Cameroon president calls 'national dialogue' on separatist crisis

Cameroon President Paul Biya. -Courtesy photo

YAOUNDE - Cameroon President Paul Biya on Tuesday announced that he intends to hold a major "national dialogue" later this month in a bid to put an end to the conflict between security forces and armed separatists from the anglophone minority in the west.

Over the past two years, the francophone-majority country has been mired in the unrest which has left more than 2,000 people dead as English-speaking separatists demand independence in the Northwest and Southwest regions. More than 500,000 people have been forced from their homes as a result according to the Human Rights Watch group.

"I have decided to convene, from the end of this month, a major national dialogue to allow us... to examine the ways and means to respond to the deeply-held aspirations of the populations in the Northwest and Southwest, but also in all the other component parts of our great nation," the 86-year-old president said in an address to the nation aired on national television and radio.

Biya, who has been in power for 37 years, reiterated his offer of a "pardon" to any separatists who voluntarily lay down their arms, while vowing that those who refuse to do so will face "the full force of the law" as well as the country's security and defense forces.

He said the talks in late September would be presided over by Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute and will bring together representatives of numerous factions, including security forces and the armed separatists.

Dion Ngute would hold "broad consultations" including delegations who would meet with diaspora in the coming days, the president said, without saying where a potential summit would be held.

English speakers -- who make up roughly one fifth of Cameroon's 24 million inhabitants -- mostly live in the two regions that were formerly a British colony until they were folded into post-independence Cameroon in 1961.

Anger at perceived discrimination by francophones against anglophones in justice, education and the economy has built for years.

The current crisis began in late 2016, and escalated a year later when English-speaking militants symbolically declared the creation of the independent "Republic of Ambazonia" in the two regions.

The government responded with a brutal crackdown, and the separatists in turn have mounted a campaign of attacks on state buildings, including schools, as well as shootings and kidnappings.

Biya has consistently rejected demands to give the English-speaking regions greater autonomy or a return to federalism. -AFP