bring peace to the troubled country.
But Biya said he already has made great efforts trying to solve the separatist crisis in the restive South East and North East regions, though fighters benefiting from the financial support of Cameroonians living in other countries continue to try to tear Cameroon apart.
“In spite of the attempts to destabilize Cameroon, we are happy that our defence forces have fought hard and peace is gradually returning to the restive regions,” Biya said.
On Aug. 20, a Cameroon military tribunal gave life sentences to Julius Ayuk Tabe, the leader of a separatist movement, and nine others on convictions of secession, terrorism and hostility against the state. The defence counsel boycotted the trial, claiming bias. Those sentenced had been arrested in neighbouring Nigeria and extradited to Cameroon in January 2018 along with 46 others alleged to have supported a separatist Anglophone state in Cameroon they call Ambazonia.
Violence erupted in 2016 with teachers and lawyers protesting alleged discrimination at the hands of Cameroon’s French-speaking majority. The government responded with a crackdown that sparked an armed movement for an independent, English-speaking state, which was declared by a militant secessionist group in October 2017. That group then started attacking Cameroon officials, the military and police working in the region.
In November 2017, Biya declared war on the separatists and said he would crush them if they did not surrender.
The conflict has since killed more than 2,000 people, internally displaced more than 500,000 and caused more than 50,000 Cameroonians to seek refuge in Nigeria, according to the United Nations.
In Tuesday’s address, Biya denied any marginalization of English-speaking regions, saying he has always appointed ministers from the region.
“We should all know that we are Cameroonians, appointed to serve Cameroon, not our tribes or linguistic groups.” Biya added.
While announcing his plan for dialogue, the president also said it was difficult to know who to talk with as people claiming to be separatist leaders use only social media platforms to preach violence.
But he added that the national dialogue would address more than just the separatist crisis.
“The dialogue to be presided over by the prime minister will bring together all Cameroonians, especially traditional rulers, lawmakers, the clergy and all elected officials,” Biya said.
Cameroon is fighting both a separatist movement in its Southwest and Northwest regions and Boko Haram extremists in the Far North. It has also faced a political crisis after October elections saw the re-election of Biya, who has been in power since 1982.
Opposition leader Maurice Kamto, who came in second, claimed to have won the election. He and dozens of others are on trial in a military court on insurrection charges.
Edwin Kindzeka Moki, The Associated Press