Months after lawyers and teachers went on strike in opposition to the "Francophonization" of English-speaking parts of Cameroon the president finally addressed the nation. The president finally spoke - months after civilians, including lawyers and students were brutalized and some killed by state security forces who cracked down on mass protests in English-speaking parts of the country. The Head of State started his 31 December 2016 speech, which was reportedly leaked (in French) on Facebook before it was delivered, with supposedly encouraging words about the "resilience" of the economy, and, of course, praise for the military in the fight against Boko Haram - despite criticism by human rights group Amnesty International that Cameroon uses the fight against Boko Haram to justify blatant human rights violations. He went on to state that Cameroon is "one and indivisible", "proud of its cultural diversity" and "jealous of its liberty". He mentioned the Eseka train disaster that, according to The Telegraph, left at least 55 people dead and nearly 300 injured. According to Al Jazeera at least 70 people were killed and 600 wounded in the train disaster. The president went on to address unrest in English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions of the country. He described protesters as a group of manipulated "extremists", and blamed them for civilian deaths, destruction of property, denigration of state symbols and paralyzation of economic activities.
The Head of State went on to state that political liberties are effective in Cameroon, and are guaranteed by laws and regulations hence every citizen has a right to express opinions on all subjects. He acknowledged, ironically, that these rights, which are enshrined guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic, are inalienable democratic ideals. He went on to condemn all acts of violence - making it sound like civilians, some of whom lost their lives, were responsible for the violence. He failed to condemn violence by security forces that left civilians dead and injured. He claimed that Cameroon is a democratic country and a state of law, and that problems ought to be solved within the law and through dialogue. "Le Cameroun est un pays démocratique, un Etat de droit", he said. "Les problèmes doivent y être réglés dans les cadre de la loi et par le dialogue".
|Frontpage of a local newspaper, January 20, 2017|
President Paul Biya of Cameroon, a man who has been in power since 1982, is out of touch with reality in the country he purportedly leads. "Le Cameroun est un pays démocratique, un Etat de droit", he said - meaning Cameroon is a democratic country and a state of law. The president could not be further away from the truth. Cameroon is not a democracy, neither is it a state of law.
In a real democracy civilians, including lawyers and students peacefully demonstrating in a bid to call the government's attention to their plight are not teargassed, beaten up and killed by [supposedly] forces of "law and and order"; In a democracy protesting students in a university town like Buea are not brutally suppressed over the years and arbitrarily arrested for daring to voice grievances by way of protests.
The government of Cameroon routinely deploys security forces to crack down on protests, and the extremely brutal crackdowns usually result in civilian deaths. Over the years protests in Cameroon have been quelled with brute force by riot-police, gendarmes and even the military. In the past, brutal suppression of protests went unnoticed by the world because state-controlled media controlled the narrative - but the protests in 2016 were different because cell phone videos and social media exposed police barbarism that has plagued Paul Biya's Cameroon for decades. Shocking videos abound showing atrocious police misconduct during peaceful protests. For example, a video showing police officers forcing students to lie down in a mud puddle in Buea; Or a video showing lawyers beaten and pushed out of a police station; Another video shows what appears to be the army shooting in the streets of Bamenda. After such well-documented incidents of blatant criminal activities and, of course, impunity for crimes committed, which include killings by supposedly law enforcement officers, its absolutely misleading for the Head of State to come out and say Cameroon is a democratic state of law where civil liberties are guaranteed, and where every citizen has the right to assemble and express opinions.
If Cameroon were a state of law security forces guilty of heinous crimes against peaceful protesters would have been investigated and prosecuted. The reality is that Cameroon is not a state of law as claimed by president Paul Biya - that is why no one has been brought to book for blatant crimes committed against peaceful protesters. Some civilians lost their lives during the protests. Graphic videos posted on social media are a testament to the fact. For instance, the video of a civilian rushed to hospital. He was reported dead. Another video shows a death civilian carried by protesters in the streets as onlookers screamed in panic. Another shows two civilians lying dead in the streets. In a state of law there is no impunity for such crimes.
Besides being wrong on the issue of democracy and law, Paul Biya is wrong on the subject of state unity.
At the moment Cameroon is one, following unification of British Southern Cameroon and the Republic of Cameroon which got its independence from France in 1960. However, by virtue of the fact that Cameroon is made up of two entities - British and French Cameroons - that came together to form a federation, the country is not "indivisible" as stated by the president in his speech. In other words, Cameroon is one and divisible. The country is "one" by virtue of unification, and "divisible" by virtue of the fact that the people of former British Southern Cameroons are "a people" who reserve the right to self-determination. The Republic of Cameroon as we know it is made up of two Cameroons - West and East (or English and French) Cameroons that came together in 1961. History shows that British Southern Cameroons joined the independent Republic of Cameroon to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. In 1972 a new Constitution replaced the federation with a unitary state. The United Republic of Cameroon was renamed the Republic of Cameroon in 1984. In essence, the Republic of Cameroon could be likened to a marriage between two individuals. If the marriage is not working or if one party wants out - there is always a possibility. In this light Cameroon is one - and divisible.
Former British Southern Cameroonians are a people under international law, that is why they were eligible for a plebiscite in 1961 in the first place. The African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) found, among other things, that "the people of Southern Cameroon can legitimately claim to be a `people´" (see 26th Activity Report of the ACHPR, pg. 29-33. Retrieved 21 January 2017). Under international law a people have a right to self-determination.
The president was right when he said problems ought to be solved within the law and through dialogue. The government of Cameroon under Paul Biya should engage in dialogue - without pre-conditions - with English-speaking Cameroonians who feel, and rightly so, that they are being marginalized and "francophonized" by the Biya regime. A slogan like "le Cameroun est UN et INDIVISIBLE" highlighted in the president's end-of-year speech is a provocative pre-condition in what is supposed to be dialogue between two equal parties in a union.
On 17 January 2017, less than a month after president Paul Biya spoke about democracy, civil liberties, the right to express opinions and dialogue in Cameroon, the government arrested Fontem Aforteka'a Neba and Nkongho Félix Agbor Balla, leaders of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC). Then banned the consortium and the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC). A prominent protester, Mancho Bibixy, was also arrested. According to a Facebook post by Kah Walla, leader of the Cameroon People's Party (CPP) and former presidential candidate, Dr. Fontem and Barrister Nkongho face charges of "extreme gravity", including secession, treason, inciting rebellion and acts of terrorism. Arresting English-speaking Cameroonians who peacefully advocate secession or a return for federalism is not "dialogue". Rather it is an assault on civil and political rights that are emblematic of democratic societies.
Numerous actions and inactions of the Cameroon government, including brutal crackdown on protests, killings, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and reluctance to condemn violence against unarmed protesters show that Cameroon is neither a democracy nor a state of law. For decades the government of Cameroon under president Paul Biya has used the law as a tool to silence political dissent and tighten its grip on power.