Yaounde, CE–Crippling strikes in English-speaking regions were maintained Wednesday after talks between the government and Anglophone lawyers ended in a deadlock, even before the issues in dispute were examined.
Lawyers walked out on the second day of discussions after the government failed to give “guarantees” on several conditions for their participation, particularly the “unconditional” release of dozens of youths arrested during protests in Anglophone regions over the last month, a lawyers’ representative said.
“Nothing has changed,” said Agbor Nkongho Balla, the president of the Fako Lawyers’ Association and head of a consortium of Anglophone civil society organisations now coordinating the strikes. “Things are where they have always been.”
It was another setback to a government push to end three months of strikes and protests which have left courts barely operational and disrupted the best of the first term of schools. Violence earlier this month left several dead, dozens wounded and some properties destroyed. Security forces have arrested scores of people, most of them held in Yaounde.
On Tuesday, teachers also walked out of similar talks in Bamenda, which were timed ahead of a major speech by President Paul Biya this weekend. Biya is expected to address the problem for the first time in his end of year address to the nation. Grievances range from the overbearing nature of French in English-speaking parts of the country to specific requests on education and law practices. Demands include returning to federalism and even the “total independence” of the former British Southern Cameroons.
Lawyers raised objections soon after the special committee headed by the minister delegate of justice Jean Pierre Fogue sat around the table on Tuesday. Among other things, they called for the release of detainees, a change of some committee members and the uplifting of a ban on several Anglophone lawyers’ accossiations, before talks could start.
After long deliberations, punctuated by several breaks, Fogue adjourned the meeting late Tuesday, to permit the government examine lawyers’ objections. The government side came back this morning with concessions that were unsatisfactory, said Balla.
“They promised to see into the release of our detained youths but gave no guarantees,” said Balla. “For us, the unconditional release of those youths is non-negotiable and so we walked out.”
Lawyers were coordinating with teachers through the consortium in apparent counter-offense against the government’s decision to separate lawyers’ and teachers’ grievances, which now orbit around the demand for federalism.
After the double failures, attention is now turning to Biya’s weekend speech, in which he is expected to announce the government’s most official response to the strikes and the current deadlock.
Striking teachers and lawyers have rejected all measures that authorities have taken so far, such as recruiting 1000 bilingual teachers and translating the business law into English, as either too little too late or out rightly unrelated to their grievances.
President Paul Biya was hoping to capitalise on the outcome of the outreach of the government this week. Instead, he will be dealing with a more resolute and dug-in Anglophone community when he speaks to the nation on Saturday.
Federalism, which now appears to be the biggest point of disagreement, is very likely the most anticipated subject to come out of the speech, a tradition during which the head of state addressing the state of the nation before protecting into the new year.
So far, government officials have spoken against federalism and pressed for a “one and indivisible” country. But none is yet to make a strong argument against the form of government, which many Anglophones see as the best protection for their heritage.
Biya’s tone and choice of words would be the principal indicators of how he feels about the problem, when he speaks on Saturday. Meantime, teachers and lawyers feel “the government bench is still maintaining bad faith.”