Swiss initiative hopes to ease Cameroon crisis

Geneva (AFP) - Militant separatists may have reacted negatively to official efforts to resolve Cameroon's anglophone crisis, but a coalition of their groups is holding out for the prospect of talks with Switzerland's help.

The European country earlier this year accepted requests to mediate as deadly violence grips two regions of Cameroon, where an armed campaign for a breakaway state from the French-speaking majority was launched in 2017.

Leaders and representatives of a range of separatist movements issued a statement in Montreux, Switzerland on September 22 announcing a joint platform "in view of negotiations" with the Yaounde government.

"We are ready for the pre-negotiation phase," Ebenezer Akwanga, who chairs the separatist African People's Liberation Movement and heads its armed wing, told AFP in a phone interview.

The question, he said, is "if the state party is ready."

The separatists have united enough to sit down with government representatives to discuss an agenda for future talks, he said.

Sources close to the process said the hope was for the two sides to meet in Switzerland within a few months for pre-negotiations.

These would hash out details such as identifying the negotiators and the role the international community should play.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) thinktank has estimated that nearly 3,000 people have been killed in violence committed by both sides during the conflict and more than half a million people have fled their homes.

- 'Dialogue' snub -

The Swiss process, say officials in the capital Bern, has no connection with the "national dialogue" launched this week by Cameroon's president of 37 years, Paul Biya.

That forum, wrapping up on Friday after five days, brought together political, civil and religious groups, as well as representatives of the armed forces.

Rebel groups snubbed the initiative and many of their leaders brushed aside the forum's recommendations on Thursday that a "special status" be given to the two anglophone regions.

Akwanga described the dialogue as a "charade" and insisted the separatists can settle for nothing less than "a comprehensive, negotiated settlement".

Cameroonian Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute, at a press conference on Thursday, downplayed any notion of foreign intervention and backed the results of the "dialogue".

"There has never been a mediator in this crisis. Cameroonians... know that they are capable of resolving their problems themselves. And they have done so."

English speakers account for about a fifth of Cameroon's population of 24 million.

They are mainly concentrated in the Northwest and Southwest regions, where they complain of discrimination and marginalisation, especially in education, the judiciary and economic opportunities.

In their September 22 meeting in Montreux, Akwanga and representatives of nine other separatist groups announced the creation of the Ambazonia Coalition Team (ACT), or Team Ambazonia.

The three-day meeting was the third organised in Switzerland since May.

All of the meetings so far have focussed purely on getting the separatists on the same page, according to a source close to the process who asked not to be identified. Several groups are still missing from the alliance.

ACT has vowed to facilitate access for international aid groups -- something the source described as "a massive achievement."