LIMBE, CAMEROON —
Cameroon’s government says secessionist groups in the English-speaking regions have been behind arson attacks on public buildings, most recently a large market in the town of Limbe. The destruction is prompting renewed calls for dialogue to end the five-month strike in the English-speaking areas.
The fire at Limbe market burned for four hours Saturday. Fifty shops were destroyed.
The governor of the southwest region, Bernard Okalia Bilai, said police arrested a suspect believed to belong to a secessionist group.
"The suspect has already denounced many of his accomplices, and those who are in a way or another linked to this act of terrorism will be answerable. We want to call the population of the southwest back to peace and I want to reassure the population of Limbe, the administration is there with the forces of law to protect them," Bilai said.
The fire at Limbe market points to the dangers and the cost of the deepening impasse in Cameroon’s two English-speaking zones.
Lawyers and teachers in those areas, the northwest and the southwest, have been on strike since November. Most schools in the affected zones remain closed and business is paralyzed. The strikers are demanding reforms to counter what they say is the overwhelming use of French in the bilingual country.
But while some strikers are demanding a return to federalism, other activists are calling for total independence for the English-speaking zones, ratcheting up tensions and violence.
Several schools, private residences, police stations, administrative buildings have been burned. No one has claimed responsibility.
Need for dialogue
In mid-March, lawmaker Enow Tanjong from the southwest region addressed his fellow senators, stressing a need for dialogue.
"I would like to point out and castigate the arson that ravaged the Faculty of Medicine of the University in Bamenda and the destruction of the administrative block of the government high school Akwaya. The political elite, religious figures, members of the civil society, traditional rulers have all joined the head of state in appealing for dialogue and peace," Tanjong said.
Visiting Bamenda in the northwest two weeks ago, Cameroon’s prime minister called the destruction an attempt to exert pressure on the government.
In response, the government has cut internet to the affected zones and made arrests. That includes three community leaders charged in relation to the violent unrest in December. If convicted, they could face the death penalty, according to Cameroon’s 2014 anti-terrorism law.
Negotiations to end the strike fell apart when the state refused the strikers’ demand to release everyone currently detained.
Lawmaker Joseph Banadzem of the opposition Social Democratic Front is calling for compromise.
"Government and the strikers should come back to the negotiating table and I think one of the conditions which they are requesting is the release of those who were negotiating with government, who have been caught and brought to Yaounde. Peace has no price. We should be able to have some amnesty, release these people and let schools start," Banadzem said.
President Paul Biya has on several public outings declared that he is open for dialogue, but that he is not ready to release arrested suspects and that he is not open for any discussions that call into question national unity.