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Switzerland Says It Is Mediating Talks as Cameroon's Separatist Crisis Deepens

Lieutenant General Rene Claude Meka, Cameroon's defense chief, Bamenda, Cameroon, July 19, 2019. (Moki Kindzeka, VOA)

Switzerland has officially said it is helping the government of Cameroon negotiate with rebels to end the separatist crisis that has killed more than 2,000 people in Cameroon. The Swiss ambassador to Cameroon, Pietro Lazzeri, spoke in Yaounde about attempting reconciliation after more than 20 people were killed within two days of fighting in the crisis-stricken regions.

Pietro Lazzeri, Switzerland's ambassador to Cameroon, says his country is mediating the political crisis that has plagued Cameroon’s English-speaking northwest and southwest regions since 2016. He says the negotiations are being guided by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

Pietro Lazzeri, Switzerland's ambassador to Cameroon, July 19, 2019. (Moki Kindzeka, VOA)
Pietro Lazzeri, Switzerland's ambassador to Cameroon, July 19, 2019. (Moki Kindzeka, VOA)

"Over the last months, we have been trying to create dialogue among the parties because we have the acceptance of the parties and we are doing it because we have a certain expertise. We are referees, we are not the players," said Lazzeri. "We need the willingness of the parties in order to build the dialogue."

Separatists say on social media two meetings already have taken place in Geneva but no details were given.

Lazzeri also declined giving details on how far they had gone with negotiations but said his country, in collaboration with the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, intend to find a peaceful and lasting solution to the crisis that has been claiming so many lives in the restive English speaking regions of Cameroon.

He said besides the dialogue, they have been providing humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands affected by the separatist war.

The crisis escalated on October 1, 2017, when militant secessionist groups symbolically proclaimed independence from the English-speaking state of Ambazonia.

Cameroon President Paul Biya declared war against the separatists in November 2017, calling them terrorists. Biya said he would never negotiate with terrorists who are out to separate his country and that it was his duty to ensure public order, social peace, the unity of the nation and Cameroon's integrity.

In May, Cameroon Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute visited the restive English speaking towns of Bamenda, Buea and Kumba and said Biya had sent him to tell English speakers that the government is open to dialogue, but that separatists cannot be tolerated because Cameroon is one nation and indivisible.

Lieutenant General Rene Claude Meka, Cameroon's defense chief, visits troops in Buea, Cameroon, July 17, 2019. (Moki Kindzeka, VOA)
Lieutenant General Rene Claude Meka, Cameroon's defense chief, visits troops in Buea, Cameroon, July 17, 2019. (Moki Kindzeka, VOA)

Separatists on social media have maintained they will make the English-speaking regions ungovernable by the central government in Yaounde until they have their independence. They say they will only negotiate with the government in Yaounde if it withdraws all of its troops, which they call occupational forces, from the English-speaking regions, insisting the negotiations must be on their terms.

William Arrey, lecturer of peace and conflict studies at the Protestant University of Central Africa, says for successful negotiations to occur and for peace to return, each of the conflicted parties should shift from their original positions.

"The conflicted parties are still so stiff at the level of their various positions," said Arrey. "There is no way we will be able to resolve this conflict if we are not able to shift from our original positions, which we call in conflict management — compromise."

As the Swiss ambassador announced his country was spearheading negotiations, Cameroon's military said at lease 20 separatist fighters had been killed in battles in the English-speaking villages of Wainamah and Mbot and the towns of Jakiri, Kumba and Njinikom.

Lieutenant General Rene Claude Meka, Cameroon's defense chief, who visited the English-speaking towns of Buea and Bamenda on Thursday, says they will continue to fight until the fighters are defeated.

He says although the military has been scoring huge victories, the war continues to rage. Meka says he is calling on the population to assist the military by denouncing separatist fighters and providing information about where where they are hiding so they can be defeated and for peace to return.

The United Nations estimates at least 2,000 people have been killed and more than 530,000 displaced since fighting broke out. It says about 1.3 million people are in need of assistance.