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.

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.


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