The Canadian High Commissioner to Cameroon, Richard Bale, says he believes Anglophones would be happier if given the autonomy to manage their resources. He however quickly adds that the said autonomy must not necessarily come through federalism; “…because be it federalism or decentralisation, the principle is the same…in Canada, for instance, our
federalism keeps changing. For it to work, tomorrow you have to change the system and then you have to keep changing because different forces will emerge…”He equally told Kristian Ngah Christian of The Guardian Post and Yerima Kini Nsom of The Post, that though Anglophones have legitimate grievances, the ultimate solution to their concerns cannot and would never be secession. Excerpts
Your Excellency, you are just back from a week-long visit to Buea and Limbe. What story do you bring from these towns that have also been hard hit by the Anglophone crisis?
The recent visit to Buea and Limbe, were my first any- where in the North West and South West regions. I had planned to visit these towns but had to put it on hold because of COVID-19. The timing of the visit was prompted by an invitation from a student-organised conference at the University of Buea. It was centred on conflict resolution and peace building which seemed like an appropriate subject, given the context. But there were also some other visits which I had wanted to do a little
bit unrelated to the crisis. There were three different components to the visit broadly-speaking. In Limbe, we visited the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences which is part of a network of
institutions which have been established in five different African countries: Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Rwanda and South Africa. That network was established in 2010.
Canada has been a big financial supporter of that net- work. So we wanted to visit the institution and get a sense of what they were doing. The students are recruited at the Masters level; a very competitive entrance exam and the intention is to give them a very strong training in Mathematics in an effort to strengthen the capacity in Africa for STEM, Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Some of the students come from Cameroon, others come from other countries in Africa,
be they Anglophones or Francophones. When Canada funds, we put particular focus on gender equality and clearly the institution is committed to that objective. AIMS has a percentage of women students and AIMS Cameroon is higher than for the whole network. For men it is around 40%. It’s interesting because you have students from and Anglophone background and students from a Francophone background. both from within Cameroon and other African countries so there were people there from Ghana, Kenya, Ivory Coast, just to give examples. The teaching is given in English, the language
of science I suppose but all students have to come out of that program, bilingual. There is kind of an interesting dimension there, this is fantastic institution standing on its own merits and Canada is very pleased to support it and develop a strength in Africa in that area. There is an interesting thing about it because we ended up having a discussion about the difference in the kind of mind that is produced by Francophone education system and Anglophone education systems. I won’t go into the detail
but it had the effect of really underlining for us, for me, the fact that in a country like Cameroon where you have two different educational systems you are producing two different kinds of mentalities and approaches and cultures ultimately. That was kind of a scene setter in a way.
In Buea, we saw potentials frustrated because of the crisis and some of those entrepreneurs spoke to us directly about that. AIMS, Silicon Mountain and Active Spaces have potentials that unfortunately are much more challenging to realise because of the crisis. The second pillar in the visit was the conference that the University of Buea which is very interesting that students are extremely engaged that you felt their engagement was a reflection of reality.
They live the conflict and therefore conflict resolution and peacebuilding are very meaningful topics. And there were very good speakers much better than me. There were two other speakers who I was very interested in listening to their perceptions and one of the key messages to me that was kind of a scary message was essentially that four, five years ago, one would never have imagined we were going to be where we are today. Things could be even more horrible, especially given events of the last
two weeks, you have the sense of the horrible factors. So, that was on one hand sobering, on the other hand it was somehow gratifying to hear Cameroonians analysing their challenges very well to see the level of interest and engagements.
The third dimension was that we wanted to meet with a number of actors some of who we knew already but others who were new to us. This was done to kind of explore some of the historical roots of the crisis. It was important for me to meet these people to enhance my understanding of the whole situation. We had discussions about these spontaneous hashtags that have emerged, which as far as I can tell, seem to be supported as much by Francophones much as Anglophones.
You talked to key actors and human rights defenders who have covered the crisis for four years now. What are some of the key issues that caught your attention and what are they proposing as the way out of the crisis?
It has to be a broader genuine dialogue involving a greater number of stakeholders than it happened. That was our analysis prior to the trip but that analysis coming back from the trip seems even more apparent. On both sides of the conflict, you have actors who are reluctant to engage in dialogue, perhaps understandably because there is always a level of mistrust, anger and stronger words. That’s what happens when there is a quasi-war and people on both sides are killed. When emotions become very strong, the challenge becomes how to get those two sides that are very angry at one another and both believing in the correctness of the course, together.The evidence we saw, these spontaneous feelings, whether its hashtags or women peace builders, they are effectively saying the same thing; finding a way of ending the crisis.
What in your opinion are the contributions your government can make to end the crisis in the two Anglophone regions?
Canada and Cameroon are in some ways very different countries but in some ways it is quite striking the similarities and challenges we face or have faced. We both are bilingual countries, we both have two judicial systems, one of the linguistic communities is a minority. I think this is the same in both countries. They also have legitimate grievances, but also they have perceived grievances. And the trick is to address both grievances. It is not necessarily easy In Canada, we had the Quebec Independence Movement, there was a terrorist group. There were bombs and cabinet ministers assassinated.
We are not yet at that level in Cameroon but in Canada, it was very traumatising. Government to send tanks to the streets at one point in Montreal, in 1970. We faced genuine challenges to our national unity and to our ability to build a country that accommodates the flourishing of both the majority linguistic and cultural community and the minority linguistic and cultural community. So, it is not in Canada’s place to dictate to Cameroon what to do to come out of the crisis in the two English-speaking regions. It takes a very long time to resolve crises of this nature but you have to be very flexible. You have to be prepared to give things off and at the end of the day you would be better off haven given certain things off. However, we can share those experiences provided there is the willingness. We have been providing support to civil society and groups that are kind of being in the middle of the crisis. We will continue to do that and in fact, are going to increase our level of support for civil society
groups of various kinds. We contribute humanitarian aid.
It is kind of necessary, but not a kind of ready-made solution to the crisis. We have supported what is known as the Swiss Initiative and we are continuing to do that. We are not necessarily saying that it has to be the road the two sides in the Cameroonian conflict must take. At the moment, is it the only one that is on the table. We think the offer is an opportunity and we encourage both sides to engage in that process.
You just mentioned something which is key to me in resolving the crisis in the North West and South West regions; that is Anglophones wanting to have enough autonomy to manage their own resources. The government of Cameroon is brandishing decentralisation while the moderate Anglophones are asking for a return to federation. Which of these two in your opinion would help resolve the crisis in these two regions?
I am not sure that I will get drawn on that one. I hesitate to say that federalism is the best solution for
Cameroon. It is not my place to say but I think people get a bit distracted by labels. You have a spectrum from federalism to decentralisation. But the principle is the same, that certain powers are developed to a lower level of government. I say this consistently to people I speak to in the Cameroon government, that our federalism keeps changing. For it to work, tomorrow you have to change the system and then you have to keep changing because different forces will emerge. Tomorrow, the world outside will change and then you will discover that oh, this didn’t work, therefore we need to change it again. The Canadian federalism is a living organism and there are constant discussions between the federal government and the Provinces about any number of aspects of how the system works. The challenge that is perceived with government’s current measures to implement decentralisation and the Special Status for the two English-speaking regions is that people don’t seem to have enough information about their workability. And this is what people tell us. It is difficult for them today to see it as a solution because they don’t understand what that solution is. Presumably, hopefully that would become clearer over time. Whatever it turns out to be, it will need to be flexible. There will need to be flexibility over time.
Could it be that Anglophones have lost trust in the Biya regime? That perhaps explains why whatever action Yaounde is taking, no matter how genuine, it comes along to them as just trying to throw dust into their eyes?
That is the sense I have, yeah. And if I were to give the government advice it would be to do something that regains the people’s trust. That will help that process work. Even if the process remains the same, somehow you regain people’s trust.
Do you buy the narrative that bringing in a third party to mediate between the government of Cameroon and secessionists, could soften the hearts of separatists who no longer have trust in the Biya regime?
Yeah, that is an interesting idea. However, there are all kinds of third parties when talking about resolving a conflict like the one in the North West and South West regions. Whether it is the World Bank or the African Development Bank of bi-lateral donors who are constantly in the programs that they administer, engaging with the government in different areas, making recommendations, and supporting new programs could be a welcome move. I believe there are programs in support of the area of decentralisation. That is kind of you are bringing in outside expertise because often its outside expertise that works in this kind of crisis. Foreign experts could look at how the federal system works in Germany, Switzerland, Canada and US and which parts of these different systems would fit with Cameroon’s realities.
One of the problems that have really exacerbated the crisis is extremism. on both sides of the divide. The separatists say they will go in for nothing except the independence of the imaginary state of Ambazonia and the government say they are not ready to talk anything that has to do with a change of the form of state. As an independent observer and friend of Cameroon, what advice would you give both parties for the country to come out
of the current crisis?
Both parties in the conflict must learn to show some flexibility. The reason why there is armed conflict is because there are these two irreconcilable visions. If you are going to get the maximum number of state voters to agree on an end to the crisis, there has to be compromise on both sides. On the one hand, I don’t think the independence option is realistic. Logically-speaking, government too has to show flexibility in the way the state operates.
Are there some of those stories of human rights abuses in the North West and South West regions that really shock you?
Can you cite some?
The recent killing of school children in Kumba is still very fresh on my mind. There are killings daily but,Kumba, nobody knows genuinely who is responsible. Some incidents have become extremely well known,others don’t become known at all. And there are atrocities committed by both sides. That is the nature of armed conflict.
The armed conflict in the two English-speaking regions is not the only security crisis Cameroon is facing. The country is going through so many security and political challenges. Do you share the opinion that Cameroon’s crises have been prompted by the fact that the current regime has been in place for too long; 38 years and still counting?
It is clear that Cameroon is facing a number of security crises. One of the unfortunate things about the crisis in the North West and South West regions is that Cameroon has fewer resources to address the external threat in the Far North. It would seem to me a good strategy would be to first fix the crisis in the North West and South West regions. Remember, the Cameroon government doesn’t have control over the Boko Haram insurgents in the Far North region. Boko Haram attacks across the border but they do recruit locally because of the absence of economic opportunities. Primarily, that’s an external threat.
I am afraid my question regarding the longevity of President Biya in power has been carefully avoided?
I am not going to comment on that.
You are coming from a country that attaches a lot of importance to freedom of association, expression and movements. You have been in Cameroon for a while. Do you have the impression that these freedoms are respected in your host country?
There are challenges.
Your Excellency, can you score Cameroon’s democracy on 10?
I am not going to go there.
As we speak, the country’s main opposition leader, ProfMaurice Kamto, is under house arrest, opposition leaders are denied their rights to peaceful demonstrations, while journalists are arrested almost every passing day. Are these not teething concerns that measure the level of a country’s willingness to truly democratise?
We don’t believe journalists should be arrested or jailed. We believe in the usefulness and power of a free press and that there should be the political will to allow opposition parties and their leaders function like we see in other democratic countries. Opposition parties have to be able to freely express their views. It is not a good sign if one of the principal opposition leaders is effectively
under house arrest with an unclear future of where that is going. There seem not to be more political space here in Cameroon.
It is understood that Canada played a key role in facilitating Cameroon’s admission into the Commonwealth of Nations. When you look back at what is happening in Cameroon; especially in the areas of democracy, human rights and good governance, do you have a feeling of regret that your country helped Cameroon to gain admission into the Commonwealth?
Not at all. There is always benefit to the country in joining an organisation and there is always benefit to the organisation in having countries like Cameroon as members. The Anglophone population in Cameroon with its roots historically in the Commonwealth is not insignificant. So, you would want Cameroon to be part of the Commonwealth. We hope that Cameroon’s membership in the Commonwealth and La Francophonie strengthens the bilingual and bicultural nature of the country.
The Guardian Post No 2013 / Monday November 16, 2020