Friday, June 16, 2017

Cameroon: Lawyer Sama wrong on "justice component" in Anglophone crisis

A lot has been written about the "Anglophone problem" in Cameroon and the 34-year-old government's heavy-handed attempt to silence those raising the problem and pushing for change. Since November 2016 many English-speaking Cameroonians have been brutalized, arrested and killed in relation to the struggle for political change in Cameroon. Notwithstanding, some people in the English-speaking regions are ready to call it a day if their professional interests are met.

For eight months English-speaking regions of Cameroon have been paralyzed by strikes and mass civil disobedience on grounds of marginalization by the largely French-speaking government of Cameroon. In the forefront of the struggle are teachers and lawyers who have not gone to work for more than half a year as a result of strike action. The movement, which was sparked by a strike by lawyers, quickly spread to include teachers, students and people from many walks of life including youths who make up majority of the country's unemployed population. Barrister Sama Francis, former president of the Cameroon Bar Association, thinks its time for lawyers to stop the strike and return to work.  In an interview widely viewed and shared on Facebook the prominent Anglophone lawyer addressed the "justice component" of the crisis and encouraged his colleagues to return to work. In the interview the Barrister said, among other things, that the government has shown "unconditional determination" in commencing the implementation of promises made with regard to lawyers' grievances. To support his claim he cited "massive promotions, transfers and redeployment of magistrates".

Screenshot of Facebook video
"Every objective onlooker would discern therefrom that there has been a massive redeployment of Common Law magistrates, most of them, to the Common Law jurisdictions, and a commencement of redeployment of a massive redeployment (sic) of Civil Law magistrates to the Civil Law jurisdictions", he said. He cited the government's promise to create a Common Law bench at the Supreme Court and in the National School of Administration and Magistracy (ENAM) and in various state universities, and he expressed satisfaction over the appointment of a senior Common Law magistrate as president of the judicial bench of the Supreme Court - for the first time in the country's history. He urged his colleagues to "break the ice" and re-evaluate the position of the justice sector in order to encourage the government of continue the implementation of promises made to the justice. He congratulated the Minister of Justice for the "massive groundwork", and stated that the government has massively demonstrated "commencement of goodwill" that promises made shall be fulfilled. He stated that he's on the side of the people's interests. He encouraged his colleagues to go to return to work. The Barrister made it clear that he reserves the right to change his position on the matter if he doesn't see continuity in the demonstration of goodwill by the state.

My Take

The interview granted by Barrister Sama Francis may have been well-intentioned but it came across as self-serving. In the 7-minute and 53-seconds video interview as posted on Facebook the Barrister used the word "I" a staggering forty three (43) times or more, and showered praises on the state and the Minister of Justice for baby steps -- at a time when Anglophone protesters and civil society leaders are languishing in detention on trumped up charges, including terrorism and treason in relation to the Anglophone crisis.

In addition, the Barrister limited both the scope of the Anglophone crisis and Cameroon's "justice sector". Unlawful killings, degrading treatment of protesters, unlawful and politically motivated arrests and trumped up charges brought against political activists and civil society leaders like Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla, Mancho Bibixy, Fontem Neba and Ayah Paul Abine, to name but a few are a "justice component" which should not be ignored. Mindful of the fact that arrested individuals include members of the legal profession - unconditional release of all arrested should be a pre-condition for lawyers to return to work. Returning to work as proposed by Barrister Sama would mean Common Law lawyers effectively abandoning their own in the proverbial frontlines.

Cameroon's justice sector is broken hence now is not the time to praise Minister of Justice Laurent Esso who oversees the compromised judiciary. Barrister Sama - or lawyer Sama - as he is widely known and commonly called in Bamenda - knows better.

Common Law lawyers in English-speaking parts of Cameroon sparked the struggle for equality by English-speaking Cameroonians but the struggle now encompasses all walks of life in affected regions. Lawyers returning to work could jeopardize the struggle and embolden the regime. It is true that steps have been taken by the government to appease lawyers but the steps do not go far enough. For example, Barrister Sama citied the appointment of the first Anglophone as president of the judicial bench of the Supreme Court. He is right. According to state media CRTV the nomination of Epuli Mathias Aloh to the judicial chamber of the Supreme Court is historic. However, Barrister Sama failed to mention the imprisonment and (forced) retirement of another senior Common Law magistrate - Ayah Paul Abine - in relation to the crisis. In essence, a symbolic appointment was counteracted by a dismissal. One step forward and one step backward. It is questionable that Barrister Sama's lavishes praise on the state and the Minister of Justice - with repeated use of the word "massive" - at a time when his learned colleagues: Ayah Paul Abine, a political leader and now former Advocate General of the Supreme Court and Barrister Nkongho Agbor-Balla are in detention in relation to the ongoing Anglophone crisis. The baby steps taken by the state all came partly as a result of political activism of those in prison. Their contribution to ensure what Barrister Sama Francis referred to in his interview as "massive groundwork" by the Minister of Justice must not be forgotten.

In conclusion, Barrister Sama - like everyone else - has a right to his point of view. He should not be attacked or threatened with bodily harm or property damage by those who disagree with him. His appearance in the Court of First Instance and the Military Tribunal to defend religious leaders and Anglophone civil society leaders and others charged in relation to the Anglophone crisis is commendable. However, the barrister's decision to praise the Minister of Justice and narrow the Anglophone crisis to a "justice component" is misguided. His interview might have been well-intended but it sounds like a job application cover letter or a motivation letter for political appointment addressed to the Minister of Justice. Since the struggle started commissions have been created by the government and Anglophones have been appointed to certain positions, including positions never before occupied by an Anglophone such as the position of president of the judicial chamber of the Supreme Court. It appears the former president of Cameroon Bar Association smells opportunity -- hence he announced his "determination and availability to engage in effective and meaningful dialogue".

If the barrister is truly "on the side of the people's interests" as stated in the interview he won't do anything that would jeopardize the people's struggle against marginalization.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Are there racists in Finland's police force?

Police officers are public servants tasked with an important duty "to serve and protect" all members of society - irrespective of race, skin color, origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, sexual expression, disability, religious belief or conviction. It is therefore problematic to have officers who openly espouse irrational suspicion and hatred prejudice against certain social groups on grounds of race, skin color, origin or religious belief. An online investigative-news publication published a damning report including screenshots of racist and xenophobic comments made by Finnish police officers in a closed Facebook group for police officers in Finland. The conduct of the officers involved brings Finland's police force into disrepute.

On 3 June 2017 Long Play published a report about racism in Finnish police secret Facebook group. According to the report over a hundred screenshots of discussions in the group were delivered to the award-winning investigative journalism publication, and, based on the discussions, openly racist commentary is common in the Facebook group. According to Long Play immigration-related articles and videos from sources known to be spreading false stories and propaganda are shared in the group and immigrants and Muslims are slandered in many discussions. For example, one police sergeant wrote that "Islam is an expansive religion and Europe is victim". Another member of the group wrote that people of African origin do not succeed in any part of the world probably due to culture, genetics and partly heritage. In a baseless attempt to buttress the point, the writer stated that East Asians who have migrated to other parts of Asia, north and south America and Europe have succeeded in all the places.

According to Long Play when it was reported on 9 March 2017 by Iltalehti that an asylum seeker attempted suicide by trying to hang himself at the Central Railway Station in Helsinki as a result of rejection of his asylum application one police man mocked the incident: "Edes tota ne ei osaa", he wrote -- meaning "even that they do not know (sic)". When Iltalehti reported in September 2016 that an Emergency Response Centre (112) duty officer used the N-word to refer to a caller many commenters claimed that both the news and the apology by the Emergency Response Centre were ridiculous. A member of the group commented that "dark white" could be a neutral enough way to refer to the caller - alluding to a common argument by far-right extremism sympathizers in Finland that the N-word in Finnish is a neutral word.

Long Play also reports that there was deep rage in the police Facebook group after rapper James Nikander accused Finnish police of racial profiling against his mother and sister, and demanded an apology from the police. Commenting on the subject, a member of the Facebook group stated that since it cannot be known who is a foreigner, foreigners should be obligated to wear armbands or related identifiers.

According to Yle about one third of Finland's police officers belong to the Facebook group in question, and Minister of the Interior Paula Risikko  and National Police Commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen promised a full and thorough investigation into the matter.

My Take

As a son of a police commissioner I generally admire the police force and respect police officers - many of whom, I believe, are brave men and women who run towards security threats when everyone else is running away. However, the attitude and conduct of Finnish police officers towards minorities as revealed by Long Play dented my trust and confidence in the Finnish police force - a police force I held in extremely high regard partly because of rare use of deadly force by officers. After reading the groundbreaking article that revealed blatant racism online among police officers it is hard to think that police in Finland operate without racial bias.

Before the revelation trust in police among many immigrants in Finland was already on the ropes. Many are skeptical of the police and are convinced that police treat them or would treat them differently on grounds on race, skin color, origin, nationality or religion. That was before the content of the secret Facebook group was made public. The publication of racist content in a police Facebook group has further eroded the little confidence that some immigrants of African descent had in the police.   

If anyone ever wondered whether or not there are racists in the Finnish police force the damning in-depth report by Long Play is their answer. It is now plausible to conclude that the Finnish police force has racists and xenophobes in its ranks. Long Play's revealing article titled "rasismi rehottaa poliisien salaisessa Facebook-ryhmässä" supports the claim. Racism, in fact, thrives in the closed Facebook group. The problem is compounded by the fact that detective Marko Forss, chief investigative officer of the national internet hate speech investigation group, is a member of the group and was at one point its moderator. Victims of hate speech in Finland cannot be expected to trust a detective who moderates a Facebook group littered with hate speech and anti-immigration content. According to Yle the infamous Facebook group has 2,800 members - about one third of the country's police force, which was about 7,250 officers-strong in 2016.

Strong condemnation and statements about zero tolerance for racism by the Minister of Interior and the National Police Commissioner, as well as promises of a thorough investigation sound good - but a lot more ought to be done before confidence in the police could be restored, especially among minority groups such as people of African descent and Muslims who were targets in the infamous Facebook group. A thorough investigation should be followed by charges and prosecutions for possible crimes including ethnic agitation, incitement and wrongdoing under the Act on Civil Servants. Even if it is established by the prosecutor that laws have not been broken the police code of ethics has definitely been broken. There should be real consequences.

Police officers who participated in racist and anti-immigrant discussions online brought the entire Finnish police force into disrepute. 

It is unlikely that there will be real legal consequences for the openly racist and anti-immigration comments made by police in a Facebook group - mindful of the fact that a Finnish MP once used the N-word openly on his first day in parliament and was cleared of wrongdoing. The culprits in this shocking case police misconduct might also walk. By so doing the image of the Finnish police force will be tainted for many years to come - at least in the eyes of members of targeted minority groups. The reputation of the Finnish police force will never be the same again unless radical change happens.

One tweet by a Finnish police officer who seems to be one of the good cops sums it up aptly.
Building trust between police and minorities is challenging and easy to break. #NoToRacism

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Cameroon: internet restored but repression continues

Repressive regimes have an arsenal of deplorable tactics that they use to quell political dissent, including brute force by state security forces, arbitrary arrests of dissidents and political activists on trumped up charges, killings and internet shutdown in a bid to control the narrative through state-sponsored media and stifle free expression and communication in opposition strongholds. Over the past couple of months the government of Cameroon has used all the aforementioned tactics in a futile attempt to squash political dissent in English-speaking parts of the country.

In October 2016 English-speaking Cameroonians who make up 20% of the country's population took to the streets to demand an end to marginalization and what has been described as "Francophonization" of English-speaking regions of the country: appointment of French-speaking judges and teachers who lack English language proficiency to work in courts and schools in the region - thereby forcing French down the throats of the local population in schools and courts. Lawyers oppose the appointment of French judges who lack language skills and an understanding of the Common Law system to preside at proceedings in Common Law courts; teachers oppose the appointment of French-speaking teachers to English schools. The general English-speaking public, including students joined the protest, and what started as a protest by lawyers and teachers morphed into popular civil disobedience that paralyzed courts, schools and local businesses -- all in an effort to force the government to address the "Anglophone problem".

In response, the government unleashed state security forces who teargased, brutalized and killed protesters; broke into students' living quarters in the university town of Buea, beat up students, subjected some to degrading and inhuman treatment, arrested many, ransacked student's rooms and allegedly raped some; civil society organizations were banned and their leaders arrested on charges including acts of terrorism, secession, revolution, insurrection, group rebellion and incitation of civil war.

Killings and mass arrests did not stop civil disobedience as schools and courts remained closed in protest, and calls for boycott of state activities including "Youth Day" celebrations became louder.

The government then orchestrated a crippling internet shutdown in the English-speaking parts of country. According to Al Jazeera the government ordered the internet blackout in January 2017. The blackout lasted three months but again failed to address the problem. Then on 21 April 2017 the government reportedly ended the internet shutdown on the orders of president Paul Biya.

 My Take

At a time when a lot of people depend on the internet as a source of information and livelihood cutting it off for three months represented a new low -- even for the Biya regime which has an unenviable record of heavy-handedness. The shutdown is an indication of how far the Biya regime is willing to go stifle political dissent and tighten its grip on power -- 33 years after rising to power.

Ninety four (94) days is a long time to be without internet access nowadays. Small businesses like cybercafés literally went out of business for three months. In a country with a broken or non-existent social security system the internet shutdown was basically a shutdown of the only or major source of income for small business families that depend on businesses like cybercafés for their livelihood. The regime condemned such families to three months of abject poverty and hardship. For three months students could not access information and journalists had to make a four-hour trip to a neighboring region to submit reports to their editors. Innocent people from all walks of life in English-speaking parts of Cameroon were affected by the repressive decision of a dictatorial regime.

It is therefore understandable that people in English-speaking parts of Cameroon were delighted when the internet was restored.  However, the people should not lose sight of the fact that the internet, which should not have been cut off in the first place, was restored but continues as civil society leaders arrested on trumped up charges as a result of the struggle against marginalization of Cameroon's English-speaking minority remain detained; civilian deaths in the hands of state security forces, destruction of property, brutalization and alleged rapes by state security forces remain uninvestigated.

The internet returned to English-speaking parts of Cameroon but repression continues as Anglophone political detainees like Nkongho Agbor-Balla, Fontem Neba, Mancho Bibixy, Ayah Paul and 30 others remain in detention in Yaounde on politically motivated charges. Cameroon remains a dictatorship as long as people are arrested and charged with terrorism as a result of nonviolent political activism. Turning the internet back on is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. President Paul Biya deserves no credit or "motion of support" from English-speaking Cameroonians or any Cameroonian for that matter for ordering an end to the infamous internet shutdown. The internet should not have been cut off in the first place.

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