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On Thursday, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya announced the release of 333 prisoners arrested for their participation in separatist uprisings. Biya made the announcement on Twitter saying, “I have ordered the discontinuance of proceedings pending before Military Tribunals against 333 persons arrested for misdemeanors, in connection with the crisis in the North-West and South-West Regions.” This move came amid the national peace dialogue initiated by Biya to end the internal fighting that Reuters estimates has claimed over 1,800 lives and displaced more than 500,000 people.
Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, the Secretary-General in the Office of the President, says that Biya’s decision shows his determination to find a solution to the conflict. Reuters also characterized the move as, “one of Biya’s largest concessions yet.” However, separatist leaders have dismissed the releases as a political stunt and called for the release of an additional 5,000 people who have been imprisoned in connection with the anglophone separatist movement since 2016. Ivo Tapang, a spokesperson for the separatist movement, commented on the releases saying, “We will not accept an olive branch from someone whose troops are still in our territory… We will intensify our struggle with guns and bullets.”
The root of this heated conflict between anglophone Cameroonians and the majority francophone government can be traced back to 1961 when the British Cameroons in the south voted to join French Cameroun. The original constitution guaranteed respect for the culture of anglophone regions, but in 1972, a referendum approved the ratification of a new constitution that replaced the government’s federal system with a unitary structure. In 1984, President Biya changed the name of the country back to the Republic of Cameroon, the name it held before the unification, and changed the flag from a two-star design, representing the francophone and anglophone regions, to a single star design. In March 1985, Fon Gorji Dinka, an anglophone lawyer, denounced Biya’s actions and called for a separate anglophone territory called Ambazonia. Dinka was arrested and detained for a year without trial. Today, Biya remains in power and separatists have continued to fight for an independent Ambazonia.
In September 2017, the Ambazonia Defense Council declared war on the Cameroon government following a crackdown on protestors in the northwest and southwest regions of the country. The protesters mainly consisted of lawyers and educators who felt marginalized by the francophone majority. In October 2017, the Washington Post reported that tens of thousands of people marched for independence chanting, “no violence.” The government performed another violent crackdown, which included shooting into crowds, barging into homes, and arbitrarily arresting and torturing people. A report by the Cameroon-based Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights accused the government of committing crimes against humanity, and the Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect warned that, “the risk of mass atrocity crimes occurring in the immediate future is very high.” The Washington Post reported that Cameroon’s army has systematically burned villages, displacing over half a million people and leaving them without access to clean food or water. The violence has also caused over 4,400 schools to close leaving 600,000 children without an education. Last month, President Biya announced that he would address these issues through the national dialogue that took place last week.
Though Biya’s initiation of a national dialogue and his release of separatist prisoners are steps in the right direction, the government must put an immediate end to violence against peaceful protesters and take steps to rebuild destroyed schools and villages if it hopes to permanently end the conflict. Without this basic acknowledgment of the suffering anglophones have endured at the hands of the government, tensions will remain high in Cameroon and there will be an increasing push for a separate anglophone territory.