YAOUNDE (Reuters) - General Capture and Destroy stepped to the microphone and in an impassioned speech to the media urged his fellow separatist fighters to lay down their arms and join Cameroon’s government-led peace talks.
“The suffering is too much,” he said, breaking into tears. “If we fail to put this thing to an end, we will all suffer...I have been sent by my fellow generals to represent them in the peace talks.”
Within minutes, however, separatist leaders denied to Reuters any knowledge of Capture and Destroy or the other men presented as former fighters by the government during talks this week.
Then Twitter erupted with ordinary Cameroonians questioning the true identity of the so-called generals.
“Whatever one says this (national dialogue) has unveiled some good actors!,” said one widely-shared post.
The true identity of General Capture and Destroy is not yet clear and some observers said they recognise some fighters put forward by the government.
But the reaction to his appearance reveals the extent to which mistrust and partisanship in Cameroon have undermined any prospect of resolving the crisis without outside arbitration.
The talks, which close on Friday, could have opened the door to a historic peace agreement, ending a fight between the army and English-speaking militias seeking to form a breakaway state called Ambazonia. The conflict has cost nearly 2,000 lives, forced half a million people to flee and presented President Paul Biya with his biggest threat in nearly 40 years of rule.
Instead, they were boycotted by separatists and moderate politicians and ended in acrimony.
“Cameroon is a joke,” said Cho Ayaba, a leading member of the Ambazonian Governing Council. “Let me be absolutely clear: no Ambazonian is and will be part of Cameroon’s charade.”
The insurgency emerged after a heavy-handed government crackdown on peaceful protests late in 2016 in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions by lawyers and teachers who complained of being marginalised by the French-speaking majority.
The roots of their grievances go back a century to the League of Nations’ decision to split the former German colony of Kamerun between the allied French and British victors at the end of World War One.
For 10 years after the French- and English-speaking regions joined together in 1961, the country was a federation in which the Anglophone regions largely governed themselves. Biya’s centralisation push after he came to power in 1982 quickly eroded any remaining Anglophone autonomy.
Within months of the initial 2016 protests, newly-formed armed groups were attacking army posts in the Anglophone regions. The army responded by burning down villages and shooting civilians.
Once vibrant cities, including the technology hub of Buea, have turned into ghost towns. Most schools have closed; villages have emptied out as people flee into Nigeria.
Separatists entrenched in the mountainous west say they will only come to the table if the government releases all political prisoners, including 10 leaders who were sentenced in August to life in prison on terrorism charges, and withdraws the military from the two English-speaking regions.
Biya, who is 86 years old, has struggled to contain the problem. He rarely speaks in public or meets his government and spends months each year holidaying in Switzerland.
He said on Tuesday that he would drop charges against 333 prisoners held in relation to the crisis, but the move failed to appease separatists and moderates alike who say that thousands more remain imprisoned on trumped-up charges.
Biya praised the talks on Twitter on Friday and said that a series of recommendations had been published. These include ensuring the equality of English and French speakers, giving greater autonomy to the provinces and offering amnesty to fighters who down arms.
The dialogue “afforded you the opportunity to reaffirm once more your attachment to peace and concord in your country,” Biya said in a tweet addressing the people. “I would like to congratulate and thank you very sincerely for that.”
Still, critics said talks this week were not inclusive and did not involve any discussion about a return to federalism that many say is the solution to the conflict.
Former opposition presidential candidate Akere Muna was told at the talks that the people allowed to speak at one session had already been identified and that he would not be able to participate.
“I said to myself, but that’s not a dialogue,” Muna told Reuters. “It’s a show and I’m a spectator. I left.”
Writing by Edward McAllister, Editing by William Maclean and Louise Heavens