Exclusive interview: British High Commissioner makes strong outing on Ambazonia independence struggle

The British High Commissioner to Cameroon, Dr Christian Dennys-McClure has said the solution to the armed conflict in the North West and South West regions does not lie in the hand of a single individual.In this exclusive interview with NewsWatch, the diplomat who is also a conflict expert says he has been having talks with the government about the situation in the former British Southern Cameroons.

He says the UK will always offer to provide engagement and support to viable processes that support dialogue.The eyes and ears of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in Cameroon also talks about Britain’s position on foreign intervention in the conflict, the repatriation of foreign-based separatist leaders and his personal view on how the conflict can be resolved.Dr Christian Dennys-McClure spoke to NewsWatch’s Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, Ndi Eugene Ndi. It is an incisive and revealing interview. Read on.

Dr Christian Dennys-McClure, you are gradually settling in as British High Commissioner to Cameroon. How has it been since you arrived the country?

It’s been a real honor and privilege to take the post. I have had the opportunity to travel fairly far and wide in Cameroon. There’s always more I can see and learn in exploring and developing my understanding of Cameroon but the welcome I have received this far has been excellent.

Did you ever dream of working in Cameroon some day?

So, it’s funny I was talking to my son about dreams and he said, “Dad why did you want to be an ambassador?”  And I think I will tell you a bit of what I said to him as an answer. So, I said to him that it’s important for me to be able to work in a place where we can achieve change. It’s important to be able to work with the amazing team we have here in the British High Commission in Yaoundé and it is an honor and privilege to represent my country and all of those things come with being in Cameroon at this time so it’s good to be here.

You have since your appointment been tweeting especially in Pidgin English, a lingua franca used mainly in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon. Why this choice?

So, I think we have to go back and think about what is the role of being a diplomat and one of the roles of being a diplomat is to talk to people, to communicate and to engage. So, its true French and English are the official languages of Cameroon but I and my team felt that we will be limiting ourselves, and I will be limiting myself, if the only way I interacted with people will be French and English. Pidgin English is obviously going to be important for the UK because of our shared history and shared engagements. There are many languages to learn in Cameroon and I can’t learn all of them but I wanted to take the opportunity to learn pidgin and to use that as a way to better understand Cameroon and to better understand some of the challenges and some of the perspectives that are present in Cameroon.

The British High Commissioner with the chair of the Cameroon Human Rights Commission

With my teacher, I spent a little time talking about idioms and phrases that people use for different things and one of the phrases we were talking about recently is that “one hand no dey tie bundle”. So, you can’t tie something on your own and it’s a really good phrase to describe in a really cultural appropriate way the perspective or an importance of collaboration in Cameroon and you can’t say that in English and you can’t say it in French but you can say it in a way which connects people using pidgin that is much stronger. So that’s the reason.

So, are you saying you are just learning the Pidgin here in Cameroon?

Yes, well I started a little bit before I came and obviously, I have help and I have a teacher and so on. I’m not fluent but I use it almost on daily basis.

What did you know about Cameroon before your appointment, what discoveries have you made since your arrival and what do you still intend to discover as you sojourn here apart from the Pidgin?

I hope I knew a bit more than just a bit about Roger Milla and the World Cup but you know my interest in coming to Cameroon was linked to the fact that it is a truly diverse place and I come from a very diverse city – London. Cameroon has both great opportunities and great challenges and a lot on my career had to deal with quite difficult challenging circumstances but also to pursue various opportunities and this felt like a good way of using some of my previous engagements and experience.

In terms of what I have learnt since I arrived, I think one of the things I have learnt most is that the diversity you see in Cameroon is one of its greatest strengths and I think that actually if you think about the way in which Cameroon wants to pursue its opportunities, by that I mean both the development plan but also Cameroonian communities, there’s huge amount of potential both the human capital and also physical to be able to achieve what people want to try and achieve in Cameroon.

So, there are still somethings to learn and I wait to be surprised on my next trips. I was in Kribi recently and it was a great opportunity to see a very different side of Cameroon and to engage with communities who were living on the coast and seeing how life on the coast of Cameroon is. There are obviously some places I have not been to yet and there are some places I will like to get to.

You are a conflict expert as we reported previously, appointed to serve in a country with a conflict linked to British colonial rule. Have you been handed a special assignment by the Queen?

I think the Queen hands most of her ambassadors and high commissioners an assignment; so not specific to me but the UK government continues to value its relationship with Cameroon so obviously my appointment is an important point of trying to say we are engaged in a whole range of issues.

So, you care about the other conflicts too?

If we stand back a bit and think of the range of UK engagements and interest in our relationship with Cameroon, there are really four (4) key areas. So, the first is around conflicts. For the UK we are particularly engaged in conflicts in the Far North, what we often refer to as the Lake Chad Basin, and as well as the conflict in the North West and South West regions. That includes a lot of our humanitarian work and humanitarian body. We have a second stream of work around climate. Obviously, it’s the year of COP 26. Climate is the number one priority for the UK globally in terms of our diplomatic engagement and it will remain a key priority in Cameroon for the foreseeable future. Then we have what we call our work around open societies which is where we support efforts to improve transparency and good governance and all of our work and engagement around Commonwealth values and democracy. Then the final area is ground trade. So that’s a quite broad set of issues we work across. Conflict is important, but it is not the only thing we engage in Cameroon.

Some Cameroonians see your appointment as key to unlock the deadlock surrounding the conflict in the former British Southern Cameroons. What do you have up your sleeves for execution during your stay in Cameroon?

I would caution anybody who thinks that any one person is the solution to the conflict. That is not how conflict resolution works. The UK and the High Commission continue to support three areas of work all around trying to achieve a lasting political settlement. I mentioned already humanitarian work. We have provided humanitarian aid to large numbers of people who have been affected by the crisis including those who have been internally displaced and we do that through our partners in the international community including UN agencies. We also support initiatives to try and reduce violence. Finally, in almost all of my conversations, I am talking to people about the importance of dialogue and the importance of continuing to engage all of the parties involved in the conflict to find a durable viable way to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

According to international organizations, at least 3, 500 people have been killed in the armed conflict in the North West and South West. Some Anglophones are cursing Britain for turning a blind eye to the situation in favour of business deals with the Biya regime. Are you here solely for British business interest or to [also] help solve the crisis?

We have a lot of different priorities within Cameroon. The order I went through is a reflection of the priority. I talked first of all about conflicts. That is the thing that we spend the majority of our time engaging on. Trade is of course important. Trade is important in every country and every bilateral relation between Cameroon and other countries in the world. You don’t pursue trade priority at the expense of everything else. Even within our own legislation there are specific provisions around the importance of local standards around things like human rights which are linked to the ongoing application of trade agreements. It was the same arrangement that underpins the Economic Partnership Agreements the UK signs globally. So, we’ll continue working on both sets of issues.

Have you had talks with the government in relation to the conflict in the North West and South West?

Yes, of course.

What has been the response?

It depends which aspect you are referring to. They are accurately aware of the need to find a viable peaceful resolution to the conflict. I think the government has a particular view as to how it wants to try and pursue that and we talk to them and others about some of the risks that are clear in the conflict; the new types of weaponry that are being used in the North West and South West; and the ongoing brutality and the urgency and need to continue dialogue.

The British High Commissioner presenting copies of his Letters of Credence to the Minister of External Relations

Why has the UK government continued to sign trade deals with the government of Cameroon at a time when her allies such as the US and some British lawmakers are recommending suspension of same, on grounds of unchecked rights abuses?

As I mentioned, the agreements with the UK involve human rights and trade. These have been through scrutiny in the UK parliament. Yes, there are MPs who have a perspective on the balance between those two things, as does Her Majesty’s government.

What’s Britain’s position on calls for the repatriation of separatist leaders based in Europe and in the Americas accused of stoking the crisis in the North West and South West regions?

I’m not sure I have specifically heard the calls around repatriation but if you are asking about the actions of people overseas in inciting violence, and whether they should come back to Cameroon, then we will always advocate that it is very unhelpful for people who promote hate speech and the utilisation of violence from overseas. Where those actions contravene domestic law, wherever those hate speech remarks are made in the US, UK or any other jurisdiction, is up to the local police and judicial processes to prosecute individuals who pass the bar for investigation.

 It is reported that while America is in support of foreign intervention in the crisis, Britain is said to be against such? Is that true? And why this option?

In terms of the most effective way of reducing violence and finding durable solutions to a conflict, foreign stakeholders whether that be neighbouring countries or those in Europe or America, can play constructive roles in facilitating dialogue and mediation and peace processes. We will always offer to provide engagement and support to viable processes that support dialogue.

The UK has been calling for dialogue between the government of Cameroon and those fronting the conflict in the North West and South West regions as you have said. But it will be Yaounde is feet-dragging. Why is the UK not mounting pressure further?

There are in all conflict multiple forms of dialogue and there are periods when engagements tend to slow down and periods when it can seem to go very quickly. As I said earlier, we talk to the government regularly about the need to maintain progress and the need to maintain engagement on dialogue and we will continue to do so.

Have you, as a diplomat, made personal findings on the unique history between Britain and the former British Southern Cameroon’s trapped in a separatists’ crisis?

I think somebody who has been in the country for six months should not suggest that they have identified unique aspects to the conflict. What I would reflect on is the fact that particularly during my visit to Bamenda and my engagements with many friends from the North West and South West regions is that the willingness and openness to engage with the UK is incredibly strong and we will continue to want to dialogue and to engage with people from the North West and South West regions of Cameroon, as from other regions of Cameroon. We will do what we can to try and promote a durable peaceful solution to the crisis.

As a conflict expert, how do you think such a crisis can be best handled?

Internal conflicts of this nature almost always end in dialogue. It is not always obvious in the public domain. It is maybe not even obvious in the private domain that there is progress in that dialogue. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. It doesn’t mean that we should lose faith in the absolute necessity to keep speaking and keep talking and keep channels open across the various groups involved in the conflict. That requires patience. The daily and weekly drumbeat of violence is incredibly distressing and is obviously causing incredible suffering to the people in the region and it is imperative that we don’t forget that and that we keep reminding people of the need to stay focused on finding a durable solution.

Mr High Commissioner, have you as a conflict expert, talked to the Biya regime about what has to be done to end this conflict?

I will say it is not just me. My minister was here before I arrived in March 2021 and he spoke to President Paul Biya and others in government to say exactly that.

Do you have the feeling the government is listening to the UK?

I always hope that my counterparts are listening to me.

Hong Kong and the former British Southern Cameroons are both colonial creations, cutting across same or similar ethnic peoples on both sides. Why does the UK openly support Hon Kong but not the former British Southern Cameroons (or Ambazonia) that thinks the UK is part of the reason they are in a conflict?

The British High Commissioner with NewsWatch Publisher/Editor-in-Chief after interview

I am not sure there is equivalence in the two examples that you have chosen. As I have talked about the UK works across three main objectives in the North West and South West so it’s not true to say that we are not engaged. We work on reducing human suffering, efforts to reduce the violence and to promote dialogue and negotiation. We will continue to do that. That resolve has not changed.

Besides the conflict, Cameroon has a problem of lack of freedoms (of expression, the press…) but you have not talked about this. Does it mean the UK does not care about that too?

If you remember when I went through the objectives for the mission, one of the areas I picked put was open societies where I talked about governance and democracy and Commonwealth values and so we share with Cameroon the Commonwealth values particularly around the rule of law, democracy, freedom of the press and so on. We launched with Co-Chairs Canada, a new initiative called the Diplomatic Network on media freedom coalition which is in part, an expression of some areas of concern we share around the need to improve things like media freedom in the context of Cameroon and we will continue to promote those Commonwealth values in Cameroon.

What do you make of Cameroon’s democracy and how can Britain help to strengthen it?

As I said, an expression of the fact that the diplomatic network exists, our ministers in Canada and UK asked us to set up the network here and in nine other countries where there are areas of concern around media freedom. It is a reflection of the fact that there are some concerns about needing to support media freedom here. It is in its early stages so it is a bit hard to say at this stage what activities the network will undertake. But as with all countries, the process and the values of democracy need constant reinvention and defense and we will continue to work with our partners to try and achieve that.

You talked about climate change as one of your key areas of engagement. We know the UK will in the next couple of days host the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), does the UK have a new dimension to climate change and especially in the Congo Basin Rainforest?

COP 26 is a huge moment in the fight against climate change. It is imperative that we achieve commitments to deliver against the Paris Accord in an effort to try and keep heating down to as close as 1.5 degrees as possible. The UK as host has two roles. The first role is the global one to bring everyone together to ensure fair and equitable outcomes across four key areas. So, the key areas of progress that we wish to see in COP26 at the global level are really around energy, protection of forests and nature, finance, and vehicles and transport. The protection of nature and finance are the ones that most relate to Cameroon.

There is a global commitment to spend 100 billion dollars per year on climate financing which is the money which donor nations give to some nations to pay for some of the adaptations and mitigations for climate change. On the money and on the finance, there has been some progress in recent days with donors like the Swedish  increasing their proportions of funding on climate finance. We cannot say yet that we will reach the 100-billion-dollar target, but we will continue to push for that through negotiations. That is important because that finance will be used in part to deliver on the nature commitment.

The nature commitments are something that Cameroon, Gabon and other countries with large forest areas are particularly being encouraged to commit to. That is about protecting the forests that we have because if we continue to destroy the forests in those key five or six zones in the world, we will do irreparable damage to our nature, climate and biodiversity. We have seen encouraging signs around commitments to meet the political commitments around the protection of nature. We encourage Cameroon in particular to keep pursuing a high ambition for the protection and sustainable management of the forests within Cameroonian territory.

Dr Christian Dennys-McClure

Specifically the British Prime Minister announced a new 100 million pounds program called the biodiverse landscapes fund at the UN General Assembly three weeks ago. It will be delivered in six landscapes globally, three of which are in Africa. One of them is the Congo River Basin. The Congo River Basin in that program includes Gabon, Republic of Congo and Cameroon in the Western Congo  Basin area. That is really important because whilst we do have existing programs in Cameroon on improving forest management there is the need to deliver new programmes and the biodiverse landscapes fund is part of UK’s bilateral contribution within the big hundred billion dollars of global funding across the donors.

Your Excellency, Mr High Commissioner, is there anything else you would like to say?

We have a really important scholarship programme called the Chevening programme which has been operating for 38 years. There are over 300 alumni from Cameroon who studied in the UK with a fully paid for study programme and travel and accommodation. There are some notable high fliers in Cameroon both in the private sector but also in government, including Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute who have benefitted from the Chevening scheme, used it for their own personal development, got really good well recognised academic qualifications and used it on their return to make Cameroon a better place. We would encourage all Cameroonians to consider applying. The deadline is the 2nd of November and there have also been specific to the journalistic community, a number of journalists who have applied and been successful over the years. Many journalists who are in Cameroon have been through the Chevening scheme at one point or the other in their careers. So, it is definitely a good scheme.

H.E. Christian Dennys-MCclure, thank you for your availability.

It is a pleasure.

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