President Paul Biya on Thursday ordered the prosecution of people numbering over 300, linked to the separatist crisis in Cameroon’s anglophone regions to be dropped.
“The president today decided to halt prosecutions that are pending in military tribunals… for crimes committed in the context of the crisis in the Northwest and Southwest regions,” a statement said.
The announcement was made by Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute at a national “dialogue,” launched by Biya, on resolving the turmoil in the two English-speaking regions.
He said Biya sought “a measure to calm (the situation)… while we continue our work.”
The premier read it first in French, which said “333 people (were) concerned” by the measure.
This was followed by a statement in English, which said Biya had “already announced the release of over 330 persons who were in custody.”
Armed separatists in the Northwest and Southwest regions have launched a two-year-old campaign 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.
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.
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, repeatedly refused demands for decentralisation or a return to Senegal’s federal structure — a move blamed for radicalisation of the anglophone movement.