Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Unusual show of support for Cameroon army despite poor record

The fight against Boko Haram in northern Cameroon propelled Cameroon's security forces as heroes and patriots, including elements of the Rapid Intervention Brigade (known by its French acronym B.I.R) - a brigade that inspires fear and evokes memories of intimidation and abuse among numerous Cameroonian civilians. Despite their fearsome reputation, Cameroon's armed forces now enjoy the support of the same civilians who have suffered human rights violations in one way or the other in the hands of soldiers either during peaceful protests or normal day-to-day interactions. Cameroonians with fresh, long memories, however, support the army with caution.

Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorists have, in recent months, carried out cross-border attacks in towns in northern Cameroon. According to a report by The World Street Journal, Cameroon has become the terror group's second front and many Cameroonians have fled their home. Cameroon's security forces are fighting back and many soldiers have lost their lives.

Thousands of people marched in Yaounde on 28 February 2015 in protest against Boko Haram and at the same time to show solidarity with the army, according to Reuters. The demonstrators marched carrying flags and placards praising the army. There was also a march in the economic capital Douala.

In an unusual show of support, Cameroonian civilians identified themselves as the army - the same army that intimidates them and violates their right to assemble and protest against a regime that has been in power for over 30 years with little to show for it.

Images of coffins of fallen soldiers draped with the national flag of a relatively very peaceful country shocked the nation. The images evoked emotions and won the hearts of many in favor of the army. Many Cameroonians have never experienced war or an armed conflict hence the thought of war with Boko Haram is terrifying. But Cameroon's security forces charged with defending the nation should not be given a blank check. The army must uphold human rights standards.

Cameroon's security forces have a poor record in terms of human rights, and reports of violations keep pouring in as the security forces battle Boko Haram. According to Amnesty International's 2014/15 annual report (see page 95), which was released three days before thousands of people took to the streets of Yaounde to show support for the army, Cameroon's security forces including the B.I.R were responsible for human rights violations such as killings, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions. Most of the violations were committed in the fight against Boko Haram. Amnesty reports that a nurse, Nzouane Clair Rene, was shot dead following arrest by armed security forces near the town of Mora in northern Cameroon. On the same day, two traders identified as Ousmane Njibrine and Grema Abakar traveling to a village market were allegedly killed by the B.I.R in Dabanga. Other people allegedly killed by the B.I.R include, Malloum Abba, Oumate Kola and Boukar Madjo. According to Amnesty International members of the B.I.R were also reportedly involved in enforced disappearances. Abakar Kamsouloum for example was reportedly arrested at his home in Kouseeri on 2 June 2014 and transferred to a military camp. His fate and whereabouts, according to Amnesty, remained unknown at the end of the year.

My view

As a Cameroonian, I'm familiar with the way Cameroon's security forces operate. They're brutal and have little or no regard for the law. In fact, when I first heard about the B.I.R when I traveled to the country in 2010, I thought the battalion was referred to as "bee" -- due to their stinging reputation. It took some time before I realized that the acronym is "B.I.R" not "bee". Reports of human rights violations allegedly committed by them in the context of fighting terrorism are believable.

The B.I.R, in my experience, inspire fear and intimidate civilians in peacetime. Their conduct in a war-like situation would definitely leave a lot to be desired from a human rights perspective. I've heard stories of people brutalized and intimidated by members of the B.I.R, many of whom believe are above the law.

The brutality and heavy-handedness of Cameroon's security forces, including police and soldiers is no secret. In 2008 for instance police and soldiers clashed with civilians in several towns and cities. Cameroon activists said over 100 people were killed.It's therefore surprising to see many Cameroonians at home and abroad herald the phrase "Je suis l'armée camerounaise" (roughly translated it means "I am the Cameroonian army") -- borrowed from the famous online French campaign, "Je suis Charlie."

The march to show support for the army - a march which ironically would've been suppressed otherwise by security forces if it had a different theme - was, in my perspective, inspired by the adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Boko Haram is the enemy of the state (the army) and enemy of the people. The people therefore felt compelled to forge a rare friendship with the army because they (the people and the army) have a common enemy in Boko Haram. But before the advent of Boko Haram Cameroon's security forces treated the people they now protect like the enemy - intimidating, brutalizing, unlawfully detaining and sometimes killing them.

It remains to be seen whether or not the new-found "solidarity" between the army and the people - as demonstrated in the 28 February march - will endure. I don't think it will. The army will enthusiastically repress the people the next time it's deployed to do so. When the time comes, the phrase "Je suis l'armée camerounaise" won't be heard. The people will be saying or hashtagging: "Je ne suis pas l'armée camerounaise."

Personally, I abhor terrorism and deplore acts of terror in Fotokol, Chibok, Paris, Garissa or elsewhere in the world. But I'm not an army that intimidates civilians and violates human rights.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Cameroon anglophone lawyers forced to make submissions in French

The official languages of Cameroon are French English and French. But French dominates partly because majority of Cameroonians are French-speaking, and partly because French is directly or indirectly forced down the throats of English-speaking Cameroonians. Reports of English-speaking lawyers in the North West region of Cameroon forced to make submissions in French buttress the point.

The legal department of the Appeals Court in Bamenda decided, according to Cameroon Journal, to serve lawyers in the North West region of Cameroon uniquely in the French language, and obliged the lawyers to make submissions in French. In response, the lawyers agreed a meeting on March 9, 2015 to paralyze the court if forced to make submissions in French. Cameroon Journal reports that the lawyers also threatened to create their own independent Bar Council, and questioned the government's decision to appoint only French-speaking Cameroonians at the legal department of the Appeals Court in the north west.
It's worthy to highlight that the North West region is predominantly English-speaking and most of the lawyers practicing law in the region are anglophones. Why then would a legal department in an English-speaking region decide to serve English-speaking lawyers in the French language?

In my view, the decision is based on the fact that the people working there are either unwilling or unable to speak English, which is a typical attitude in public offices in most parts of Cameroon. There's no problem with not wanting to speak English but there's a big problem, in my opinion, when inability to speak English leads to compulsory French for others.

Cameroon, as stated previously, is a bilingual country. Civil servants appointed by the government should have working knowledge of both languages -- or should at least be willing to use interpreters to make up for their shortcomings. In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with the government appointing francophones to work in the legal department of the Appeals Court in an anglophone region but the appointed people should not force their language on the those they serve.

In my perspective, courts and legal departments should ideally serve people in a language they, the people, understand. Lawyers should have the liberty and freedom to make submissions in a language of their own choosing. While French-speaking staff in the legal department should be free to speak French English-speaking lawyers on their part should be free to make submissions in English. Lawyers in an English-speaking jurisdiction shouldn't be forced to make submissions in French simply because court officials and staff cannot speak or understand English.

Opposition by lawyers of the North West region to what is, I believe, a misguided attempt by the legal department of the Bamenda Appeals Court to force French down their throats is justifiable. But the lawyers shouldn't move to kick out French completely from courts in the North West region. After all Cameroon is bilingual. The lawyers should should insist on making submissions in a language of their choosing. Courts should not be in the business of prioritizing one official language over the other due to staff incompetence.

The way I see it, this problem wouldn't have existed if government appointees met basic language requirements. Politically motivated appointments fueled by corruption, discrimination, favoritism, tribalism, you name it  - all wrapped up in a complete package of bad governance - lead to such problems.  

Friday, March 13, 2015

Not enough African opposition to violence against women

When a gruesome video of a Ugandan maid torturing a child was widely circulated on social media outrage was widespread and calls for the maid to be prosecuted were swift and unconditional. A few months later, another gruesome video, this time of a man brutalizing a woman in beastly fashion, sparked mixed comments online, and didn't generate enough outrage in same circles: a worrying indication that violence against women is tolerated and somewhat acceptable by some.

In the video (screenshot below), which is extremely hard to watch due to the graphic violence, a man wearing a blue t-shirt beats a half-naked woman with what looks like a piece of wood, drags her around, pushes her to the ground and pulls at hair. At one point the woman appears to pass out, and is dragged on the ground by the man.

I was unable to establish where the video was taken, but drawing from the fact that the language spoken in the video is Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, it's safe to say the incident took place somewhere in east Africa. The reason for the violence is also unknown. It could be in Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda. However, as far as I'm concerned, the video showcases a problem that is widely prevalent in many parts of Africa, including in Cameroon where I come from.

It's worthy to mention that besides Africa, women are violated in other parts of the world as well, including in Europe and the United States. A report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in partnership with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the South African medical research council found that violence against women is a global problem. According to the report, some 35% of women will experience violence that impacts their physical and mental health. Intimate partner violence being the most prevalent with 30% of women affected worldwide. The impact of violence, according to the report ranges from broken bones to pregnancy-related complications and mental problems.

In my view, nothing justifies such violence. Absolutely nothing. The video highlights the plight of the African woman. It's an adequate depiction of what many women endure on a daily basis. The numerous bystanders in the video who didn't bother to intervene and stop the violence, the way I see it, represent the high level of impunity for such violence against women in many African countries. There're numerous people who think, erroneously of course, that men are entitled to "discipline" women. This twisted mentality is inculcated in young boys and passed on from generation to generation, hence a cycle of violence hunts generations of women and girls.

I share the view that violence against women is a "global health problem of endemic proportions." I also think it's a social problem that destroys the lives of women and girls by fermenting gender-based violence and gender inequality. I've personally heard gruesome reports of abuse in Africa, Europe and the United States, hence no continent is void of the social ill.

Although violence against women is a global problem, there're differences in the way members of the public and the authorities, including the police respond to violence. It's easier, in my view, for a man who physically abuses a woman to get away with it (with some degree of support from bystanders) in Africa than in Europe for example.

It's my wish that the culprit in the aforementioned video be identified and brought to book like the Ugandan maid. Governments truly need to step up their game to protect women. I believe ordinary members of the public also need to step up their game.  

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