The long awaited East Cameroon’s national dialogue finally began today. The dialogue is aimed at finding a lasting solution to the conflict that has ravaged the Southern Cameroons for close to 4 years now with no immediate end in sight.

Many Southern Cameroonians are curious and hopeful that the national dialogue called by the long serving president of the Cameroons, Paul Biya, will help bring an end to the conflict by finally recognizing the sovereignty of the Southern Cameroons.

The Southern and East Cameroons till date, have been demarcated for more than half a century by internationally recognized pillar boundaries as separate state territories.

Currently, the army of East Cameroon is encroaching on the territorial integrity of the Southern Cameroons. It has decimated hundreds of villages, destroyed thousands of homes, farmlands and communities all to subdue the people of the Southern Cameroons who have risen to claim back their sovereignty.

The Southern Cameroons are governed by administrators from East Cameroon. Key positions from governors down to divisional officers and heads of judicial, military and police departments are all headed by administrators from East Cameroon. Southern Cameroonian or Ambazonian separatists say they have been effectively colonized by the East Cameroonians.

Fighting in the Southern Cameroons have raged on for 4 years now and are likely to escalate if the national dialogue currently holding in East Cameroon fails to recognize the sovereignty of Southern Cameroon.

Hopes and doubts are both equally high in the air. Some analysts have described the event as a government sales speech event. They believe the government only wants to sell participants the same governance structure, but one under another name, Decentralized Autonomous Regions. This is a dictatorial regime that has shown to be very adept with words. Its theme in the last election cycle was aptly coined “the force of experience”.

Decentralized Regions is what the dictatorial regime of Paul Biya had been implementing since the 80’s or at least trying to implement. It currently wants to bring people to that same concept by adding the word Autonomous to it. Any autonomy in a dictatorship and in the Cameroons for that matter would be a fairytale dream come true.

Paul Biya has carefully and astutely maintained there will be no constitutional changes. That effectively makes the dictator in charge of overseeing the process of decentralization or decentralized autonomy.

The resolutions of the national dialogue overseen by the prime minister are non-binding on the president. That is perhaps the primary reason the president had sought to distance himself from the entire process by delegating the prime minister instead and instructing him to implement Decentralized Autonomous Regions.

This new appellation is unlikely to sway the separatists who have largely boycotted the dialogue. Claiming, East Cameroon as a party to the conflict can not convene a dialogue, dictate who coordinates it, dictate the agenda and also dictate the implementation of the resolutions.

If the national dialogue falls short of expectations, it will be a disaster for the Cameroons. The conflict will grow worse. Many anticipate the conflict to grow worse, but the dialogue has a seismic potential. Moderates in the conflict regions who so far have watched the conflict from afar will have no choice, but to join the struggle.

Upwards of 5000 persons have died either directly or indirectly from the conflict. Many have died from gunshots, some from the wild trying to escape into bushes, from starvation in the forests or trying to cross into neighboring Nigeria, in concentration camps run by gangs in the North African country of Libya as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Others fleeing the war are at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea or the desert areas along the South American border.

Many international organizations like the UN and countries like France and the United Kingdom prefer to say hundreds have died. Refusing to acknowledge the human disaster unfolding in the Southern Cameroons. Perhaps the hundreds label is to mask the hundreds of dollars they have so far contributed towards humanitarian relief in the region. The US for its part has contributed a few hundreds of dollars, barely enough to educate one student in the US.

To the contrary, the East Cameroonian dictatorial regime of Paul Biya has dished out millions of dollars to lobby US members of congress through US lobby firms like Axiom Strategies and Squire Patton Boggs to help sanitize the catastrophic loss of lives at the hands of regime forces. Regime forces are accused of wanton destruction of property, indiscriminate killing of locals, looting and rape.

Many Southern Cameroons wonder if the East Cameroonian national dialogue is too little too late. The images of destruction are forever imprinted in their minds. They wonder that even with their own country of Ambazonia, full reconciliation might never be attained. The memories of little babies as young as 3 months old littered with bullet while asleep, the elderly burnt alive in their homes, the sight of entire villages that resemble an apocalypse visit may be hard to ever erase.

Guests from the Southern Cameroons so far have expressed dissatisfaction at the fact that the overwhelming majority of participants for the dialogue will be East Cameroonians. Some say these Southern Cameroonians apparently do not yet recognize their guest status. They are at the the dialogue solely to acknowledge what will be said.

In their more than half a century quest to get their marginalized voices heard, Southern Cameroonians say they have never been listened to let alone even seen an attempt to implement key proposals. Many of their proposals have been tabled multiple times before, but always found themselves in the dust bin. They doubt if this time things will be different.

Southern Cameroonians yearn for a return to their sovereign state , the Southern Cameroons, which at the time of the merger with East Cameroon, was the most democratically run and promising country in Africa. Even the South Africans in the days of apartheid between the 40’s and 60’s were looking at the Southern Cameroons as a model.

Over the span of 15 years, the Southern Cameroons had had 3 different democratically elected administrations. The rule of law was so widespread that police officers only carried batons and were forbidden to carry guns.

Fast forward to 2019 from 1961, 6 decades in a merger with East Cameroon has seen them ruled by 2 dictatorial kleptocracies from East Cameroon. The restorationists (groups seeking to restore the statehood of the Southern Cameroons) say there is no love lost with East Cameroon. They consider their territory annexed and now fight for total liberation and a return to democratic rule.

In the last presidential elections of 2018, many credible outlets observed that there were no elections in the Southern Cameroons. Elections were largely boycotted as the independence movement picked up steam.

Interestingly, the appointed judges at the constitutional court who of course mostly hail from East Cameroon declared that the octogenarian president Paul Biya had again won re-election with more than 80% of the votes in the Southern Cameroons. This only inflamed sentiments in the Southern Cameroons.

After almost 4 decades of ruling the Cameroons, Mr. Biya and his regime have shown great skill in massaging and bending public opinion towards their will. If they can’t use the state media, they use bribery. If that fails they use threats, intimidation, jail and finally death if all fails. In the run up to the national dialogue, many prominent restorationist activists have been arrested. They will not be part of the national dialogue that has been dubbed “all inclusive”.

These are some of the reasons the Southern Cameroonian restorationists or independentists have rejected the ongoing national dialogue. They claim there is no guarantee it will be followed by immediate and enforceable implementation. It will be at the whim of the dictatorial regime. Their safety is not even guaranteed either and that is demonstrated by the arrests of local activists.

Restorationists have stated they want frank dialogue in the presence of an international mediator or overseer with the power to enforce the agreed terms. The regime of Paul Biya has so far shied away from real dialogue with the separatists.

While some Southern Cameroonians hope something good might come out of the national dialogue, they know fully well that a decentralized autonomous region or any form of label that does not recognize the sovereignty of the Southern Cameroons, recognize its original status as a federal state will be a non-starter and will be dead before it leaves the dialogue conference center.