Dr Christopher Fomunyoh, Senior Associate & Regional Director for Africa at US-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, (NDI), has said President Paul Biya long missed the opportunity to be the lead provider of solutions to Cameroon’s multiple problems. The internationally acclaimed democracy and governance expert says the 88-years-old leader now epitomizes why the country is wobbling out of sync and teetering on the edges of a precipice. Despite the crises facing Cameroon, Dr Fomunyoh notes however that the country can still maintain its indivisibility, and witness a turnaround provided certain actions are taken and urgently too. He notes though, that the window for such a rebirth of the country is narrowing by the day. This, he maintained, is because of the continuous bloodshed and loss of innocent lives in the North West and South West regions coupled with prevailing injustice, impunity and shrinking political space.
Dr Fomunyoh who regularly interacts with Heads of State and governments around the globe says he is disappointed with the passive posture of some members of the international community that are idly looking away while thousands continue to be killed in the two English speaking regions of the country.
In this exclusive interview granted NewsWatch Magazine, the native of Guzang in Batibo Sub Division of the North West region also made distinct proposals on how a new path can be redefined for the country. He spoke to Ndi Eugene Ndi and Maxcel Fokwen in this incisive and revealing exchange. Read on…
Five years into the Anglophone crisis and four years now that it morphed into an armed conflict, there seems to be no way out. What is your reading of the current situation?
The situation is getting more and more difficult, despite what some people say officially, and this is further complicated by the deaths among civilians and uniformed personnel almost on a daily basis. There is also the growing number of people impacted by the conflict which a United Nations report in July listed as 4.4 million at risk of famine and 2.2 million directly impacted. Personally, I’m yet to find a single Anglophone who has not been impacted, directly or indirectly, by this senseless war. I also look at the degree of trauma and the further alienation of relations between the state and populations in the affected areas, and I worry that this conflict and its negative consequences will be with us for even decades to come.
In terms of resolving the crisis, there are people who think the solution will come from abroad while others think it is a purely domestic affair which Cameroon can handle. What do you think?
I’m very distraught that some people are busy arguing over location even as their fellow compatriots die on a daily basis. Peace crusaders pursue peace wherever they think they may find it, whether within or outside of national borders. Across Africa, almost every internal armed conflict has been resolved through a path that took the warring parties or factions into foreign capitals. For example, peace in Liberia came through peace accords negotiated and signed in Accra, Ghana; in Sierra Leone through peace accords negotiated and signed in Abuja, Nigeria; in Côte d’Ivoire through peace accords negotiated and signed in Linas-Marcoussis in France and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; in the Democratic Republic of Congo through peace accords negotiated in Sun City, South Africa; in Burundi through accords negotiated and signed in Arusha, Tanzania; in Sudan, through the Comprehensive Peace Accord negotiated and signed in Nairobi, Kenya, etc. How can anyone still be so insular in their thinking about resolving this conflict when there’s so much pain and destruction daily, not to mention the level of mistrust and even deep hatred among the parties after thousands of lives have been lost, over two million people impacted, including over a million Internally Displaced Persons and refugees? Genuine leaders that care about the lives and wellbeing of their fellow citizens will sue for peace and justice and an end to the conflict immediately, even if it means flying to another planet to obtain that.
Many Anglophones look up to people like you in the diaspora to assist the government in looking for the solution, yet there are others who think some members of the diaspora are rather helping fuel the conflict. What is your view on this?
As easy as it may be to always blame someone else, I do not think that the blame game will advance the cause of bringing an end to this senseless war. You may remember that when Anglophone lawyers, teachers and students were being mistreated in 2016, and other civilians killed in September and October 2017 simply for peacefully demonstrating to express their grievances, the Diaspora had no role in the matter. Many people in the Diaspora believe that were it not for their efforts to sensitize world opinion on this crisis and the legitimate grievances of Anglophones, there would have been more massacres, more atrocities and gross human rights violations in the North West and South West regions. If we are sincere about putting an end to this armed conflict, we must put aside the blame game, create an environment for real inclusive dialogue and negotiations that can get to the root causes of the conflict. I know for a fact that, under the right circumstances, many in the Diaspora are ready to contribute positively to such efforts.
Cameroon has a wealth of human resources in almost all domains excelling all over the world like you, but the crisis in the North West and South West regions and other challenges facing Cameroon seem to have beaten your intelligence?
I wouldn’t say so. There are bright minds within and outside the country with the intellectual heft and wherewithal to address the ongoing conflict and various multiple crises that have befallen the country, and it is imperative for the government to create an enabling environment in which all of this expertise and experience can be leveraged to end the crisis by addressing the root causes and laying the foundation for reparations and reconciliation.
Some people think the international community is actually slow in acting because it has not been assured of its interest in Cameroon despite the thousands of lives lost and material damage recorded. What is your view about the role of the international community in this crisis?
The international community is not homogeneous, and obviously, some international partners have been more vocal about this conflict than others; overall though, I am disappointed with the passivity of some members of the international community. I never imagined that friends of Cameroon would standby idly while thousands are killed and so much pain and destruction is inflicted on other human beings and regions of a country they care about. It breaks my heart to have the Norwegian Refugee Council rate this conflict for multiple years in a row as the most underreported or neglected in the world.
You have been vocal on the ongoing crisis in the North West and South regions. Beyond the criticisms, if President Biya were to invite you to advise him or his government on the way out, what would you propose?
You may remember that since the crisis began in 2016, I have consistently advocated for a non-violent approach to its resolution. For example, in December 2018, I put out a 10 points statement on how the country could get out of the crisis. Since that time, the situation has deteriorated even further, but the points I put forward are still valid. In a democracy, leaders must listen to the people and be humble enough to admit they have erred in judgement when their decisions or policies are having a disastrous effect on citizens. Today, the crisis has morphed into a full blown armed conflict in which civilians are dying, soldiers are dying, so many atrocities are being committed admist much destruction of property and livelihoods. Under such circumstances, rational leaders must pause and ask themselves if the strategies and policies being implemented are the right ones for the problems raised. My first recommendation therefore would be to immediately declare a ceasefire to stop the fighting and further bleeding, release all political prisoners and those awaiting trial now in the thousands scattered across various prisons and detention centers; and open up negotiations on the root causes with assistance from third-party facilitation or mediation. And I emphasize this last point because the mistrust, anger, pain, and suffering is now so deep that I doubt all the parties would easily get into one room to make peace without third party assistance.
President Paul Biya and Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari recently made a commitment to fight the Ambazonia and Biafra secessionist movements in Cameroon and Nigeria. What is your appreciation of this renewed commitment?
That was to be expected. Any two neighboring governments would act in a similar manner if they perceived a common threat to their national interests. That said, I still think that Nigeria was in a unique position going back to 2017, to bring all sides to work towards a negotiated settlement. Nigeria has enough leverage on all sides and should use its convening power to nudge both sides towards a negotiated solution.
There are reports of Nigeria making huge investments in the Bakassi area and the Niger Delta fighters threatening to relaunch attacks. Do you believe that Biya and Buhari have the wherewithal to jointly handle such threats?
We have to keep in mind that presidential elections will be held in Nigeria early 2023, and in Cameroon by 2025, so these two leaders may no longer be in charge for much longer. I therefore hope that policy makers in both Cameroon and Nigeria are looking medium to long term for what is beneficial to the populations of the two countries as opposed to short term transactions shaped solely by the immedencies of the moment.
After the Major National Dialogue that was held in Yaounde, some institutions have been put in place as a way to pacify the situation but bloodshed has continued in the North West and South West regions. Do you see a possibility of another dialogue or negotiation?
I expect those who put in place the new institutions to arrive at the same conclusion as embodied in your question. If the bloodletting has continued despite the 2019 Major National Dialogue, that warrants trying a different and all-inclusive approach to get everybody around the negotiations table. This conflict and the deep-rooted legitimate grievances of Anglophones can only be resolved through dialogue and negotiations – and this is not just about slogans, but actual deeds and actions that show remorse for the wrongs of the past and a recognition that the people want justice and peace, and their dignity restored.
When you meet other African leaders, what are some of the embarrassing things they tell you about the crisis and what do you tell them about the situation in Cameroon?
Many African leaders are quite sympathetic with efforts to stop the killings and end the conflict and want to be helpful, but they don’t know how to reach their counterparts in Yaounde who are so elusive and in denial about the deaths and very negative consequences of this crisis. Others blank out on the president’s name because they scarcely see him mingling with his peers across the continent, and others just wonder why Cameroonians are killing themselves over grievances that could otherwise be peacefully resolved through dialogue and negotiations. It is extremely painful to have some of them wonder aloud why I can’t come in and fix the situation when I have in other circumstances supported peacebuilding and democracy strengthening efforts in their own countries. Oftentimes, they are extremely gracious with their time and allow me to walk them through the chronology of events that precipitated the crisis, highlighting the impediments to, and opportunities for a peaceful, negotiated resolution. I know that under the right circumstances, many African leaders would be glad to help in mediation efforts if invited to do so.
The government says there are institutions in place through which Cameroonians can channel their problems than carrying out protests in the diaspora. Are these protests of help or a disservice to the nation?
If our institutions functioned as expected in every democratic society, why would the National Assembly go for five years without a single hearing or debate on a major existential crisis in which thousands of citizens have been killed and millions either are internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries? How can one explain that the National Assembly hasn’t taken up electoral reform, despite the complaints over the years about flawed elections that have now crystallized political discontent in the land? With regards to protests by the Diaspora, of course, they live in countries where protests are legal and even encouraged as a means for citizens to make their voices heard. As long as such protests are peaceful and abide by the laws and regulations of the host countries, I do not see why they should not be allowed to take their course. Moreover, these protests sensitize and draw international attention to the plight of the people back home, and the ills that plague our country.
Back to the Anglophone crisis, in April this year (2021), you spent Easter with Anglophone crisis refugees in Nigeria. What are some of the untold stories you lived first-hand during this historic visit?
I had two principal objectives for the visit to our refugees in various states and cities of Nigeria: first to provide them some relief in these times of grave peril, further aggravated by the COVID 19 pandemic; and secondly, to see for myself their state of being and livelihood. I’m grateful that the visit also drew national and international attention to their plight. What I saw in the refugee camps was heartbreaking: stories of families separated from their loved ones as they fled the conflict; women not sure where their children are today; cases of sickness, hunger, and desperation; so many children born in refugee camps and unsure of their future; and even cases of violence and desolation. It is traumatizing for me, and so you can only imagine what the refugees themselves are going through. It is truly heartbreaking.
How do you feel seeing that other organisations have queued in to help since you left Nigeria?
I am pleased that the visit brought more awareness to the precarious situation of the refugees and their high numbers, both nationally and internationally; and I’m extremely grateful to the staff of the Fomunyoh Foundation (TFF) that traveled to Nigeria for the visit as well as our partner organization, the Community Refugees Relief Initiative (CRRI) that worked so hard to make the visit a success. In over 10 days, we visited 12 camps or settlements in Benue and Cross River States, and in Abuja, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg as the number of refugees in Nigeria spans many other states such as Taraba and Akwa Ibom, and exceeds 70,000. I also want to recognize and appreciate the many other individuals and organizations that have been providing relief to these refugees since 2017, many of whom continue to do even till this day. The national media – print and radio-television – in both English and French have done a remarkable job in their coverage of the visit and following up with life in the refugee camps, and I thank them profusely too. May everyone be blessed abundantly as they look out for the most vulnerable among us, especially the innocent victims of this senseless war.
You are not new to philanthropy and helping the underprivileged, but some say in Fomunyoh the philanthropist is a Fomunyoh the politician who is investing to reap political capital in the coming years. Do you have such ambitions?
Every philanthropist or humanitarian would tell you it comes from the heart; from a desire to reach out and lift up someone in need. Talk is cheap, especially in a context where some people take delight in pulling others down, but one cannot allow such utterances to distract from one’s purpose in life or love for people and vision for humanity. By the way, perhaps if today’s politicians started off as philanthropists, they would be more humane in their attitude towards fellow citizens and would govern better. The country is in a deep mess today because many of our leaders are wicked and selfish, and indifferent or insensitive to the hardship and suffering of the population.
When you created The Fomunyoh Foundation in 1999, did you imagine that one day Cameroon will find itself in this mess?
Not at all. The inspiration came from within, and at the time it even looked like a strange concept to many. Now I worry that even after the guns have been silenced in the current Anglophone conflict, it will take decades and a lot of hard work by philanthropic organizations to clean up the humanitarian catastrophe and rebuild broken lives and livihoods.
As a celebrated governance expert who has proven his worth in several countries across the globe, what do you think can be done to put your country, Cameroon, on the right path?
So much will have to be done to put this country back on track. The foundations of the republic are broken and we’ll need a new social contract between citizens and those that govern. First, we’ll need a complete overhaul of the governance architecture of this country and a total renewal of political leadership. We cannot make progress in this 21 st century with leaders who have been in power since the 1960s. How can you explain that the top leadership of the country is in the hands of people in their 80s, whereas the average age in Cameroon is 18? Would you hire a 90 years old teacher, driver or cook? Why should we be saddled with people of that elk at the helm of the state whereas their agemates in other lands long retired to spend time with their grand and great grandchildren? What have we done to deserve this?
Will you advise Biya to seek re-election in 2025?
President Paul Biya has probably made up his mind as to what he will do in 2025, and how he would like to be remembered by historians and posterity, but it is obvious to me that none of the major crises that Cameroon faces today will be fully resolved by Biya. He long missed the opportunity to be the lead provider of solutions to Cameroon’s problems; if anything, he now epitomizes why the country is wobbling out of sync and teetering on the edges of a precipice.
As an individual with all the exposure you have had across the world, what is your wish for Cameroon?
My wish is that a new Cameroon emerges with an environment in which all its sons and daughters can contribute positively to its development and be appreciated and valued for what they bring and who they are. There’s still a fighting chance for that to happen, although the window is narrowing by the day as more innocent lives are lost in the North West and South West regions, as injustice and impunity prevail, political space shrinks, and civil liberties are suppressed.
Thank you so much for your availability Dr.
Ndi Eugene Ndi and Maxcel Fokwen
Source: NEW WATCH MAGAZINE – No 001 – September 2021 –