Cameroon leader wants talks to end separatist crisis

In a rare address to the nation, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya has announced plans for major talks to end the conflict in the English-speaking regions of the country, where separatist fighters are demanding independence.

The two Angolophone regions argue they have been marginalised for decades by the central government and the French-speaking majority.

Mr Biya outlined measures to quell the crisis, which began three years ago when lawyers and teachers in the North-West and South-West regions went on strike over attempts to impose French in schools and courts.

According to BBC Monitoring, the 86-year-old leader said talks would be chaired by the prime minister and would include politicians, armed groups and victims:

Quote Message: The dialogue in question will mainly concern the situation in the North-West and South-West regions. Since it will focus on issues of national interest such as national unity, national integration and living together, it is obvious that it will not concern only the population of these two regions.”

Mr Biya, who has been in power since 1982, said consultations would be held before talks started at the end of the month. They would bring together a wide range of people to seek ways to end the violence:

Quote Message: In the coming days, delegations will also be dispatched to meet the diaspora to enable them to make their contribution to discussions on the resolution of the crisis.”

The president reiterated his offer of a pardon to any separatists who voluntarily laid down their arms, the AFP news agency reports.

UN chief António Guterres welcomed the announcement, urging all Cameroonians to take part in the dialogue.

A sign reading: "Speak English or French for a bilingual Cameroon" seen outside an abandoned school - May 2019
Image caption: The crisis was sparked by an attempt to impose French in schools and courts in English-speaking regions

Since the crisis turned violent in 2017, it is estimated that nearly 2,000 people have been killed and more than 500,000 forced from their homes.

The recent sentencing of 10 separatist leaders to life in prison has further exacerbated the crisis, leading to a lengthy lockdown in the Anglophone regions that has closed schools and shops.

But the president, quoted by AFP, sought to play down the rulings, saying:

Quote Message: The secessionists’ propaganda wanted to present recent court decisions made against a number of our compatriots, in the context of this crisis, as an obstacle to the planned dialogue. That is not the case.”

According to AFP, the self-proclaimed leader of Ambazonia, Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, one of those sentenced, had said he was open to dialogue if the army withdrew from the North-West and South-West regions.

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