JOHANNESBURG — The top U.S. diplomat in Africa said Thursday the separatist crisis in Cameroon could get "much, much" worse, saying "the last thing we need" is growing radicalization in response to the actions of security forces.
Tibor Nagy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, said the situation in the Central African nation is worsening by the day and "worrying me greatly."
The United States calls for dialogue between Cameroon's government and the Anglophone separatists who sprang up from peaceful protests two years ago against the alleged marginalization of English-speakers in the largely Francophone country, Nagy said in a conference call with journalists.
Fighting between the separatists and Cameroon's security forces has sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing in recent months, with hundreds of people killed in the English-speaking North West and South West regions.
Nagy said he is reminded of neighboring Nigeria, where the government's "brutal response" to extremism led to an increase in the membership in Boko Haram. That decade-old Islamic insurgency continues to rage in northeastern Nigeria and has spilled over into neighboring countries.
The U.S. diplomat suggested "some form of decentralization" in Cameroon as mentioned in a proposed constitution for the country. The U.S. provides training and other support to the country's military.
As Cameroon's President Paul Biya was sworn into his seventh term in office last month, he urged the separatists he calls "terrorists" to drop their guns and be forgiven or prepare to be killed. Military raids began shortly afterward.
Nagy spoke Thursday after a visit that included a groundbreaking meeting with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. That country made peace with Ethiopia earlier this year, ending a two-decade border war and leading to the opening of borders and transport links.
"We hope to get to the point where relations with Eritrea are just as warm and cordial as those with Ethiopia," Nagy said after his first direct engagement with Eritrea's leadership.
He spoke of the possibility of better relations and of U.S. investment in the Horn of Africa nation. Earlier this week, Eritrea's information minister said in a Twitter post that Isaias "underlined Eritrea's readiness for constructive engagement to foster warm ties of cooperation with U.S. in various sectors."
Nagy, who also visited Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and the U.S. military's Africa command headquarters in Germany, expanded on the U.S. announcement this week that it has opened a "permanent diplomatic presence" in Somalia, 27 years after closing its embassy amid civil war.
Finally the U.S. has an ambassador "on the ground" in Somalia, he said, as new Ambassador Donald Yamamoto is in the capital, Mogadishu, full time.