After a high-profile government announcement, and a series of consultations in recent weeks, the national dialogue opened on September 30, 2019, in Yaoundé, Cameroon and is expected to last for a week. A large number of actors are invited to participate: several opposition political parties, civil society organizations and religious leaders (including the Catholic Church) have responded to Prime Minister Joseph Dion’s invitation to all “peace-loving” Cameroonians.
However, the structure and content of the dialogue already seem to be a problem for many stakeholders. The most important of them (at least as far as the Cameroonian government’s peace efforts are concerned) are not taking part in the “Biya charade”, to use the words of Cho Ayaba, one of the leaders of the Ambazonian Governing Council. This is the case of the Renewal Mouvement of Cameroon (RMC, one of the main opposition parties) of Maurice Kamto (in prison for several months) and the separatist movements in the North West and South West and several major opposition parties.
The boycott of English-speaking separatist organizations
If the English-speaking separatist movements refuse to take part in this national dialogue, it is because they consider that their main precondition (the withdrawal of Cameroonian troops from the territory of the English-speaking regions of the North West and South West) has not been taken into account by the Cameroonian authorities. This condition was in any case unacceptable to Yaoundé, which has constantly considered the unitary form of the Cameroonian State to be outside the scope of any negotiation, even though other actors are proposing a third way.
The possibility of adopting a federal form of the Cameroonian state has been put forward since at least 2017 by some political parties and the most moderate English-speaking organizations. A fraction has even been observed in recent months in the internal debate between “federalists” on the one hand, and “separatists” on the other. Could it have been a possible opening to a useful debate? This will never be known, at least not during the current national dialogue. Indeed, none of the commissions initiated for the national dialogue deals with the question of the form of the State, effectively excluding the question of federalism from the debates. At most, President Biya conceded during his inauguration speech on November 6, 2018, the possibility of extensive autonomy for the English-speaking regions, in particular by accelerating the process of decentralization of the State; a process that has been ongoing for several years and whose too little result to date prevents these promises from being given any credence.
What then can be expected from the national dialogue?
The (hard) government line has therefore not quite moved since the beginning of the English-speaking crisis, creating a hardening of positions on the separatist side too, where “now the federalists are the minority and the separatists are the majority”, as Akere Muna told Reuters. These fixed positions, therefore, offering little possibility of concessions, and the absence of interlocutors capable of bringing about a perceptible change in the ongoing conflict in the English-speaking regions, raise the question of what can and should be expected from this national dialogue.
First, even if clashes continue in the English-speaking regions (having caused nearly 1,800 deaths and 500,000 displaced since 2017, according to United Nations estimates), the organization of a national dialogue represents in itself a positive step forward in Yaoundé’s position. It should be remembered that less than a year ago, at the end of 2018, the Cameroonian State still showed very little political will to organize any dialogue despite the insistent calls of religious leaders (and the personal involvement of Cardinal Christian Tumi) to organize an “All Anglophone Conference”. Despite the serious questions raised by the boycott of English-speaking separatist organizations, the very idea of this dialogue betrays, if not moderation of the government line, at least the pragmatic recognition that a non-negotiated solution to the English-speaking crisis will be extremely costly for Cameroon.
Secondly, the presence of certain players, such as religious leaders and part of civil society, gives hope that this national dialogue will become a kind of echo chamber for possible concessions, and reasonable bases on which the Cameroonian authorities and English-speaking separatists could meet. These actors (religious leaders and civil society) can be expected to play a role as bona fide third parties, whose combined influence can bring the two parties closer together.
Finally, the fact that they do not participate does not mean a priori that English-speaking separatist organizations do not observe the evolution of the dialogue, the state of mind of the participants (and in particular the government), and the topics under discussion. In this respect, it is not so much whether the separatists will learn from it, but what lessons they will learn from it. And the answer to this question is another useful lever in the hands of the participants in this national dialogue, and of the government. It is up to the Cameroonian authorities to take the opportunity of this national dialogue to project a constructive image of their positions and offer openings that could create the opportunity for possible future direct negotiations with the separatists. In these many respects, it can be said that the national dialogue that began on September 30 is another test of good faith for Yaoundé.