Cameroon’s government has promised greater attention to minority English-speaking regions where violence has killed more than 2,000 people, but some attending a national dialogue meant to bring stability to the restive regions expressed doubts that new resolutions would work.
The commitments came at the close of a meeting this week that separatists refused to attend.
“We shall facilitate the disbursement of financial resources to local councils,” said Commonwealth Minister Felix Mbayu, who read the final resolutions of the conference.
The government also promised to “enhance the practice of bilingualism in all segments of society through the creation and implementation of programs starting from pre-school ages and assuring equitable access to public service and security forces.”
Other resolutions included additional care for the more than 500,000 displaced by fighting in the North West and South West regions, reconstruction of destroyed villages and providing job opportunities for former fighters who drop their weapons.
In another move toward reconciliation, President Paul Biya ordered an end to court proceedings against some members of the party of jailed opposition leader Maurice Kamto.
Kamto and members of his Movement for the Renaissance of Cameroon party were arrested in Douala in January after calling for peaceful protests against alleged irregularities in the October 7 election that saw Biya easily win a seventh term.
The promises made at the conference came after Biya pardoned 333 separatist fighters accused of misdemeanors. That pardon, however, doesn’t apply to separatist leaders who were sentenced to life in prison by a military tribunal in August — and whose release was one of the requirements separatists gave to attend the dialogue.
The rebel groups also said they would agree to negotiations only if they take place in a foreign country with United Nations mediators.
Kobo Emmanuel, a 35-year-old former separatist fighter from the English-speaking south western town of Kumba had come to the dialogue after giving up his weapons.
He said if Cameroon’s government really wants peace, separatist leaders should be freed so that people in the regions feel they can elect a representative government.
“It is time for us to be given that opportunity to vote for our governors, our administrators and to manage our resources,” he said.
Napoleon Ntamack, a 29-year-old taxi driver who travelled from the English-speaking town of Bamenda for the dialogue agreed that without the freedom of separatist leaders, peace will remain elusive.
“If they do not release them, whatsoever they are saying, there will not be peace in this country,” he said.
Fighting has already been reported in four English-speaking towns, including Bamenda and Mamfe, according to Fontem Esua, archbishop of Bamenda.
He pleaded for both the military and separatist fighters, known as Amba Boys, to lay their weapons down.
Unrest in the regions first erupted in 2016, when teachers and lawyers protested alleged discrimination at the hands of Cameroon’s French-speaking majority.
Cameroon was once divided between British and French colonial powers. English speakers make up 20 percent of country’s 24 million people and have long complained of being marginalized.
The government responded with a crackdown that sparked an armed movement for an independent, English-speaking state called Ambazonia, which was declared by a militant secessionist group in October 2017. The group started attacking Cameroon officials, the military and police.
The military responded with offensives. Civilians caught in the conflict have suffered.