Thursday, November 2, 2017

Agbor Nkongho: a lost opportunity for Cameroon Anglophone leadership?

Cameroon has been engulfed in a major political crisis for almost a year - with massive civil disobedience, protests and political upheaval by a marginalized people in English-speaking parts of the country. As a result of the crisis internet connection in the affected regions were cut off on the orders of the government and many civilians were killed, disappeared, arrested and imprisoned. Some of those arrested, including Felix Agbor Balla, president of the banned Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC), were released after about eight months in prison but since his release the civil society leader who was celebrated and admired by many before and during his arrest has been embroiled in pushback - with critics referring for him as a "traitor". What went wrong?

On August 30, 2017 Cameroon state media outlet CRTV reported that the president of the Republic, Paul Biya, had "ordered the discontinuance of proceedings" pending before a military court against Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla, barrister-at-law and leader of the banned CACSC, and some other persons who were arrested and charged with crimes including terrorism, secession, incitement to civil war, rebellion, amongst others in relation to the political crisis in English-speaking parts of the country.

The release was celebrated by many as a turning point but celebration was short-lived as the masses realized that for starters not all detainees were released. The cautious enthusiasm surrounding the gesture of Cameroon's president of 35 years was further dampened by public utterances and statements made by the leader of the outlawed CACSC. In an interview on BBC Focus on Africa after his release the banned Anglophone civil society consortium leader called for resumption of schools and advocated for a federal system of government as a solution to the crisis. This is in conflict with the stance of other leaders in the struggle and their supporters who advocate outright secession and would like to see continuous pressure mounted on the government by way of closure of schools until the government releases all arrested persons and comes to the negotiation table in good faith - without preconditions.

It is worthy to mention that schools have been closed in English-speaking parts of Cameroon since the struggle began in closing months of 2016. "Ghost towns" have been implemented for many days a week - with markets, shops and other businesses shut down for many days a week for almost a year. A long-standing strike action by lawyers, teachers and other groups in Anglophone parts of Cameroon persists. The massive civil disobedience is designed to force the hand of the government to address grievances raised by Anglophones who constitute a marginalized minority group in a majority French-speaking country.

My Take

Barrister Agbor Nkongho and other Anglophones like Fontem Aforteka'a and Ayah Paul Abine who were arrested on, in my view, trumped up politically motivated charges and dragged to a military tribunal in violtion of international civil and political human rights standards that prohibit the trial of civilians in military courts were released partly as a result of pressure mounted on the government by protracted massive civil disobedience, including the closure of schools in English-speaking parts of Cameroon for several months. Their release from squalid detention conditions is welcomed. However, many other protesters such as Mancho Bibixy remain imprisoned hence the pressure on the government should continue until all arrested are released. The release of some is an indication that the current strategy works - and if it is not broken there is no need to fix it. The closure of schools was, in my view, perhaps the most impactful strategy intended to get the government's attention, and it paid off - with the release of barrister Agbor Nkongho, Dr. Fontem Neba, Rtd. Justice Ayah Paul and some other persons. Had schools reopened while Agbor Nkongho et al were still detained they, I reckon, would still be in prison facing trial in the military tribunal in Yaoundé. It is misguided and somewhat selfish for someone who arguably benefited from a strategy to come out of prison and almost immediately kick against it by calling for resumption of schools -- at a time when some other people who were arrested under same circumstances like him are still languishing in prison.

In June 2016 when Agbor Nkongho and others were still in prison a renown Anglophone lawyer, barrister Sama Francis, called on lawyers to suspend strike action and return to work. At the time I argued in a blog post that Sama Francis was wrong because lawyers returning to work would amount to abandoning their colleague Agbor Balla and other Anglophones arrested in relation to the crisis in prison. Now that Nkongho is out of prison and is calling for resumption of schools I would argue the same: resumption of schools and a return to normalcy would amount to abandoning those left in prison. No political prisoner of the struggle should be left behind.

According to an article on Fortune 6 principles made Nelson Mandela a renowned leader - one of the principles being anticipation. Mandela, according to the article assessed his moves while in prison and anticipated reactions hence when he was offered freedom in exchange for renouncing opposition to the government he said: "what freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned?... what freedom am I being offered if I must ask permission to live in an urban area?" He, Mandela, was prepared to serve out his sentence rather than exchange it for apartheid. This decision, according to an article on BIZNews elevated his position and drew attention to his sacrifice for the struggle. Now, I would be the first to admit that comparing Agbor Nkongho with Nelson Mandela - the most inspirational civil rights leader of all time in my view is a stretch. Asking Agbor Balla to, for example, stay in prison until the ban on CACSC is lifted or until all political activists, protesters and civil society leaders who were arrested in relation to the Anglophone struggle are released or until the collapse of marginalization of Anglophones in Cameroon is too much to ask because Nkongho is no Mandela. However, as a leader he should have at least strategically assessed his stance and anticipated reactions. He has not inspired as many people to follow him as he did before his arrest due to failure to anticipate reactions to a call for school resumption at a time when Mancho Bibixy and others are still imprisoned. Resumption of schools would mean a return to normalcy at a time when grievances have not been addressed.

It is a lost opportunity when a leader in a struggle serves time in prison for a cause and becomes less popular after leaving prison. Some of the most renowned political leaders in history solidified their leadership in civil rights struggles after they were arrested and imprisoned in relation to their struggle. Some of the greatest political leaders, I would argue, were made in prison on politically motivated charges. Their stories are packed with valuable lessons for other leaders involved in political struggles around the world. As an Anglophone Cameroonian I expected Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla to rise to the occasion after his release and become an inspirational leader in the Anglophone struggle against decades of marginalization and second-class treatment in Cameroon. When he was released I personally expect him to circle the wagons, hold a massive rally and deliver a groundbreaking speech outlining a vision that is in line with the vision of the masses while at the same time adhering to his ideals of nonviolance and tolerance. Despite his failure so far to inspire the masses to follow him after paying a high price for the struggle, I do not think he is a "traitor" as some of his critics and ideological opponents have branded him. He might have a different perspective on the Anglophone struggle but that does not amount to treachery. There is no evidence to suggest that he has colluded with the government to jeopardize the struggle. He has a right to his point of view like everyone else and he should not be persecuted for it. According to a statement he posted on Facebook his father's house was burnt down on 29 October 2017 as a result of his political stance. In addition his father's grave was reportedly desecrated. Such actions amount to intimidation and persecution of a political opponent and should be condemned. Those responsible should be ashamed of themselves and should be brought to book. It is unreasonable and ironic to fight against oppression by oppressing others.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cameroon government forces kill with impunity

For many years the government of Cameroon under president Paul Biya, who has been in power since November 1982, has killed unarmed civilians with impunity. In the past the government swept killings under the rug but with the advent of the internet and social media the regime lost control of the narrative. The world is now able to witness the extreme cruelty of the regime. Regardless the regime continues to claim lives - with absolute impunity. The latest episode of blatant unlawful killings happened in full glare of social media and the evidence is compelling.

Unarmed civilians in English-speaking regions of Cameroon took to the streets on 1 October 2017 to symbolically declare independence as part of almost one year of protracted mass protests and civil disobedience against marginalization and unequal treatment of Anglophones in majority French-speaking Republic of Cameroon. Anglophones are a minority group in Cameroon. They make up about 20% of the population and have been historically discriminated against and marginalized. Now a good number of them want independence. The government's response to the symbolic declaration of independence was, as usual, heavy-handed and brutal: numerous civilians were killed by security forces. Besides killings Amnesty International expressed concern about blocks on Facebook and WhatsApp, and arbitrary ban on meetings and movement by the government. Amnesty International urged the government to respect people's right to freedom of assembly and movement and called on security forces to cease "unnecessary and excessive" use of force. The human rights group later confirmed that at least seventeen (17) people were killed by security forces. Before the killings the government had banned travel, public meetings and pro-independence rallies in English-speaking parts of Cameroon. 

Still image taken from video shows nurse trying to resuscitate victim
Witnesses told Reuters that security forces shot live bullets and tears gas at protesters from low-flying army helicopters.

According to Al Jazeera internet was blocked in English-speaking regions of Cameroon for the second time in less than a year in an effort to quell protests. Electricity was also cut.

In press briefing notes on Cameroon the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) reiterated concerns raised by the UN Secretary-General about the 1 October crackdown, said credible sources indicated that some of the deaths resulted from excessive use of force by security forces. The spokesperson for the UNHCR called for "prompt, effective, impartial and independent investigations...". The spokesperson also said people should be allowed to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, "including having uninterrupted access to internet connection" - alluding to the government's shutdown of the internet. The office of the UNHCR called on all people to pursue peaceful means and noted that property have been destroyed over the past months and at least two homemade bombs were reportedly planted in public places.

My Take

First of all, the grievances of people in English-speaking parts of Cameroon are well-founded. The government's failure to address their concerns has led to calls for independence. Historically and legally Cameroon's English-speaking people (commonly known as Anglophone) are, in my view, a people who achieved independence from the British in October 1961 by joining the independent Republic of Cameroon. As a people they have the right to self-determination.

For many years the Biya regime has killed protesters with impunity while the international community watches. Failure by the international community to hold the regime accountable has emboldened the regime hence killings continue. In the latest episode Amnesty confirmed that 17 people were killed during October 1 protests. The government claims about 10 were killed. Some local activist groups put the number at 100 killed. Based on social media videos I personally believe the governments figure is inaccurate. More than 10 people were killed on 1 October and the days leading up to the symbolic declaration of independence based on my observation online. A single graphic Facebook post alone, for example, shows 4 dead bodies, and there are many of such posts, including graphic photos and video. It is worthy to note that the recent deads come after numerous civilians were killed in the early months of the struggle. In December 2016 the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) confirmed that at least nine (9) people were killed in Buea, Bamenda and Kumba.

Statements by Amnesty International and the Spokesperson of the UNHCR condemning the killings and human rights violations are great but repressive regimes do not moved by statements alone. It is time the international community, including regional and international organizations go beyond issuing statements. Decisive action against the Biya regime is needed. Stronger measures against the brutal regime should be explored, including targeted economic sanctions against members of the regime and international criminal investigation and charges -- since Cameroon's national justice system has failed to deliver justice for killings of civilians by state operatives. The international community's unwillingness to take decisive action against the Biya regime only emboldens the regime and further endangers civilian lives in the country.

The US Department of State issued a statement in the aftermath of the 1 October crackdown in which the department said "the United States is deeply concerned about the violence and loss of human life". However, the United States continues to do business with the Biya regime. If the United States is truly deeply concerned as claimed by the State Department it would, for example, stop arming the Biya regime. In 2015 the United States, according to VOA, sent a consignment of military equipment to Cameroon to help in the fight against Boko Haram. The same military the United States supports kills civilians in the Northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon and commits war crimes in the fight against Boko Haram in the north. According to Amnesty International Cameroon military is committing war crimes in the fight against Boko Haram. The United States is essentially supporting and arming a military that is committing atrocious human rights violations on two fronts.

Members of the international Community that are basically aiding and abetting the Biya regime in its violation of human rights should stop doing so. The international community, including the United Nations and the African Union should do more than issue statements. Focus should be on bringing perpetrators of human rights violations to book. Suspension of military aid to Cameroon and targeted economic sanctions against president Paul Biya and members of his regime, including those who give military personnel orders to shot and kill civilians is a good place to start. Civilian deaths during protests should be independently and impartially investigated -- preferably by an international body since the Biya regime is essentially corrupt and cannot be trusted to investigate itself.

Personally I would like to see resolute, coordinated international action that goes beyond prepared statements taken against the Paul Biya regime that has killed a countless number of civilians in its 35 years in powers. However, I think resolute action is unlikely because of Western interests in Cameroon and the region. The fight against Boko Haram for example is in the interest of western democracies like the United States hence they will continue to support the Biya regime despite its abysmal human rights record. The African Union (AU) on its part is enert. It released its own statement urging "restraint and dialogue" and expressed "condolences to all affected persons and families". Clearly inadequate. The AU did not even bother to call for an investigation.

It is therefore in the hands of Cameroonians to shape the kind of country they want to live in. Protesters in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon are doing just that through massive protests and civil disobedience that have stretched for almost a year. Western countries with interests in the status quo won't initiate change in Cameroon or elsewhere in Africa where dictators serve Western interests. The people have the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Their rights should not be brutally infringed.

Monday, August 14, 2017

There is no such thing as "white supremacy"

The phrase "white supremacy" has been used repeatedly by so-called white supremacists themselves, those who oppose them, the media and the authorities, including politicians -- so much so that the phrase has been legitimized and many people have internalized the idea that a group of people are somehow superior to others by virtue of their race or skin color. That is not true.

The idea of "white supremacy" was thrust to the limelight after a White nationalist rally in Charlottesville ended in deadly violence. White nationalists and counterprotesters clashed in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia in what The New York Times described as "one of the bloodiest fights to date" over the removal of Confederate monuments across the South. One of the White nationalists plowed a car into a crowd killing a 34-year-old woman and injuring at least 19 people. Some 34 others were injured in skirmishes, according to the New York Times. The governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency and the National Guard was deployed to help the police restore law and order.

A man identified as James Alex Fields Jr. was arrested and charged in relation to the car attack. CNN reports that the suspect holds extreme views, according to his former teacher. The teacher who teaches Social Studies at Randall K. Cooper High School told CNN that the suspect held "outlandish, very radical beliefs" with a "fondness for Adolf Hitler".

The incident was followed by a mainstream media and social media frenzy -- with almost everyone referring to "white supremacy" as though it were a legitimate concept grounded on facts.

My Take

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." [- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 1]

There is no such thing as white supremacy. Just like the jihadist statehood idea of so-called Islamic State, the idea of white supremacy is an illusion based on an inhuman desire by some to control and subjugate others. The difference between the idea of a jihadist Islamic State and white supremacy lies in the fact that there seems to be consensus in the West that the former is an illusion, hence it is commonly referred to as "so-called Islamic State" by western news outlets while the latter is fully legitimized and presented as fact. More than 120 British MPs reportedly signed a letter urging the BBC to stop referring to jihadist group ISS as "Islamic State" because, according to the MPs, the terrorist group is neither Islamic nor a state. The BBC went on to review its use of "Islamic State". Same logic, in my view, applies to so-called white supremacy. Those who subscribe to the racist idea of "white supremacy" are, in my view, white but they are not supreme.

The idea of white supremacy is a social construct designed to push a racist agenda that white people are superior by virtue of the color of their skin.

A more realistic concept is White privilege, which was well-demonstrated in the aftermath of the Charlottesville car attack. Donald Trump, president of the United States, refrained from condemning the so-called white supremacists - understandably so since they make up his base and helped get him elected based on the racially divisive presidential campaign he ran. Condemning the group would be political suicide for the beleaguered US president. Had the attacker been non-white, Mexican, an immigrant or a Muslim rhetoric from the White House would have been stronger and louder. After ramming his car into a crowd in a manner reminiscent of the London Bridge attack James Alex Fields Jr. was, according to The New York Times, charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at the scene of a crash. That is white privilege not white "supremacy". Someone who looks different and affiliated to a different extremist group would have been labelled "radicalized" and had law books thrown at him with charges including terrorism and first-degree murder.

Referring to a bunch of racists as "white supremacists" legitimizes the uninformed, racist ideology on which such groups are founded. Referring to them as "so-called white supremacists" is more like it because those who identify themselves as such are not supreme -- they are privileged at most.

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