Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cameroon: security forces commit war crimes on two fronts

When criminals go unpunished they are emboldened by the impunity they enjoy, and go on to commit more of the same crimes. This is the case in Cameroon where state security forces have, for decades, enjoyed impunity for heinous crimes committed against unarmed civilians. Now, feeling emboldened and beyond the reach of the law, their criminality knows no bounds, and civilians in the Far North and Anglophone regions in the northwest and southwest are paying the price.

In July 2017 Amnesty International published a report that spotlights secret torture chambers in Cameroon. The report documents the cases of 101 individuals who were held incommunicado, tortured, and sometimes killed by state security forces between March 2013 and March 2017 in facilities run by the Cameroon military and intelligence services. In the 73-page report, titled "Cameroon's Secret tortured Chambers: Human rights violations and War crimes in the fight against Boko Haram", Amnesty International states that the use of torture by security forces has become widespread and routine, and is practiced with impunity. Violations documented in the report include arbitrary arrest and detention, incommunicado and secret detention, death in custody, and torture. According to Amnesty International, the actions of Cameroon security forces constitute war crimes and violations of international human rights law. The detailed report, which includes concrete recommendations, a letter to President Paul Biya of Cameroon, and a letter to U.S diplomat Michael S. Hoza - who served as U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon from 2014 to 2017 - accuses Cameroon's security forces, including the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) of torture and war crimes. The report also includes a reply from Ambassador Hoza to Amnesty International in which he acknowledges receipt of Amnesty International's letter concerning allegations of human rights abuses, and affirms that the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde and the Department of State "take such allegations seriously...".

Now, with a crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, state security forces have moved south -- deployed by the government to quell a popular uprising in the Northwest and Southwest regions. Their modus operandi remains the same: arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, extrajudicial killings, and torture and cruel and inhuman treatment of civilians.

Since the closing months of 2016 Anglophones in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon have been protesting against what has been described as "Francophonization" of the region. But what started as a call for reform in the educational and judicial system in the region has morphed into calls for secession and outright independence. Anglophones, who make up 20% of the country's population, feel marginalized and discriminated against by the Francophone majority for decades. Many now want an independent state of their own. In response to the calls for independence the government sent in security forces, and numerous, widespread human rights violations have been reported ever since. According to Amnesty International, unlawful killing of several people in the the Anglophone regions coupled with blocks on Facebook and WhatsApp have been reported, and represent an escalation of the government's campaign to silence any form of dissent.

My Take

It is clear to me that gross human rights violations and war crimes have been committed by Cameroon's security forces in the fight against Boko Haram in the Far North. The violations are well-documented and should be investigated and prosecuted. The only question that remains is whether or not same crimes have been committed in the governments effort to quell the Anglophone uprising in the Northwest and Southwest regions.

In order for war crimes to be committed there must, first of all, be an armed conflict. Reports on the ground suggest that there is an armed conflict, albeit in its early stages.

According to Sky News three security forces were reported killed by "separatists" in the city of Bamenda in November 2017, and a source said the security forces were ambushed by armed men on motorbikes. At the time of this writing it was reported by Reuters that three soldiers were killed and four wounded by "separatist fighters" during an overnight attack in Kembong, a village in the Southwest region. According to Reuters, 25 soldiers and policemen have been killed in a series of raids over the past year. More than 15,000 Cameroonians have fled their homes for refuge in Nigeria, according to Reuters. On January 11, 2018 UNHCR reported that 8,050 Cameroonian refugees had been registered in Nigeria, mainly in Cross River State. According to BBC News Pidgin, the governor of the Northwest region, Adolphe Lele Lafrique, banned firearms and ammunition, and ordered the local population surrender any local or imported gun to the authorities. He also ordered a curfew, restricting the movement of persons and property between 8 pm and 6 am for a period of one week from February 10, 2018. BBC News Pidgin reports that the Northwest looks like a military zone.

The way I see it, based on the above, the Anglophone crisis has escalated into an armed conflict. The armed conflict is in its early stages but it is nonetheless an armed conflict - with killings on both sides. Civilians and security forces are being killed. Social media reports of frequent gun shots in towns, villages and cities in the Anglophone region, support this assertion.

Source: Facebook
Faced with attacks against security forces, the forces ramped up attacks against civilian suspects and perceived secessionists. Circulating on social media are gruesome videos and photographs of the crimes security forces reportedly leave in the wake, including a video of an interrogation of two suspects. The video, reportedly captured in Belo in the Northwest region, shows security forces interrogating suspects after a reported attack on gendarmes in the area. A state security personnel can be clearly heard in the video threatening to shoot one of the unarmed suspects. What appears to be at least one of the interrogated suspects later shows up dead in other photographs. The most gruesome photograph of them all shows a member of the military cutting off the head of a civilian. Another photograph shows an armed member of the military stepping on dead civilians. I have been unable to independently verify the videos and photographs but they are worth investigating. If Cameroon is truly a state of law as claimed by government officials including the Head of State and the Minister of Communications such allegations of serious crimes would be investigated. The Anglophone crisis spiraled out of control due to the government's unwillingness or inability to dialogue. Rather than address grievances raised by Anglophones in peaceful protests in 2016 the government cracked down heavy-handedly on protesters - killing and imprisoning many. The government's brutal response radicalized many, forcing some to take up arms.

Human rights violations and war crimes are, in my view, being committed on two fronts by Cameroon's security forces. The armed conflict with Boko Haram in the Far North is full-blown while the conflict in the Anglophone regions is in its early stages. The military operates on two fronts but the M.O. in both conflicts is the same.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Cameroon Anglophone crisis: Should international arrest warrants be executed?

The Republic of Cameroon has been embroiled in political crisis since the closing months of 2016 and more than one year on the crisis has taken a turn for the worse - in the direction of possible armed conflict in English-speaking parts of the country with reports of deadly attacks against security forces and an influx of Cameroonians, including women and children seeking refuge in Nigeria. Following the killing of security forces the government of Cameroon issued international arrest warrants against individuals living abroad suspected of involvement. Cameroon's human rights record and the state's treatment of arrested persons and detainees suggest that if arrested and extradited to Cameroon suspects would suffer untold human rights violations, including torture, cruel and inhuman punishment or treatment in squalid detention facilities.

What started in 2016 as a protest against what was described as the "Francophonization" of Anglophone institutions like courts and schools in English-speaking parts of Cameroon quickly degenerated into massive civil disobedience and unprecedented expression of discontent against the Biya regime that has ruled Cameroon for over 30 years. A strike action started by lawyers was picked up by teachers, university students and people from all walks of life. Schools and courts in many English-speaking towns were shutdown in protest and "ghost towns" were declared. The government's response was brutal: mass arrests, killings, disappearances and trumped up charges against Anglophone civil society leaders. Organizations such as the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium and the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC) were banned and numerous Anglophones were detained, transported to Yaounde and dragged to military court on charges including terrorism, treason and rebellion. Charges against some of those arrested were eventually discontinued on the orders of the Head of State but many others remain in prison. In addition to mass arbitrary arrests and killings the internet was blocked and an English-language TV channel was banned. What started as simple demands for reform by Anglophone lawyers and teachers morphed into calls for outright secession of English-speaking regions. Attacks against security forces were also reported - an indication that the crisis is getting worse. According to Sky News security officials were killed following a violent crackdown on demonstrations against the government. Following the killings the authorities issued 15 international arrest warrants according to the BBC. Troops were also deployed to the region, according to Reuters. According to BBC News Pidgin tension is high in Manyu Division in the southwest region due to increased military presence.

The issuance of international arrest warrants raises questions as to whether or not countries where wanted Cameroon Anglophone individuals reside should execute the warrants.

My Take

The government of Cameroon under president Paul Biya has little or no regard for human rights - evidenced by numerous reports over the years by human rights groups like Amnesty International. Common human rights violations include arbitrary arrests by security forces, incommunicado detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, restrictions of freedom of expression and association and peaceful assembly. Amnesty International noted in its annual report 2016/17 (see page 106) that demonstrations in Anglophone parts of Cameroon from late October 2016 were "violently repressed" by security forces- with journalists, students, human rights defenders and members of opposition parties arrested and some tried in military courts. Amnesty International also reported deaths and disappearances in custody. The rights group pointed out in its report that Cameroonian civilians, including journalists continue to face unfair trials in military courts. Cameroon's prison conditions are also deplorable. In June 2017 Cameroonian prisoners smuggled out video footage of horrific prison conditions in the main prison in Yaounde. An inmate who contacted France 24 described it as "overpopulated, filthy and rife with corruption and abuse." A report that was put together on the leaked video is very disturbing to read. A few months later another shocking video showed detainees, all reportedly from English-speaking regions of Cameroon, in a dark cell. Amnesty International described Cameroon's prison conditions in its 2016/17 report as "poor, marked by chronic overcrowding, inadequate food, limited medical care and deplorable hygiene and sanitation." According to Amnesty International the prison in Maroua, north of the country, housed about 1,400 prisoners - more than 3 times its intended capacity, and the central prison in Yaounde housed approximately 4000 prisoners despite its intended capacity of 2000. Amnesty reports that mass arrests, large numbers of detainees held without charge and Cameroon's ineffective judicial system are main contributing factors to overcrowding.

Mindful of the aforementioned, if countries where individuals wanted by Cameroonian authorities in relation to the Anglophone crisis were to execute the international arrest warrants issued it would be tantamount to condemning the individuals to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment - or even death in custody. Many of those wanted are already living in exile due to their political opinions. They are essentially political refugees in the countries that host them. Turning them over to Cameroonian authorities from whom they fled would be a violation of the international law principle of non-refoulement. According to VOX Julius Ayuk Tabe, a leading member of the Anglophone struggle, was arrested and taken into custody in Abuja, Nigeria on 5 January 2018. He was reportedly arrested with six others. If extradited to Cameroon, a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution, torture, cruel and inhuman form of punishment or treatment Nigeria will be in violation of its international obligations with regard to non-refoulement.

Non-refoulement, according to the UNHCR prohibits states from returning a refugee or asylum seeker to a territory where there is a risk that his or her life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. In addition to its relation to refugees, the concept is also relevant in other contexts -- notably in the context of general human rights law pertaining to the prohibition of torture, cruel or inhuman form of punishment or treatment.

The wanted individuals might be suspected of "crimes" but they have a right to a free and fair trial, and freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment -- rights that are not, I believe, guaranteed in Cameroon especially under current circumstances. Cameroon has a reputation of unfair trials of civilians before military courts. The trial of Radio France Internationale correspondent Ahmed Abba comes to mind. According to Amnesty International he was charged with complicity with and non-denonciation of terrorist acts. He was reportedly tortured and held incommunicado for three months. Other trials include the trials of three journalists in Yaounde military court: Rodrique Tongue, Felix Ebole Bola and Baba Wame. Their trials are, according to Amnesty International, marred by substantive and procedurial irregularities, including refusal by judges to allow witnesses to testify. Other more recent and perhaps more recent civilian detainees to appear before the military court in Yaounde include Agbor Balla of the CACSC and Mancho Bibixy who remains in prison. The individuals with international arrest warrants in their names could face the same fate if extradited to Cameroon hence there should be no extraditions.

Now, Cameroon could provide solid diplomatic assurances and guarantees that the rights of those involved would be respected, including the right to freedom from torture, freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the right to a free and fair trial. However, even if assurances are given, sending countries should note that there is, according to Human Rights Watch, growing evidence and expert opinion that diplomatic assurances cannot protect people at risk of torture from such treatment on return. It is therefore plausible to conclude that wanted individuals should not be extradited to Cameroon, even with diplomatic assurances.

Now, let me be clear: the attacks that left state security forces dead are reprehensible. I denounce such violent attacks. I also strenuously denounce attacks against unarmed civilians by state security forces - attacks that left many dead. Those responsible, on both sides, should be brought to book through free and fair trials. There should be no double standard.

It is unfortunate that in addition to being unable to guarantee freedom from torture or cruel and degrading treatment and free and fair trials against political dissidents, Cameroon authorities are only going after civilians accused of wrongdoing while state security forces, including police officers and members of the notorious Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) who have brutalized and killed numerous civilians walk free. Dozens of civilians have been killed, tortured and seen their houses broken into and their property destroyed by security forces in Cameroon during this episode of unrest, and in previous episodes over more than three decades of the Biya administration. Needless to say, the government has not lifted a finger against state-sponsored perpetrators. On the contrary the Head of State in his end-of-year address to the nation praised them for their "professionalism", thereby emboldening them to commit more atrocities against civilians.

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.

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