Two of the six university teachers sentenced to life imprisonment by a Cameroonian military tribunal ‘for acts of secession’ took part earlier this month in United Nations-sponsored talks aimed at negotiating a ceasefire to the three-year-long conflict engulfing Anglophone Cameroon which has claimed more than 3,000 lives.
The academics – Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, who is the leader of the Cameroonian separatists and an ICT engineer who used to work at the American University of Nigeria, Yola, Adamawa State in Nigeria; and Augustine Awasum, professor of veterinary medicine from Ahmadu Belllo University, Zaria in Northern Nigeria – were among a group of academics and others abducted and forcefully deported to Cameroon from Nigeria in January 2018.
They were accused of plotting the secession of Anglophone Cameroon to create the Anglophone Republic of Ambazonia. The academics were initially sentenced to death by a military tribunal, but this was commuted to life imprisonment in August 2019 owing to international pressure.
The meeting took place on 2 July at the residence of Jean Mbarga, the Archbishop of Yaoundé. The Cameroon government was represented by Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, minister of state, secretary general at the presidency. Representatives of the United Nations and ambassadors of the United States, France and Germany were also present.
Pope Francis, who is one of the facilitators of the peace talks, and UN Secretary General António Guterres have repeatedly called for an end to the conflict that has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced thousands of Anglophone Cameroonians who are refugees in neighbouring Nigeria.
The United Nations has been given a mandate by member states to facilitate immediate ceasefire arrangements in all war zones including Anglophone Cameroon with a view to allowing humanitarian aid to these areas during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
But attempts at peace pre-date the pandemic outbreak. According to Al Jazeera, Paul Biya’s government has previously refused to negotiate with the separatist leaders and held a ‘national dialogue’ in October last year, but most of the separatist groups refused to participate.
Abdul Oroh, the defence lawyer of the academics who is based in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, told University World News that the involvement of the university teachers was seen by the international community as important.
“The international community is of the view that these university teachers, with their dynamic and well-established political structure on the ground, would play a very strategic role in the eventual resolution of the Anglophone crisis,” he said.
Oroh said he had filed an appeal case in the Abuja High Court asking the Nigerian government to obey a court order mandating the government of Muhammadu Buhari to bring the six academics back to Nigeria where the courts have ruled that their abduction and forceful deportation were unconstitutional.
University World News has reliably learnt that Ayuk Tabe and his colleague, both of whom are being held in prison in Cameroon, were given 24 hours’ advance notice of the meeting, which was called in line with the United Nations’ call for a global ceasefire to fight COVID-19.
The demands of the imprisoned leaders include an immediate ceasefire and the unconditional release of and amnesty for all those detained as a result of the conflict. In addition, they are demanding a general amnesty for people in the diaspora, and an undertaking from the government that it will participate in continued open and inclusive dialogue without preconditions in the presence of an independent and impartial mediator acceptable to all parties.
In a statement released on 4 July, two days after the talks, Ayukotang Ndep Nkongho, a spokesperson for Ayuk Tabe and the others, said all parties present at the peace talks agreed to the “broad-based principles” and to meet again to resume the peace talks.
However, a press release issued by the Cameroonian Minister of Communication Rene Emmanuel Sadi four days after the talks seemed to pour cold water on the talks.
“The Government of the Republic hereby informs the public that the information disseminated on social media about the holding on 2 July 2020 of negotiations between a government delegation and secessionists awaiting trial is not consistent with reality.”
The statement went on to say that the government reaffirmed its readiness to seek “peaceful solutions to the crisis in the North-West and South-West, particularly through dialogue” and appealed to armed groups to “put an end to the atrocities being committed against the civilian population as well as the destruction of development infrastructure, and to accept the peace offer by President Paul Biya”.
According to a conflict resolution expert in Yaoundé, the communiqué is a reflection of policy conflicts between hardliners represented by Sadi, and moderates in the government represented by Ngoh Ngoh.
He said both sides were competing for the ear of Biya, with Sadi becoming concerned by the fact that the French ambassador to Cameroon, Christophe Guilhou, has reportedly told Biya that any further financial and military assistance by Paris to Cameroon would be tied to genuine peace efforts with the rebels.
According to the expert, international community representatives present at the 2 July peace talks are unhappy with the communiqué released by the communication minister, whom he accused of “engaging in sophism … The entire communiqué has no meaningful political substance. It is the communication minister that is out of touch with reality”, he said.