By Felix Tih
ANKARA (AA) - In an unexpected speech, Cameroon's President Paul Biya on late Tuesday called for a national dialogue that will focus on the grievances of the English-speaking populations of the Northwest and Southwest regions of the Central African country.
“I have decided to convene a major national dialogue to enable us address the aspirations of the people of the Northwest and Southwest regions,” Biya said in a televised speech.
''The national dialogue to be convened by the end of the month will focus on issues of national interest notably, unity, national integration, and living together,” he said.
''The dialogue to be chaired by the prime minister shall include Parliamentarians, political leaders, intellectuals, economic operators and members of the diaspora,” the president added.
He said representatives from defense and security forces, armed groups and victims would also take part in the dialogue.
Cameroon has been marred by protests since 2016, with residents in English-speaking regions saying they have been marginalized for decades by the central government and the French-speaking majority.
The protesters are calling for a return to federalism or independence of English-speaking Cameroon, which the demonstrators refer to as the "Republic of Ambazonia".
English-speakers frequently complain of exclusion from top civil service jobs and the use of French in government institutions, although the constitution gives both languages official status.
French Cameroon gained its independence from France in 1960. In 1961, a federal state was set up when British Cameroon gained its independence from Great Britain and joined French Cameroon.
The federal state was, however, dissolved in favor of a unitary state in 1972.
Since then Anglophones say they are being marginalized and forced to use French in public institutions and schools, and also use the French-Cameroon legal system in courts.
Tens of thousands of people have fled and crossed into neighboring Nigeria, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Meanwhile, dozens of military and police officers have also been killed since the protests started in October 2016.