Tuesday, April 28, 2015

African Union's share of responsibility for Mediterranean deaths

Whenever a boat carrying migrants goes down in the Mediterranean, a scenario which happens too often nowadays, criticism of the European Union (EU) and its role in the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the high seas is swift and strong. The African Union (AU) on the other hand is too often treated with kid gloves - even by advocates of "African solutions to African problems," despite the fact that most of the people who die in the course of the perilous journey across the Mediterranean originate from the African continent, a continent under the stewardship of the AU.

According to a report published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the majority of migrants who died in transit - 64 per cent - in 2014 came from Africa and the Middle East, and the majority of them die while crossing the Mediterranean. Between January and September 2014, 30% of those who died originated from Sub-Saharan Africa. Other deaths include people from the Middle East and North Africa, the Horn of Africa, south East Asia and Central America.


More than 800 people drowned in the Mediterranean on Sunday 19 April 2015 bringing the number of deaths in the Mediterranean this first three and the half months of the year to 1,750, according to the BBC. According to Amnesty International, the Mediterranean claimed 3,500 lives in 2014.

The Italian coast guard told Amnesty International that it had rescued a total of almost 10,000 people since 10 April. According to the human rights group, there has been a more than 50-fold increase in migrant and refugee deaths in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015. On 12 April the Italian coast guard reportedly retrieved nine corpses from a capsized wooden boat.

Condemnation of the European Union's role in the crisis is, justifiably, strong and unequivocal. Amnesty published a briefing, Europe's sinking shame: the failure to save refugees and migrants at sea, urging European governments to take immediate and effective action to end the catastrophe in the Mediterranean. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Director for Europe and Central Africa described the crisis as a "humanitarian tragedy of titanic proportions", and said Europe's failure to save thousands of migrants and refugees who run into peril in the Mediterranean has been akin to firefighters refusing to save people jumping from a towering inferno. Governments' responsibility must clearly be not only to put out the fire but to catch those who have stepped off the ledge,"

My view

I share Amnesty International's view of the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. European governments must do more to save people in distress in the Mediterranean. Securing Europe's borders shouldn't take precedence over innocent human lives. People in migrant boats should not be pushed back without due process under Refugee law. I also share the view that the AU must take its own share of responsibility for migrant deaths. Strong condemnation of the EU's inaction or insufficient action to save lives is justifiable and well-founded. But the AU and African governments must be condemned as well and urged to shoulder their share of responsibility.

It's true that migrants and refugees are jumping from a proverbial inferno, and European government's refusal to save them could be likened to firefighters refusing to save lives. However, focus shouldn't be solely on catching people jumping from the towering inferno. Some focus should be on putting out the fire so that it doesn't spread and claim more lives. This is where the AU comes in.

While the EU should do more to bolster search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, the AU and governments in countries of origin on their part should ensure that people don't feel the need to embark on clandestine life-threatening journeys that end in the Mediterranean, which is now a mass grave for Africans and other people from the Middle East and elsewhere. The thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean are fleeing conflict, persecution, violence and poverty. In order to stop or at least reduce the number of people trying to reach safety in Europe these problems must be addressed.

As far as I'm concerned, if blame for the loss of African lives in the Mediterranean should be apportioned, the lion's share falls squarely on the shoulders of the AU and governments whose failed policies force people to seek safety and greener pastures across the Mediterranean. But now is not the time to apportion blame. International cooperation is needed to stop the carnage.

It's worthy to mention that the EU cooperates with Africa on migration on bilateral, regional and continental levels. In fact, a summit was held in Brussels on 22 April co-chaired by the president of the European Commission and the chairperson of the African Union commission to discuss migration. But efforts to stop the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean must go beyond rhetoric, political declarations and summits. Concrete action is needed, such as countering human traffickers, creating jobs on the African continent, stopping persecution and human rights violations that force victims to flee, and bring perpetrators to book.

It's true that as long as Europe doesn't offer adequate safe and regular routes to the continent people seeking asylum and better life for themselves and their children will continue to choose unsafe alternatives. But it's also true that as long as African governments and governments in other regions of origin don't respond to the needs of their people, more people will continue to seek economic and political safety elsewhere - with a good number of them dying in the process in the Mediterranean.

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 homes. 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: "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 (in support of) an army that intimidates civilians and violates human rights.

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