By Nchongayi Christantus Begealawuh
National dialogues have recently gained traction as vital instruments for peace transformations in Africa. National dialogues are usually initiated to deal with a wide range of issues, including political reforms, constitution making and peacebuilding. They can also be seen as political processes aiming to reach a new social contract between interest groups and community in a country. According to the Berghof Foundation’s national dialogue handbook, there has been a certain level of success in the implementation of national dialogues in African countries such as Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. However, this is not to say that national dialogues have been very successful for political reforms and peacebuilding in African as the continent has also witness disappointing results in Kenya, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In any of these cases, the civil society has been very influential. In Tunisia, for example, the national dialogue “quartet” a coalition of civil society groups came together in the summer of 2013 at the time when Tunisia, the birth place of the Arab spring was at the crossroads between democracy and violence. This group successfully drew up a plan of action, that would steer Tunisia away from the path of conflict and move the country towards political compromise. This exemplifies the numerous inherent advantages of national dialogues.
National dialogues can also be used to effectively respond to local actor’s demand for national ownership, inclusion and wider participation. In regions (such as the Horn of Africa region) national dialogues are failing largely because citizens, opposition parties, and the civil society have wanted them but governments haven’t recognized their importance. For example, before the political upheavals that led to the current transition in Ethiopia, several calls for national dialogue by the civil society were ignored. This downplayed the need for reconciliation and national unity. On the other hand, national dialogues initiated by governments with a little push from the civil society has also failed. In South Sudan, the government initiated a national dialogue process in 2017 in the absence of a viable peace agreement on the civil war. The process was largely contested because of its myriad challenges, such as the exclusion of key stakeholders of the conflict and the lack of a conducive environment for “dialogue.” Cameroon’s “Major National Dialogue” announced in 2019 has embedded elements of these two scenarios.
What Makes or Breaks Cameroon’s Major National Dialogue
There are no templates to guide national dialogue processes in general. However, most successful national dialogues have clear structures and well-defined rules and procedures determined by stakeholders or conflicting parties. In any case, most national dialogues (including Cameroon’s Major National Dialogue) go through three stages; preparation, process and implementation.
As far as preparation is concern, successful national dialogues are carefully designed by national stakeholders. In most cases, the intent is to develop a mechanism that will strengthen the society from within. In the case of Cameroon, the National dialogue was entrusted in the hands of Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute. The PM led a series of consultations; involving a huge array of national voices, including political skeptics. The preparatory phase also involved influential Catholic leaders such as the late Cardinal Christian Tumi, head of the Anglophone General Conference (AGC)created in 2018. The late Cardinal, who chaired the commission on the assistance of returning refugees and displaced persons during the dialogue and was later designated to lead the peace caravan to the North West region to explain its recommendation, took this as an important opportunity for peacebuilding. However, what breaks the process is the fact that these consultations and preparatory work did not give participating stakeholders enough time to prepare for the major dialogue and the actual process. In addition, many actors consulted had little connection to the main issue, the Anglophone crisis. The Cameroon Major National Dialogue was held three weeks after its announcement, leaving stakeholders consulted with limited time to prepare. This disempowered many participants and weakens the implementation of its outcomes.
Furthermore, as seen in other contexts, the absence of major opposition groups usually casts doubt on the legitimacy and inclusivity in the actual process. When South Sudan’s Salva Kirr launched a national dialogue in May 2017 by a presidential decree, the preparation phase was similarly marked by the absence of major political parties and armed groups, notably the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement -In-Opposition (SPLM-IO) and former detainees. This process failed because of the exclusion of opposition parties and armed groups. The idea of inclusivity has become a defining factor for national dialogues. As highlighted by Cameroonian journalist Moki Edwin Kindzeka in his write-up with VOA, separatist fighters who were largely absent from the dialogue contend that the dialogue failed woefully, and for peace to return to the English-speaking regions, the government must initiate a “true dialogue.” Thus “inclusivity” affected the Cameroon major national dialogue in many ways and explains why it was a “huge success” for the government and a “complete failure” for separatists and opposition.
Lastly, effective implementation of national dialogue decisions often rests on trust between government, participating stakeholders and civil society. As was the case in South Sudan, the appointment of the national dialogue leadership by the president triggered questions about the independence and neutrality of the process. The opposition and armed groups rejected this appointment and considered it as a deviation from international best practice. This makes implementation difficult. More so, the leadership of the dialogue appointed by the president in the case of South Sudan did not gain popular trust and legitimacy. This contributed to slowing down the implementation of the dialogue’s outcome. What breaks the Cameroon national dialogue is the fact that there was a certain level of mistrust between the civil society and leadership of different commissions created during the actual dialogue. Thus, effective implementation of its recommendation will depend on the level of transparency and public engagement given the trust deficit in the leadership of the process.