Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Italy welcomes repressive Cameroon president for State Visit

At a time when the government of Cameroon cut off internet connection to English-speaking parts of the country and engaged in mass arbitrary arrest of civil society leaders and political activists on trumped up charges, the president of the Republic was warmly received in Rome by Italian president Sergio Mattarella to the dismay of many Cameroonians who feel trapped under the iron fist of the Biya regime.

On the invitation of Sergio Mattarella, president Paul Biya of Cameroon paid a two-day State Visit to Italy on 20 March 2017. During the visit the 83-year-old who has been in power for 34 years was warmly welcomed - with military honors and a state dinner at the Quirinal Palace in Rome.

According to Paul Biya in a toast at the State dinner his visit to Rome is one of the first State Visits of an African president to Italy on the invitation of president Mattarella.

My Take

It is unfortunate that President Mattarella handed the honour of a State Visit - one of the first by an African president - to Paul Biya, a ruler who has been in power for 34 years and cracks down on political dissent. While the visit represents an honor to the octogenarian African ruler it is a dishonor to the Italian Republic - a country that, according to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, supports the promotion of democracy and the rule of law, the promotion of freedom of opinion and expression among other civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Since November 2016 Cameroonians in English-speaking parts Cameroon have been protesting against marginalization and "francophonization". The Paul Biya regime responded in typical ruthless fashion - violating, once again, its international human rights obligations under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): civil society organizations were banned, civil society leaders and political activists were arrested and charged with serious crimes including terrorism, civilians were killed as a result of a brutal response to protests by state security forces and internet connection to English-speaking regions of the country was cut off on the orders of the government - all in a bid to stifle peaceful political dissent. It is therefore alarming that a country like Italy that purportedly supports the protection and promotion of civil and political rights honored a president whose government has a long track record of human rights violations with a historic State visit. Even more disturbing is the fact that the visit was simultaneous with the continuous crackdown on human rights in English-speaking Cameroon. In fact, at the same time the State dinner was going on at the Quirinal Palace or at the same time Paul Biya walked through a special military guard of honor Cameroonians in English-speaking parts of Cameroon could not access the internet as a result of internet blackout on the orders of the Biya regime.

Paul Biya, in his statement at the end of audience with the Italian President said he briefed Mattarella on the "progress made in the consolidation of our democracy"; on the contrary, the situation in Cameroon indicates that there is an assault on democracy by the Biya regime. There is no "progress" in a democracy when people are killed, arbitrarily arrested and cut off the internet for protesting against the government of a president who has ruled since 1982.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Cameroon: democracy is dead, if it was ever alive

Cameroon under president Paul Biya is an autocracy that routinely violates international human rights standards but does not get the condemnation it deserves from the international community - perhaps because western interests are not at stake in the former French and British colony. 

Since November 2016, Cameroonians in English-speaking parts of Cameroon have been protesting against marginalization and what has been described as the "Anglophone problem". As a result of the government's heavy-handed response and its unwillingness or inability to address the grievances, teachers and lawyers have been on strike since 2016 and schools in affected regions have been closed for about four months. A general strike by lawyers also paralyzed courts.

The government's response includes the following.

Brutal crackdown and killings

When protests inspired by lawyers initially erupted in Bamenda state security forces responded brutally. Lawyers were tear-gazed, beaten and some of them had their robs and wigs seized. They were protesting against, among other things, the appointment of French-speaking judges in English-speaking courts and the absence of English versions of certain legal texts such as the uniform act of OHADA and the CIMA Code. Lawyers and students in the Southwest region joined the protests.

University student protesters in Buea were brutalized and subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment by state security forces. Students were assaulted and their living quarters and rooms were broken into by security forces. There were mass arrests and allegations of rape. According to a press release by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) more than nine (9) civilians were reported dead as of 13 December 2016. In a spirited speech in parliament, a Member of Parliament, Joseph Wirba, spoke out against, among other things, the actions of security forces in Buea and elsewhere in English-speaking parts of the country.

Mass arrest of political activists

A campaign of mass arrest of political dissidents was launched immediately after the banning of  two politically active organizations. Following the banning of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) and the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) prominent political activists and strike leaders were arrested and detained on trumped up charges. Those arrested include, Nkongho Felix Agbor-Mballa, Fontem Aforteka'a Neba, Mancho Bibixy and Ayah Paul Abine. Charges against them include acts of terrorism, hostility to the Fatherland, secession, revolution, insurrection, group rebellion, incitation of civil war, contempt on public bodies and public servants and spreading false information, according to state media. Nineteen cases are reportedly scheduled for hearing in relation to the Anglophone crisis.

The National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms reported on its website (accessed on 17 March 2017) that it visited some of the detainees arrested in relation to protests in Northwest and Southwest regions and helped release 34 individuals, including 4 minors. According to the Commission a total of 67 people were arrested between 8 December 2016 and 11 January 2017.

Internet shutdown

In addition to assaults, destruction of students' property, mass arrests, killings and alleged rapes, the government shutdown internet in English-speaking regions. According to CNN the "crippling internet shutdown" came after protests resulted in violence and the arrest of community leaders. The authorities ordered telecommunications providers to shut off the internet in English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions in January 2017, according to Al Jazeera. As of the time of this writing - three months later - the internet blackout is still in place.

My take

Brutal crackdown on protesters resulting in killings, enforced disappearance, illegal arrests, shutdown of civil society organizations and the internet are emblematic of dictatorships that seek to silence critics, purge any form of opposition and consolidate a firm grip on power. Mindful of the fact that state security forces in Cameroon have brutalized and killed numerous protesters with impunity over the years, the heavy-handed response to the recent episode of protests was predictable but the decision to cut off internet connection in opposition strongholds represents a new low. In the past the government controlled the narrative through state media CRTV by, for example, reporting inaccurate information about the number of people killed during protests. The advent of smartphones and the internet has made it impossible for the authorities to cover up crimes committed in it name, hence the regime has resorted to shutting down the internet and ordering telecommunications providers to send threatening text messages to internet users - threatening them with imprisonment and fines for spreading "false news".

The aforementioned actions of the government in response to legitimate grievances raised by a significant cross-section of the country supports the assertion that Cameroon, a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), is a dictatorship where civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the inherent right to life, freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to liberty and security of person and the right to peaceful assembly are violated, routinely, with impunity.

Democracy in Cameroon is dead - if it was ever alive in the first place.

According to Larry Diamond, professor by courtesy of political science and sociology at Stanford University, democracy consists of four basic elements: the active participation of citizens in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens; a rule of law in which laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens, and a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections. In Cameroon, alleged electoral fraud plagues elections and one man has been at the helm and wielded absolute power for 34 years; citizens who participate actively in opposition politics risk arrest on trumped up charges; human rights are routinely violated by state security forces and the law is used against political opponents and peaceful protesters.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Cameroon: Commissions don't solve problems

Commissions created by undemocratic, corrupt governments are smokescreens designed to mask grievances raised by the people. They are intended to show "goodwill" to the international community, including international human rights watchdogs and foreign aid donors - so as to delegitimize the people's demands and escape reprimand. The government of Cameroon announced the creation of a commission to promote bilingualism in the wake of protests and civil disobedience in English-speaking parts of the country as a result of marginalization of Anglophones. 

As strange as this may sound - Cameroon has a national human rights commission - which is known as the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF). It may sound strange because more than two decades after it was decreed many Cameroonians have never heard about it, and the state of human rights in the country is still nothing to write home about. According to the Commonwealth Forum of Human Rights Institutions  the human rights commission is an independent institution created by Presidential Decree in 1990, and by law in 2004. Its functions include receiving denunciations of human rights violations, conducting inquiries and visiting penitentiary establishments, popularizing human rights standards, liaising with NGOs and proposing human rights measures to the authorities.

As a result of an on-going strike and mass civil disobedience in English-speaking parts of Cameroon another commission was created called the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. According to state-run CRTV it was created by Presidential Decree on 23 January 2017, and tasked with ensuring the "effective use of English and French as two official languages of equal value."

Over the past couple of months the government of Cameroon has been struggling to quell mass protests and strikes by Anglophones - or English-speaking Cameroonians - in the Northwest and Southwest regions of the country. Anglophones, led by lawyers, took to the streets in protest of what is described as the "Anglophone problem" - a phrase used to describe discrimination and marginalization of English-speaking Cameroonians who make up twenty (20) percent the population. Lawyers in the two English-speaking regions took to the streets to protest erosion of the Common Law system and the imposition of French and French-speaking judges in Anglophone courts. Teachers joined the strike - protesting the "francophonization" of English schools. The oppose, among other things, the appointment of Francophone teachers with little or no English-language proficiency to teach students in English-speaking parts of Cameroon. According to an accountant in Bamenda, capital of the northwest region, he pays someone to translate his brother's schoolwork from French to English because Franchophone teachers sometimes teach in French - even though their students are Anglophones. Students and the general public in English-speaking parts of Cameroon joined lawyers and teachers in the strike, and as a result schools and courts have been shutdown since the closing months of 2016.

The response of the government to the protest was typical: denial of the existence of an "Anglophone problem" - accompanied by a brutal crackdown on protests. Civilians lost their lives and many were beaten and arrested. The government banned the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) and the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), and arrested strike leaders and critics of the government, including Agbor Nkongho, Fontem Neba, Mancho Bibixy and Ayah Paul Abine. According to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) more than nine (9) Cameroonians lost their lives during protests in Bamenda, Buea and Kumba.

Photo of the decree posted on Facebook by CRTVweb
As strike action and "ghost towns" persist in English-speaking parts of Cameroon despite government crackdown on civil liberties the government announced the creation of the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. This raises questions whether or not a commission is an effective solution to the numerous problems faced by Anglophone - problems which, according to many Cameroonians, go beyond language.

My Take

Commissions do not solve problems in Cameroon. The are all smoke and mirrors. It follows that, I believe, the newly created National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism won't guarantee the "effective use of English and French as two official languages of equal value" in Cameroon. The commission won't guarantee bilingualism in the same way the creation of the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF) more than two decades ago neither guaranteed respect for human rights nor change the government of Cameroon's attitude towards human rights. The existence of a national commission of human rights has not made the state of human rights in Cameroon any better. Protesters are still being beaten, arrested,disappeared and some killed; associations are still being banned and their leaders arrested on trumped-up charges; and there is still impunity for crimes committed against civilians by state security forces. In the face of the recent full-scale assault of human rights in Cameroon following protests in English-speaking parts of Cameroon the NCHRF has been largely ineffective - due to a culture of impunity and lack of political will to respect human rights in Cameroon. It is fair to state that although the national human rights commission punches below its weight - it does some commendable work. For instance, according to information on its website (accessed on 25 January 2017) the Commission visited detainees held at SED and at the the Judicial Police in relation the protests in English-speaking parts of Cameroon, and helped release thirty four (34), including four (4) minors. However, there is a lot of room for improvement in the work of the Commission, especially in the area of human rights protection. Impunity for crimes committed against civilians is the order of the day, and NCHRF is saying or doing little or nothing about it.

The bilingualism commission will face the same lack of political will faced by NCHRF. Eighty (80) percent of Cameroonians are Francophone and almost all top brass - people with the power to change things - in the government are Francophones. Ordinary Francophones also play a part in marginalization of Anglophones. Unless there is a change in their mentality toward Anglophones in Cameroon the Commission for bilingualism would not register any meaningful success. In addition, it might take years for it to gain the force of law. The human rights commission, for example, was decreed by the president in 1990 but gained the force of law in 2004 - fourteen (14) years later.

CRTV's George Ewane pointed out (see CRTV link above) that the Commission for the promotion of bilingualism and multiculturalism is modeled on Canada's Multiculturalism Act and on the Canadian Royal Commission of Inquiry on Bilingualism and Biculturalism - which was, by the way, established in 1963. He failed to point out that the model works in Canada due to political will and strong institutions to support it. Cameroon lacks both political will and strong institutions, including a strong, independent judiciary to support the work of the Commission.

There are some positives to be taken away from the creation of the Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. Its creation is represents acknowledgement of the "Anglophone problem" by the government. By creating the Commission the government recognizes the fact that there is a problem - a problem that has festered for decades. However, Anglophones should not put down their guard and become complacent - bearing in mind that a Commission cannot redress the situation. The struggle for equality should continue.

If the government is serious about promoting bilingualism Anglophone Cameroonians should, for starters, also be appointed to serve in top positions that are currently filled with Francophones. An Anglophone Prime Minister with no real power is not enough. According to a Facebook post by Ayah Paul, former presidential candidate, leader of the Popular Action Party (PAP) and Advocate General of the Supreme Court, the President of the Supreme Court is a Francophone, the Attorney General is a Francophone, the Head of Judicial Division is a Francophone, the Head of Administrative Division is a Francophone, the Head of Audit Division is a Francophone, the Head of Special Criminal Court is a Francophone,the Director of Military Justice is a Francophone, the Registrar-in-chief of the Supreme Court is a Francophone, the Secretary General of the Supreme Court is a Francophone, just to name a few; decent roads should be constructed in English-speaking regions that have basically been forgotten by the government; Francophone judges and teachers who lack English language proficiency should be withdrawn from English-speaking Cameroon; all Anglophones arrested in relation to the Anglophone struggle should be released unconditionally; and atrocities committed by security forces, including killing of protesters should be investigated and those responsible brought to book. A return to Federalism as a form of government - or even secession - should not been taken off the table. According to the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) in its 26th Activity Report "the people of Southern Cameroon can legitimately claim to be a ´people´" since they have a "distinct identity which attracts certain collective rights." Under International law "a people" have the right to self-determination. Cracking down on those who nonviolently promulgate federalism or secession as a solution to the Anglophone problem is a violation of international human (and peoples') rights standards.

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