Friday, March 1, 2013

Cameroon: Arrest of Buea university student leaders is persecution

Leaders of University of Buea Students' Union (UBSU) face intimidation and arrest in relation to their work as active, elected members of the students' union.

I'm an alumni of the University of Buea (UB) and although I wasn't a registered or active member of UBSU during my studies in the institution, I'm aware of, and can attest to limitations on students' right to express their grievances in UB and other state institutions of higher learning in Cameroon. Recent arrests of UB students and the presence of security forces on campus (see photo of gendarmes on campus) indicate that the situation hasn't changed: the authorities continue to use intimidation and security forces to suppress free expression.

Pale, weak and hospitalized

The entire student body reportedly met on 6 February 2013 and declared a peaceful strike due to the "unresponsiveness and unwillingness" of the Vice Chancellor of the university to listen to students' complaints. According to an update on UBSU's Facebook page, four students were arrested on 12 February 2013 and brutalized in relation to a peaceful strike against what UBSU believes to be conditions on campus that greatly affect every student. The students were detained and appeared in court the next day. They were granted bail.

UBSU's acting president, Ronald Minang, was allegedly "kidnapped" on 12 February and was not seen for many days. He reportedly re-appeared more than a week later looking "pale and weak", and was hospitalized. According to UBSU, arrest warrants were issued for more than 40 students and many have been arrested, tortured and forced to sign various types of documents.

The acting president was reportedly arrested on 27 February when he went for a meeting with the Vice Chancellor.

What students want

Grievances that prompted the strike include a ban on businesses on campus that provide services such as photocopying, constant burglary, rape and insecurity on campus (especially in the girls' hostel), victimization of student leaders, inconsistencies in the issuance of transcripts of results, poor sanitary conditions in the university restaurant and poor quality of food served in the university restaurant.

UBSU would also like to see an end to the "continuous" presence of security forces on campus, an end to a practice where some lecturers allegedly force students to buy their text books or forfeit tests, and the recruitment of qualified lecturers.

In my opinion, many of the concerns raised by the students' union are genuine and can't, and shouldn't be ignored or overly dismissed as unreasonable. Intimidation, arrests and persecution of student leaders will not solve the crisis.

A ban on businesses providing photocopying services on campus, for instance, most definitely makes life difficult for students. Such a ban would only make sense if the university provides enough photocopy machines to replace banned photocopiers. But the university is either unwilling or unable to do so.

According to information on UBSU's Facebook page, university authorities decided to provide each faculty with three photocopy machines and there are faculties such as the Faculty of Social and Management Sciences (FSMS) with 6 to 10 departments - each with a population of thousands of students. Three photocopy machines are insufficient for a faculty. Students shouldn't be forced to stand on long queues or travel long distances out of campus to photocopy handouts, notes and other documents.

Violation of international standards

Arresting students and dragging them to court in relation to a peaceful strike is a violation of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Cameroon is party to international and regional human rights conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) that uphold these rights. The state and its institutions are legally obligated to uphold international human rights standards.

Even more relevant to the rights of students is the African Youth Charter ratified by Cameroon in 2011. The charter clearly provides for young people's right to freedom of expression and freedom of association.

No stranger to abuse

Buea university is no stranger to student strike actions and repression by the authorities. Some strikes have resulted to deaths and destruction of property. The fact that strikes always reoccur after a few years is an indication that a heavy-handed response to student demands is no lasting solution.

In 2005, I witnessed a brutal crackdown on a peaceful student demonstration by police that left two students dead. I was among many students brutalized by security forces. The event marked a turning point in my life. Despite the deaths, another protest erupted the following year. Repression isn't a lasting solution to students' concerns.

Not free or democratic

Freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly are foundations of a free and democratic society. Violation of students' right to freely and peacefully express their grievances, and impunity enjoyed by perpetrators send a clear message that Cameroon is NOT free or democratic. Repression is endemic.

The administration of Vice Chancellor Nalova Lyonga Pauline Egbe should seek a lasting solution to students' grievances and stop arrests and intimidation of student union leaders. Needless to say, such tactics violate human rights and fundamental freedoms, and portray Cameroon in a negative light in the free world.

Minister of Higher Education, Jacque Fame Ndongo should listen to the cries of students affected by the violation and guarantee their safety and freedom. No one should be arrested or intimidated for peacefully expressing grievances.

UBSU on its part should conduct itself responsibly and refrain from violence or anything that could undermine its legitimate aim. The union should stick to its main objective - protect the interest of students in the spirit of the famous slogan, "All for One, One for All". Non-violence should be the mantra.

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