Government-led talks to end a two-year-old separatist insurgency in Cameroon faltered before they began on Monday as separatists and opposition politicians boycotted the event.
President Paul Biya initiated the week-long national dialogue to calm violence between militias and the army that killed more than 1 800 and displaced another 500 000, according to United Nations estimates.
Anglophone separatists, trying to form a breakaway state Ambazonia in the country’s minority English-speaking regions, immediately dismissed the talks because their conditions for dialogue have not been met, they said.
“No Ambazonian will take part in Biya’s charade,” said Cho Ayaba, a leading member of the Ambazonian Governing Council.
The council called for a withdrawal of the army from the English-speaking Southwest and Northwest regions, for international arbitration over the crisis and for the release of all arrested separatists.
Cameroon’s main opposition party refuses to attend until government releases its leader and former presidential candidate Maurice Kamto, arrested in January and facing the death penalty for leading protests against an election last year he denounced as fraudulent.
Biya (86) won re-election extending his nearly four decades in power.
The Anglophone conflict began after government cracked down on peaceful protests in 2016 in English-speaking regions by teachers and lawyers complaining they were being marginalised by the French-speaking majority.
Demonstrators were shot dead and the movement became radicalised. Now at least a dozen groups have taken up arms and carried out deadly attacks on army posts and the police. The army responded by burning villages and shooting dead civilians in the English-speaking areas.
Thousands fled to Nigeria or sought refuge in French-speaking Cameroon.
Opposition parties, civil society groups and representatives of the Catholic Church were at the main conference centre in Yaounde on Monday.
Prime Minister Joseph Dion, an Anglophone appointed in part to jump-start negotiations, was also present.
Dion said the talks were to end violence and enable the Northwest and Southwest regions to regain the “necessary serenity”, adding “all men and women who love peace” were invited.
Cameroon’s linguistic divide goes back a century to the League of Nations’ decision to split the former German colony of Kamerun between allied French and British victors at the end of World War One.
For 10 years after the French- and English-speaking regions joined in 1961, the country was a federation with Anglophone regions having their own police, government and judicial system. Biya’s centralisation push since coming to power in 1982 eroded any remaining Anglophone autonomy.
Moderates who long called for a return to some federal system form to ease tensions say their voices were drowned out by secessionists on one hand and Biya on the other.
“It is farcical to not have a commission to discuss federalism, which is at the core of this,” said Akere Muna, an opposition politician and former presidential candidate participating in the talks. “Now the federalists are a minority and the separatists are the majority.”