Cameroon’s President Paul Biya pledged to give more powers to the central African nation’s regions, starting his seventh term in office with a call to separatist groups in the country’s English-speaking areas to end a bloody insurgency.
The speech to lawmakers marked only the second time that Biya, 85, publicly addressed the conflict that has left at least 400 people dead since it began two years ago. “I understand your problems, I know them and will do well to solve them,” Biya said Tuesday in the capital, Yaounde. “Government will accelerate the decentralization process in response to the desire of the population to manage their own affairs.”
Africa’s second-longest serving head of state easily won presidential elections last month that were overshadowed by the insurgency and a security clampdown that hindered voting in the two Anglophone regions. Cameroon is divided into 10 semi-autonomous regions, which are headed by governors appointed by Biya.
Biya didn’t mention the apparent kidnapping of 79 pupils and three staff members of a secondary school on Sunday near Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest. While details of the incident remain sketchy and responsibility for the kidnapping hasn’t been claimed, army spokesman Didier Badjeck said that military operations are underway to free them.
The unrest started with peaceful protests by teachers and lawyers in the English-speaking areas against the dominance of the French language. While initial protests focused on calls for decentralization, a majority of the population in the restive Northwest and Southwest regions is now believed to support separatism.
Maurice Kamto, one of Biya’s opponents in the October polls, and some of his supporters were arrested Tuesday when they protested in the capital against the outcome of vote, according to a party official.
“Our president was also arrested but quickly released,” Ndong Christopher, secretary general of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement, said by phone.