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Cameroon’s Paul Biya announces release of 330 detained separatists

He made the announcement at a national “dialogue,” launched by Biya, on resolving a crisis that has left thousands dead

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Cameroon announces release of 330 detained separatists
(Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

President Paul Biya on Thursday ordered the release of several hundred detainees linked to the separatist crisis in Cameroon’s anglophone regions as talks on the turmoil ended their fourth day.

“The president has asked for the release of more than 330 people who have been arrested because of the troubles in the Northwest and Southwest” regions, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute said.

He made the announcement at a national “dialogue,” launched by Biya, on resolving a crisis that has left thousands dead, driven hundreds of thousands from their homes and inflicted escalating economic damage.

The PM said Biya sought “a measure to calm (the situation)… while we continue our work.”

He read a statement first in French and then in English, and was given a standing ovation by many participants.

Separately, the president’s office issued a communique that said there were “333 persons concerned” by the measure.

And late Thursday, delegates adopted a resolution at the dialogue’s plenary session recommending “special status” for the English-speaking areas “aimed at re-enforcing the autonomy of administrative areas”.

Armed separatists in the Northwest and Southwest regions launched a campaign two years ago for independence from Cameroon, where French is the predominant language.

Biya’s government has responded with a crackdown that rights groups have fiercely condemned.

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

Biya’s “dialogue,” which opened on Monday and is scheduled to end on Friday, brings together political groups, civil society and religious groups, as well as representatives of the armed forces.

But armed rebel groups have snubbed the forum, and analysts have questioned whether the initiative can achieve much while the main separatist leaders are behind bars.

“We welcome the decision by the president to release 330 anglophone detainees. It is a step in the right direction,” Felix Agbor Nkongho, a leading anglophone lawyer and human-rights defender who is taking part in the forum, told reporters.

“But we call for a general amnesty to all those in detention and those in the diaspora under investigation.”

Detained leaders –

In August, secessionist leader Julius Ayuk Tabe — the self-proclaimed president of “Ambazonia” — was sentenced to life in prison along with nine of his supporters.

Biya, in his announcement of the “dialogue” on September 10, made no mention of any release of these figures, although he reiterated an offer to “pardon” any separatists who voluntarily lay down their arms.

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

They are mainly concentrated in the Northwest and Southwest regions, which were folded into Cameroon after the colonial era in Africa wound down six decades ago. 

Resentment has festered there for years among English-speakers who complain of discrimination and marginalisation, especially in education, the judiciary and economic opportunities.

Biya, 86, who has been in power for nearly 37 years, has repeatedly refused demands for decentralisation or a return to a federal structure — a move blamed for radicalisation of the anglophone movement.

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Gabon’s Ali Bongo vows to “complete mission” despite health challenges

Bongo said he was “fiercely determined” to push ahead with a campaign against graft

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Gabonese President Ali Bongo vows to "complete mission" despite failing health

Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba on Wednesday completed a decade in office, vowing to push ahead with economic reforms and an anti-corruption drive despite questions over his health after suffering a stroke nearly a year ago.

“I feel good. And feeling better and better each day,” Bongo said in an interview published on Wednesday in the pro-government daily, l’Union. 

“I will complete my mission.”

Bongo said he was “fiercely determined” to push ahead with a campaign against graft. Government departments have been shaken up in recent weeks with a string of top-level changes.

“Mistakes were made in the past, but they won’t be able to be made again in the future,” Bongo said.

“Over time, the standards I require of government members has increased while my level of patience has fallen,” he said.

During his months-long absence abroad for treatment, speculation over Bongo’s fitness surged and the army quashed a brief attempted coup.

At one point, his spokesman was forced to deny rumours that Bongo had died and been replaced by a lookalike, while opposition members made an unsuccessful attempt to have a court assess whether he was fit to rule.

Since returning home, Bongo has attended several well-scripted public events, but every appearance is widely scrutinised for any signs of any disability.

READ: Gabonese President Bongo undergoes ‘routine medical checks’ in London

Nostalgia for father –

The drama has played out against the backdrop of a stuttering economy in the country of two million. 

Bongo initiated an array of major infrastructure projects after coming to power, such as new roads and stadiums, which drew on a flurry of investment from China.

But oil prices slumped after 2014, provoking an economic crisis and discontent, although the country’s political opposition is fractured.

There is widespread nostalgia for the free-spending reign of Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the country for 42 years until his death in 2009, when he was succeeded by his son.

“Gabon has fallen into deep sleep,” said 33-year-old Gael Ndong, reflecting a commonly-expressed opinion.

“It was better before.”

“Ali Bongo has never enjoyed the legitimacy that his father was able to have,” said Florence Bernault, a professor of sub-Saharan history at Sciences Po in Paris.

His reputation was further battered after elections in 2016 marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud, she added. His current term ends in 2023. 

READ: Gabon’s Ali Bongo makes post-stroke appearance

Diversify –

Under Bongo senior, Gabon became an oil major. Today, hydrocarbons account for 80 per cent of exports and almost half of GDP.

Under Bongo junior, the government is trying to diversify the economy, turning to managed forestry, minerals and other underdeveloped sectors to pick up the slack.

But the president’s vow 10 years ago to place Gabon on the path to emerging nation status remains “far away” from attainment, said Gabon economist Mays Mouissi.

Gabon may rank among Africa’s most prosperous countries but still badly lacks adequate roads, hospitals, homes and schools.

“Bongo did not know how to efficiently use the oil wealth he benefited from at the start of his first term,” said Mouissi, describing the “lost decade” as a wasted opportunity. Joblessness among the young is more than a third.

Bongo, in Wednesday’s interview, argued the reforms are “beginning to bear fruit.”

READ: Ali Bongo joins independence celebration in Libreville

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) this month predicted growth will reach 3.4 per cent this year compared with 0.8 per cent in 2018, although “ambitious macroeconomic measures and far-reaching structural reforms” were still needed.

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Cameroon releases main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto

Kamto, 65, was arrested in late January after months of peaceful opposition protests over the results of the October 2018 election

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Cameroon releases main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto

Cameroon’s main opposition leader Maurice Kamto walked free from jail Saturday after a military court ordered his release at the behest of veteran President Paul Biya.

The surprise conciliatory gesture comes as the president is facing a number of domestic crises and international criticism over political freedoms.

“We are here today thanks to your constant support,” Kamto, who had spent nine months behind bars, told hundreds of supporters who gathered to greet him.

“I saw you even when you couldn’t see me.”

He announced a “new chapter in our struggle”, adding that “if some people think that our liberation means the end of our struggle they have understood nothing”.

The struggle would be “peaceful”, he said before being driven away surrounded by a dozen-strong escort of klaxon-blaring vehicles.

Kamto, 65, was arrested in late January after months of peaceful opposition protests over the results of the October 2018 election.

He went on trial with dozens of others in a military court in September on charges of insurrection, hostility to the motherland and rebellion — crimes which could be given the death penalty, though this is no longer carried out in Cameroon.

‘Welcome step’ –

Cameroon releases main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto
Hundreds of supporters raise their arms and wave the national flag while waiting to greet Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto in Yaounde on October 5, 2019 the day of his release from prison. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Biya, 86, has ruled Cameroon with an iron fist for nearly 37 years.

On Friday, he announced he had ordered prosecutions to be dropped against “some” opposition leaders, including a number from the main Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) which Kamto leads.

More than 100 people in detention are also now set for release “if they have not been detained for anything else”, the military court said.

They include Biya’s former economic advisor Christian Penda Ekoka, lawyer Michele Ndoki and rapper Valsero, well known for songs critical of the ruling establishment.

Amnesty International called Biya’s decision “a welcome step towards ending the long repression of dissenting voices in Cameroon”.

But the organisation also called on authorities to “go further by releasing all other individuals arbitrarily detained for having exercised their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.

As the opposition leader arrived at his home in a residential neighbourhood of Yaounde following his release, he was met by dozens of cheering, dancing young people.

“Maurice Kamto, save us,” the crowd chanted.

Most of those gathered were under 30 and — like around 75 per cent of the population — would not have known another leader than Biya.

“We are tired of this system that has been in place for 37 years,” said one protester, Abraham.

“We want alternance in power. We want a new momentum for our country.”

‘Crises and conflicts’ –

Cameroon releases main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto
Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto is greeted and acclaimed by hundreds of supporters in Yaounde on October 5, 2019 after his release from prison. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Biya’s shock announcement Friday came on the closing day of crunch talks aimed at easing a bloody crisis in Cameroon’s anglophone regions, which were shunned by the main separatist leaders.

The talks also ended with a proposal to give more autonomy to the English-speaking regions, where a two-year armed campaign for independence has been met with a brutal crackdown and cost nearly 3,000 lives, according to the International Crisis Group. 

In addition, Biya had Thursday announced the shelving of an investigation and the release of 333 people detained during the crisis.

The two areas in western Cameroon — the Northwest Region and Southwest Region — are home to most of the country’s anglophones, who account for about a fifth of a population that is overwhelmingly French-speaking.

A presidential statement Saturday said that “the head of state reaffirms his determination to pursue relentlessly his efforts seeking ways and means to resolve peaceably the crises and conflicts confronting our country”.

The apparent seachange in Biya’s approach comes after months of intransigence and follows international pressure.

Washington indicated in March that Yaounde would do well to free Kamto — a sentiment repeated since by the European Union and also France.

“The president is well aware that Cameroon is at a crossroads as it is dealing with important crises,” Richard Makon, an expert on Cameroon politics, told reporters.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement on Saturday that he “encourages the Cameroonian authorities to continue to adopt further confidence-building and reconciliation measures”.

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UN to tackle measles outbreak in DR Congo with emergency vaccination

The campaign aims to vaccinate around 825,000 children in 24 regions, over a period of nine days, the body said.

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UN to tackle measles outbreak in DR Congo with emergency vaccination

The UN health agency on Wednesday said it would carry out an emergency vaccination campaign in six DR Congo provinces to counter an outbreak of measles that has killed 3,600 since the start of the year.

Authorities have registered more than 183,800 suspected cases of the disease, preventable with a vaccine, from the start of the year until September 17, the World Health Organization said.

It said 3,667 people had died in the outbreak, most of them children. That is more than the number who have died in an outbreak of Ebola in eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The campaign aims to vaccinate around 825,000 children in 24 regions, over a period of nine days, the agency said. 

“The DR Congo is facing this situation because a lot of children don’t get routine vaccinations,” WHO representative Deo Nshimirimana said in a statement.

In the country’s east, Ebola has claimed more than 2,100 lives since erupting last August.

Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks mainly children. The most serious complications include blindness, brain swelling, diarrhoea, and severe respiratory infections.

Last year, cases more than doubled to almost 350,000 from 2017, according to the WHO, amid a rise in “anti-vaxxer” sentiment in some countries that can afford the vaccine, and lagging resources for the preventative measure in poorer countries.

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