In Cameroon, thousands of people are marching to call for peace in the country's separatist conflict. The daily peace marches, which began on Friday and are slated to continue through Tuesday, come on the third anniversary of talks designed to end the fighting. Marchers say authorities need to do more to return peace to the restive western regions, where fighting has killed about 3,500 people since 2017.
The protesters, a majority of them women, say hardly a day goes by without cases of killings, abduction, rape and torching of public edifices in the Northwest and Southwest regions.
Monday's peace march was organized by a non-governmental organization called Cameroon, Peace and National Unity. Its president, Clementine Mvogo, said the peace march marks the third anniversary of government-organized peace talks called the Major National Dialogue.
“The culture of peace is still very much absent in Cameroon since the holding in Yaounde of a Major National Dialogue from September 30 to October 4 2019. The ongoing peace march in Yaounde is to make the quest for peace a daily struggle of all Cameroonians. All civilians and civil society movements should be concerned about the return of peace to Cameroon,” Mvogo said.
After that dialogue, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya implemented recommendations to give the Northwest and Southwest regions more power, including the creation of regional assemblies and elected regional presidents.
Zacchaeus Bakuma Elango, president of the Southwest regional assembly, said outreach efforts to the armed separatist groups continue.
"We're doing everything we can to convince them to lay down their arms and come to the negotiation table. We have families who have been displaced, children who have not gone to schools for five years, so what becomes of them? Are we coming up with a generation of semi-illiterates?” said Elango.
Elango said some people have realized that war is not the answer.
“As the years go by, more and more people are beginning to understand that we are in the same country. There were problems and those problems progressively are being addressed and the situation is improving."
As evidence of that, he notes that tens of thousands of people who fled the fighting have returned to Southwest towns and villages in Manyu, Lebialem, Meme, Ndian, Fako and Koupe Manengouba administrative units. Elango said several hundred schools sealed by fighters in the region have been reopened.
The government says after the dialogue, powers were given to a national commission for the promotion of bilingualism to give equal status to the English and French languages, in order to reduce domination by the French-speaking majority.
David Abouem a Tchoyi, a member of the commission, said the conflict still persists because many separatist leaders refused to take part in the dialogue.
"I regret bitterly that some of our brothers and sisters, especially those who are abroad, couldn't be part of that jamboree. When I read the recommendations, I saw some of them which could be game changers and I think it is important to note that the head of state said that the recommendations should be implemented according to the means and the capabilities of the state."
Three years on, the prospects for peace talks remain stalled. Some separatist groups say they are not ready for any dialogue, while others say the talks should be held outside Cameroon. Separatist leaders based in Europe and the United States have expressed concern they will be arrested on charges of terrorism if they come home for peace talks.
Cameroon maintains that the 2019 dialogue was successful and no talks will be organized outside the country.
The stalemate doesn’t bode well for peace in the western regions, and suggests that Yaounde will see more marches like the ones taking place this week.