General Capture and Destroy stepped to the microphone and in an impassioned speech to the media urged fellow separatist fighters to lay down arms and join Cameroon’s government-led peace talks.
“The suffering is too much,” he said. “If we fail to end this thing we will all suffer. I am sent by my fellow generals to represent them in peace talks.”
Within minutes separatist leaders denied to Reuters any knowledge of Capture and Destroy or other men presented as former fighters by government during talks last week.
Twitter erupted with ordinary Cameroonians questioning the identity of the so-called generals.
“Whatever one says, this national dialogue has unveiled some good actors!,” said a widely-shared post.
The true identity of General Capture and Destroy is not yet clear and some observers said they recognise some fighters put forward by government.
The reaction to his appearance reveals the extent to which mistrust and partisanship in Cameroon undermine any prospect of resolving the crisis without outside arbitration.
The talks could have opened the door to a peace agreement, ending a fight between the army and English-speaking militias seeking to form a breakaway state called Ambazonia. The conflict claimed nearly 2,000 lives, forced half a million people to flee and presented President Paul Biya with his biggest threat in 40 years of rule.
Instead, they were boycotted by separatists and moderate politicians and ended in acrimony.
“Cameroon is a joke,” said Cho Ayaba of the Ambazonian Governing Council. “Let me be absolutely clear: no Ambazonian is and will be part of Cameroon’s charade.”
“IT’S A SHOW”
The insurgency emerged after a government crackdown on peaceful protests in 2016 in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions by lawyers and teachers complaining of being marginalised by the French-speaking majority.
The roots of their grievances go back a century to the League of Nations’ decision to split the former German colony Kamerun between the allied French and British victors at the end of World War One.
For 10 years after French- and English-speaking regions joined together in 1961, the country was a federation with Anglophone regions largely governing themselves. Biya’s centralisation push after 1982 eroded any remaining Anglophone autonomy.
Within months of the initial 2016 protests, newly-formed armed groups were attacking army posts in the Anglophone regions. The army responded by burning down villages and shooting civilians.
Once vibrant cities including technology hub Buea are now ghost towns. Schools closed; villages emptied as people flee into Nigeria.
Separatists entrenched in the mountainous west say they will only come to the table if government releases all political prisoners, including 10 leaders sentenced to life on terrorism charges,and withdraws the military from the English-speaking regions.
Biya, who is 86, has struggled to contain the problem. He rarely speaks in public or meets his government and spends months each year in Switzerland.
He said previously he would drop charges against 333 prisoners held in relation to the crisis, but the move failed to appease separatists and moderates who say thousands more remain imprisoned on trumped-up charges.
Biya praised the talks on Twitter and said recommendations were published. These include ensuring equality of English and French speakers, giving greater autonomy to provinces and offering amnesty to fighters who down arms.
The dialogue “afforded you the opportunity to reaffirm your attachment to peace and concord in your country,” Biya said in a tweet to the people. “I would like to congratulate and thank you sincerely for that.”
Critics said talks were not inclusive and did not involve discussion about a return to federalism many say is the solution to the conflict.
Former opposition presidential candidate Akere Muna was told at the talks that people allowed to speak at one session were identified and he would not be able to participate.
“I said to myself that’s not a dialogue,” Muna told Reuters. “It’s a show and I’m a spectator. I left.”