Thursday, November 2, 2017

Agbor Nkongho: a lost opportunity for Cameroon Anglophone leadership?

Cameroon has been engulfed in a major political crisis for almost a year - with massive civil disobedience, protests and political upheaval by a marginalized people in English-speaking parts of the country. As a result of the crisis internet connection in the affected regions were cut off on the orders of the government and many civilians were killed, disappeared, arrested and imprisoned. Some of those arrested, including Felix Agbor Balla, president of the banned Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC), were released after about eight months in prison but since his release the civil society leader who was celebrated and admired by many before and during his arrest has been embroiled in pushback - with critics referring for him as a "traitor". What went wrong?

On August 30, 2017 Cameroon state media outlet CRTV reported that the president of the Republic, Paul Biya, had "ordered the discontinuance of proceedings" pending before a military court against Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla, barrister-at-law and leader of the banned CACSC, and some other persons who were arrested and charged with crimes including terrorism, secession, incitement to civil war, rebellion, amongst others in relation to the political crisis in English-speaking parts of the country.

The release was celebrated by many as a turning point but celebration was short-lived as the masses realized that for starters not all detainees were released. The cautious enthusiasm surrounding the gesture of Cameroon's president of 35 years was further dampened by public utterances and statements made by the leader of the outlawed CACSC. In an interview on BBC Focus on Africa after his release the banned Anglophone civil society consortium leader called for resumption of schools and advocated for a federal system of government as a solution to the crisis. This is in conflict with the stance of other leaders in the struggle and their supporters who advocate outright secession and would like to see continuous pressure mounted on the government by way of closure of schools until the government releases all arrested persons and comes to the negotiation table in good faith - without preconditions.

It is worthy to mention that schools have been closed in English-speaking parts of Cameroon since the struggle began in closing months of 2016. "Ghost towns" have been implemented for many days a week - with markets, shops and other businesses shut down for many days a week for almost a year. A long-standing strike action by lawyers, teachers and other groups in Anglophone parts of Cameroon persists. The massive civil disobedience is designed to force the hand of the government to address grievances raised by Anglophones who constitute a marginalized minority group in a majority French-speaking country.

My Take

Barrister Agbor Nkongho and other Anglophones like Fontem Aforteka'a and Ayah Paul Abine who were arrested on, in my view, trumped up politically motivated charges and dragged to a military tribunal in violtion of international civil and political human rights standards that prohibit the trial of civilians in military courts were released partly as a result of pressure mounted on the government by protracted massive civil disobedience, including the closure of schools in English-speaking parts of Cameroon for several months. Their release from squalid detention conditions is welcomed. However, many other protesters such as Mancho Bibixy remain imprisoned hence the pressure on the government should continue until all arrested are released. The release of some is an indication that the current strategy works - and if it is not broken there is no need to fix it. The closure of schools was, in my view, perhaps the most impactful strategy intended to get the government's attention, and it paid off - with the release of barrister Agbor Nkongho, Dr. Fontem Neba, Rtd. Justice Ayah Paul and some other persons. Had schools reopened while Agbor Nkongho et al were still detained they, I reckon, would still be in prison facing trial in the military tribunal in Yaoundé. It is misguided and somewhat selfish for someone who arguably benefited from a strategy to come out of prison and almost immediately kick against it by calling for resumption of schools -- at a time when some other people who were arrested under same circumstances like him are still languishing in prison.

In June 2016 when Agbor Nkongho and others were still in prison a renown Anglophone lawyer, barrister Sama Francis, called on lawyers to suspend strike action and return to work. At the time I argued in a blog post that Sama Francis was wrong because lawyers returning to work would amount to abandoning their colleague Agbor Balla and other Anglophones arrested in relation to the crisis in prison. Now that Nkongho is out of prison and is calling for resumption of schools I would argue the same: resumption of schools and a return to normalcy would amount to abandoning those left in prison. No political prisoner of the struggle should be left behind.

According to an article on Fortune 6 principles made Nelson Mandela a renowned leader - one of the principles being anticipation. Mandela, according to the article assessed his moves while in prison and anticipated reactions hence when he was offered freedom in exchange for renouncing opposition to the government he said: "what freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned?... what freedom am I being offered if I must ask permission to live in an urban area?" He, Mandela, was prepared to serve out his sentence rather than exchange it for apartheid. This decision, according to an article on BIZNews elevated his position and drew attention to his sacrifice for the struggle. Now, I would be the first to admit that comparing Agbor Nkongho with Nelson Mandela - the most inspirational civil rights leader of all time in my view is a stretch. Asking Agbor Balla to, for example, stay in prison until the ban on CACSC is lifted or until all political activists, protesters and civil society leaders who were arrested in relation to the Anglophone struggle are released or until the collapse of marginalization of Anglophones in Cameroon is too much to ask because Nkongho is no Mandela. However, as a leader he should have at least strategically assessed his stance and anticipated reactions. He has not inspired as many people to follow him as he did before his arrest due to failure to anticipate reactions to a call for school resumption at a time when Mancho Bibixy and others are still imprisoned. Resumption of schools would mean a return to normalcy at a time when grievances have not been addressed.

It is a lost opportunity when a leader in a struggle serves time in prison for a cause and becomes less popular after leaving prison. Some of the most renowned political leaders in history solidified their leadership in civil rights struggles after they were arrested and imprisoned in relation to their struggle. Some of the greatest political leaders, I would argue, were made in prison on politically motivated charges. Their stories are packed with valuable lessons for other leaders involved in political struggles around the world. As an Anglophone Cameroonian I expected Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla to rise to the occasion after his release and become an inspirational leader in the Anglophone struggle against decades of marginalization and second-class treatment in Cameroon. When he was released I personally expect him to circle the wagons, hold a massive rally and deliver a groundbreaking speech outlining a vision that is in line with the vision of the masses while at the same time adhering to his ideals of nonviolance and tolerance. Despite his failure so far to inspire the masses to follow him after paying a high price for the struggle, I do not think he is a "traitor" as some of his critics and ideological opponents have branded him. He might have a different perspective on the Anglophone struggle but that does not amount to treachery. There is no evidence to suggest that he has colluded with the government to jeopardize the struggle. He has a right to his point of view like everyone else and he should not be persecuted for it. According to a statement he posted on Facebook his father's house was burnt down on 29 October 2017 as a result of his political stance. In addition his father's grave was reportedly desecrated. Such actions amount to intimidation and persecution of a political opponent and should be condemned. Those responsible should be ashamed of themselves and should be brought to book. It is unreasonable and ironic to fight against oppression by oppressing others.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cameroon government forces kill with impunity

For many years the government of Cameroon under president Paul Biya, who has been in power since November 1982, has killed unarmed civilians with impunity. In the past the government swept killings under the rug but with the advent of the internet and social media the regime lost control of the narrative. The world is now able to witness the extreme cruelty of the regime. Regardless the regime continues to claim lives - with absolute impunity. The latest episode of blatant unlawful killings happened in full glare of social media and the evidence is compelling.

Unarmed civilians in English-speaking regions of Cameroon took to the streets on 1 October 2017 to symbolically declare independence as part of almost one year of protracted mass protests and civil disobedience against marginalization and unequal treatment of Anglophones in majority French-speaking Republic of Cameroon. Anglophones are a minority group in Cameroon. They make up about 20% of the population and have been historically discriminated against and marginalized. Now a good number of them want independence. The government's response to the symbolic declaration of independence was, as usual, heavy-handed and brutal: numerous civilians were killed by security forces. Besides killings Amnesty International expressed concern about blocks on Facebook and WhatsApp, and arbitrary ban on meetings and movement by the government. Amnesty International urged the government to respect people's right to freedom of assembly and movement and called on security forces to cease "unnecessary and excessive" use of force. The human rights group later confirmed that at least seventeen (17) people were killed by security forces. Before the killings the government had banned travel, public meetings and pro-independence rallies in English-speaking parts of Cameroon. 

Still image taken from video shows nurse trying to resuscitate victim
Witnesses told Reuters that security forces shot live bullets and tears gas at protesters from low-flying army helicopters.

According to Al Jazeera internet was blocked in English-speaking regions of Cameroon for the second time in less than a year in an effort to quell protests. Electricity was also cut.

In press briefing notes on Cameroon the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) reiterated concerns raised by the UN Secretary-General about the 1 October crackdown, said credible sources indicated that some of the deaths resulted from excessive use of force by security forces. The spokesperson for the UNHCR called for "prompt, effective, impartial and independent investigations...". The spokesperson also said people should be allowed to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, "including having uninterrupted access to internet connection" - alluding to the government's shutdown of the internet. The office of the UNHCR called on all people to pursue peaceful means and noted that property have been destroyed over the past months and at least two homemade bombs were reportedly planted in public places.

My Take

First of all, the grievances of people in English-speaking parts of Cameroon are well-founded. The government's failure to address their concerns has led to calls for independence. Historically and legally Cameroon's English-speaking people (commonly known as Anglophone) are, in my view, a people who achieved independence from the British in October 1961 by joining the independent Republic of Cameroon. As a people they have the right to self-determination.

For many years the Biya regime has killed protesters with impunity while the international community watches. Failure by the international community to hold the regime accountable has emboldened the regime hence killings continue. In the latest episode Amnesty confirmed that 17 people were killed during October 1 protests. The government claims about 10 were killed. Some local activist groups put the number at 100 killed. Based on social media videos I personally believe the governments figure is inaccurate. More than 10 people were killed on 1 October and the days leading up to the symbolic declaration of independence based on my observation online. A single graphic Facebook post alone, for example, shows 4 dead bodies, and there are many of such posts, including graphic photos and video. It is worthy to note that the recent deads come after numerous civilians were killed in the early months of the struggle. In December 2016 the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) confirmed that at least nine (9) people were killed in Buea, Bamenda and Kumba.

Statements by Amnesty International and the Spokesperson of the UNHCR condemning the killings and human rights violations are great but repressive regimes do not moved by statements alone. It is time the international community, including regional and international organizations go beyond issuing statements. Decisive action against the Biya regime is needed. Stronger measures against the brutal regime should be explored, including targeted economic sanctions against members of the regime and international criminal investigation and charges -- since Cameroon's national justice system has failed to deliver justice for killings of civilians by state operatives. The international community's unwillingness to take decisive action against the Biya regime only emboldens the regime and further endangers civilian lives in the country.

The US Department of State issued a statement in the aftermath of the 1 October crackdown in which the department said "the United States is deeply concerned about the violence and loss of human life". However, the United States continues to do business with the Biya regime. If the United States is truly deeply concerned as claimed by the State Department it would, for example, stop arming the Biya regime. In 2015 the United States, according to VOA, sent a consignment of military equipment to Cameroon to help in the fight against Boko Haram. The same military the United States supports kills civilians in the Northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon and commits war crimes in the fight against Boko Haram in the north. According to Amnesty International Cameroon military is committing war crimes in the fight against Boko Haram. The United States is essentially supporting and arming a military that is committing atrocious human rights violations on two fronts.

Members of the international Community that are basically aiding and abetting the Biya regime in its violation of human rights should stop doing so. The international community, including the United Nations and the African Union should do more than issue statements. Focus should be on bringing perpetrators of human rights violations to book. Suspension of military aid to Cameroon and targeted economic sanctions against president Paul Biya and members of his regime, including those who give military personnel orders to shot and kill civilians is a good place to start. Civilian deaths during protests should be independently and impartially investigated -- preferably by an international body since the Biya regime is essentially corrupt and cannot be trusted to investigate itself.

Personally I would like to see resolute, coordinated international action that goes beyond prepared statements taken against the Paul Biya regime that has killed a countless number of civilians in its 35 years in powers. However, I think resolute action is unlikely because of Western interests in Cameroon and the region. The fight against Boko Haram for example is in the interest of western democracies like the United States hence they will continue to support the Biya regime despite its abysmal human rights record. The African Union (AU) on its part is enert. It released its own statement urging "restraint and dialogue" and expressed "condolences to all affected persons and families". Clearly inadequate. The AU did not even bother to call for an investigation.

It is therefore in the hands of Cameroonians to shape the kind of country they want to live in. Protesters in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon are doing just that through massive protests and civil disobedience that have stretched for almost a year. Western countries with interests in the status quo won't initiate change in Cameroon or elsewhere in Africa where dictators serve Western interests. The people have the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Their rights should not be brutally infringed.

Monday, August 14, 2017

There is no such thing as "white supremacy"

The phrase "white supremacy" has been used repeatedly by so-called white supremacists themselves, those who oppose them, the media and the authorities, including politicians -- so much so that the phrase has been legitimized and many people have internalized the idea that a group of people are somehow superior to others by virtue of their race or skin color. That is not true.

The idea of "white supremacy" was thrust to the limelight after a White nationalist rally in Charlottesville ended in deadly violence. White nationalists and counterprotesters clashed in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia in what The New York Times described as "one of the bloodiest fights to date" over the removal of Confederate monuments across the South. One of the White nationalists plowed a car into a crowd killing a 34-year-old woman and injuring at least 19 people. Some 34 others were injured in skirmishes, according to the New York Times. The governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency and the National Guard was deployed to help the police restore law and order.

A man identified as James Alex Fields Jr. was arrested and charged in relation to the car attack. CNN reports that the suspect holds extreme views, according to his former teacher. The teacher who teaches Social Studies at Randall K. Cooper High School told CNN that the suspect held "outlandish, very radical beliefs" with a "fondness for Adolf Hitler".

The incident was followed by a mainstream media and social media frenzy -- with almost everyone referring to "white supremacy" as though it were a legitimate concept grounded on facts.

My Take

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." [- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 1]

There is no such thing as white supremacy. Just like the jihadist statehood idea of so-called Islamic State, the idea of white supremacy is an illusion based on an inhuman desire by some to control and subjugate others. The difference between the idea of a jihadist Islamic State and white supremacy lies in the fact that there seems to be consensus in the West that the former is an illusion, hence it is commonly referred to as "so-called Islamic State" by western news outlets while the latter is fully legitimized and presented as fact. More than 120 British MPs reportedly signed a letter urging the BBC to stop referring to jihadist group ISS as "Islamic State" because, according to the MPs, the terrorist group is neither Islamic nor a state. The BBC went on to review its use of "Islamic State". Same logic, in my view, applies to so-called white supremacy. Those who subscribe to the racist idea of "white supremacy" are, in my view, white but they are not supreme.

The idea of white supremacy is a social construct designed to push a racist agenda that white people are superior by virtue of the color of their skin.

A more realistic concept is White privilege, which was well-demonstrated in the aftermath of the Charlottesville car attack. Donald Trump, president of the United States, refrained from condemning the so-called white supremacists - understandably so since they make up his base and helped get him elected based on the racially divisive presidential campaign he ran. Condemning the group would be political suicide for the beleaguered US president. Had the attacker been non-white, Mexican, an immigrant or a Muslim rhetoric from the White House would have been stronger and louder. After ramming his car into a crowd in a manner reminiscent of the London Bridge attack James Alex Fields Jr. was, according to The New York Times, charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at the scene of a crash. That is white privilege not white "supremacy". Someone who looks different and affiliated to a different extremist group would have been labelled "radicalized" and had law books thrown at him with charges including terrorism and first-degree murder.

Referring to a bunch of racists as "white supremacists" legitimizes the uninformed, racist ideology on which such groups are founded. Referring to them as "so-called white supremacists" is more like it because those who identify themselves as such are not supreme -- they are privileged at most.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Lack of will to hold Finland police accountable for racism

A stunning revelation by an online investigative journalism site put the spot on racism in the Finnish police force. Finland's Minister of Interior, the National Police Commissioner and the National Police Board released purportedly strong statements in the aftermath of the scandal -- professing "zero tolerance" for racism and pledging a thorough investigation into the matter. But talk is cheap. It is easier said than done.

On 3 June 2017 Long Play published a report about widespread racist commentary in closed Facebook group made up of about 2,800 Finnish police officers. The report included screenshots of some of the comments. One member of the group for instance claimed that people of African descent do not succeed anywhere in the world for reasons including culture and genetics. Another member of the group claimed that Islam is an expansionist religion and that Europe is a victim. According to Long Play, immigrants and Muslims were smeared in many discussions and immigration-related articles and video from known anti-immigration propaganda groups were shared in the group. Police officers in the group mocked an asylum seeker who attempted suicide and a rapper who accused the police of racial profiling. The report also revealed that the head of a national anti-hate speech online task force was once a moderator of the group and moderators didn't intervene to stop racist comments.

Long Play also published an in-depth article on racial profiling. According to the article, ethnic profiling is illegal but it happens in Finland continuously - according to Finns belonging to minority groups and police officers who interact with minorities as part of their job. One police officer interviewed for the article acknowledged that he has "certainly" carried out ethnic profiling. "Olen tehnyt etnistä profilointia itsekin, tietysti", he said. He acknowledged profiling the Roma and dark-skinned people.

Following publication of the report the Minister of Interior Paula Rusikko and the National Police Commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen sprang into action and proclaimed "zero tolerance" for racism. They pledged a full investigation. The National Police Board also announced that the material published by Long Play had been handed to the Office of the Prosecutor General to determine whether a preliminary investigation should be launched. The board also proclaimed "zero tolerance" for racism and hate speech in the police force, and stated that it had launched an investigation into ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring.

On 11.7.2017 the National Police Board cleared police of ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring. And according to Yle a District Prosecutor, Laura Sairanen, decided the previous week not to launch a preliminary investigation into openly racist postings in the police Facebook group.

My Take

District prosecutor Sairanen and the National Police Board had an opportunity to partially restore confidence in the Finnish police force among people of African descent and other minority groups like Muslims and the Roma but they blew it.

In my earlier blog post related to the marvelous piece of investigative journalism by Long Play I gave the Finnish police force benefit of the doubt in my assessment of whether or not racism is a structural problem in the force. I argued that one ingredient was lacking for the matter to rise to the level of a structural problem: legitimization and normalization of racism. The district prosecutor and the National Police Board just normalized and legitimized openly racist actions by Finnish police officers online and offline by basically rubbishing serious allegations of racism and ethnic profiling.

According to Long Play, there was erroneous information in the decision of the prosecutor. One of the grounds for not pursuing the matter reportedly put forward by the District Prosecutor assigned to the case is that identities of those who posted comments in the Facebook group are not known. The claim doesn't hold water, according to Long Play, because names were visible in over 50 screenshots handed over to the office of the Prosecutor General. Another reason for turning a blind eye to the openly racist comments is that the plaintiffs or injured parties have not made a police report of an offence. How convenient! The prosecutor reportedly wrote in her decision that the Facebook comments seem to have been written during the police officers' free time although according to Long Play postings were made in the Facebook police group at all times of the day, and the prosecutor didn't bother to ask the police board or police departments for clarification about working hours. Again -- how convenient!

The National Police Board on its part also dropped the ball on the investigation into ethnic profiling. According to a statement by the board the investigation focused on immigration monitoring, and police departments' immigration monitoring guidelines and practices were examined. The board also examined whether police departments have had to intervene in illegal ethnic profiling cases. The investigation found four cases in which officials' actions had been looked into for possible ethnic profiling but no wrongdoing was found. On these basis the board cleared police of ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring. Mindful of the fact that the probe was sparked by a report by Long Play that alleged routine ethnic profiling, it is unclear if the National Police Board actually read the detailed report and made an effort to contact at least some - if not all - of the victims of alleged ethnic profiling who were interviewed for the report. A total of 94 people belonging to minority groups, 12 police officers and 6 people who know about the subject through their work were reportedly interviewed by Long Play but the National Police Board's investigation seems to have limited itself to looking at paperwork provided by various police departments and then concluding that there is no illegal ethnic profiling.

A Twitter user summarized the investigation by the National Police Board in one tweet:

The board basically asked police departments if they practice ethnic profiling. None of the departments said they do hence the board cleared police of wrongdoing.

Besides the superficial nature of the investigation it is also problematic that it focused on immigration monitoring although the report that triggered the investigation raised ethnic profiling of Finnish Roma individuals who are not subject to the Aliens Act but are reportedly eagerly stopped by traffic police.

The way I see it, the District Prosecutor and the National Police Board didn't carry out a "full" investigation as pledged by the Minister of Interior and the National Police Commissioner. They rushed the investigation and bungled it. It's hard to imagine that a comprehensive and impartial investigation into such a serious matter was completed by both the office of the Prosecutor General and the National Police Board in about six weeks. Perhaps an independent commission should be set up to look into the matter.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Is racism a structural problem in Finland's police force?

There are certain places where expressions of racist, Islamophobic or anti-immigrant sentiments are expected but a police Facebook group is not one of them. Open racism among police officers negatively impacts public confidence in the police force, and when a racism scandal hits a police force or any other state institution concerns about whether or not racism is a structural problem in the affected institution are well-founded. A Facebook group of Finnish police officers was uncovered and screenshots of postings in the group sparked public outcry and concerns about structural racism in the Finnish police force.

In June 2017 Long Play, a Finnish online magazine, published a damning report about openly racist and anti-immigrant comments in a closed Facebook group. According to the report, openly racist commentary is common in the police group and the group's moderators, including the head of Finnish police online hate speech task force did not eagerly intervene. Over a hundred screenshots of comments posted in the group were turned over to Long Play. The report reveals that police officers shared articles and videos from known anti-immigration propaganda sources across Europe and foreigners and Muslims were slandered in many discussions. For instance, one participant commented that Islam is an expansive religion and Europe is a victim; another police officer claimed that people of African origin do not succeed in any part of the world for reasons including culture and genetics. Others mocked an asylum seeker who attempted suicide and a rapper who demanded an apology for alleged racial profiling of his mother and sister by the police.

Fallout from the report was swift and uncompromising. On the part of the public condemnation was loud and clear. A concerned member of the public, for instance, argued in a blog that when over one third of the police belong to a racist group the problem is structural. The blog post is based on news reports that about one third of Finland's police officers belong to the Facebook group in question. According to Yle the group has about 2,800 members and last year there were 7,250 police officers in Finland in 2016. This begs the question: Is racism in the Finnish police force a structural problem?

My Take

As a person of African descent news of the existence of a racist police Facebook group dented my confidence in the Finnish police force - as I stated in an earlier blog post. Based on the content of the Facebook group as revealed by Long Play, there are, without a doubt, racists, xenophobes and Islamophobes in the Finnish police force. How the powers that be, including the National Police Commissioner, chiefs of various police departments and the Prosecutor General respond to the revelation is a determining factor as to whether or not racism is a structural or institutional problem in the force. The fact that there are racist police officers and one third of the country's police officers belong to a racist group on Facebook is not sufficient evidence to conclude that the problem is "structural" -- as argued here.

Structural racism, according to the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (2004), refers to "a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with 'whiteness' and disadvantages associated with 'color' to endure and adapt over time." According to Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies and director of the Centre for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America (CSREA), structural racism is the "normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics - historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal - that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic outcomes for people of color".

Now, the question is, - is racism built into the fabric of the Finnish police force by way of policies, practices and norms that perpetuate, normalize and legitimize racial inequity?

The report by Long Play sparked immediate response by Finland's Minister of Interior and the National Police Commissioner. Both of them condemned racism, proclaimed "zero tolerance" for racism and pledged that the openly racist and xenophobic comments made by police officers will be fully investigated. The National police Board said it will hand over screenshots of comments to the Prosecutor General. Meanwhile  Marko Forss who was at one point a moderator the Facebook group was swiftly relieved of his duties as head of anti-hate speech task force investigating online hate speech online. The police board also announced that ethnic profiling - another issue raised by Long Play in its in-depth report - is not allowed and launched an investigation into the legality of foreigner surveillance practices. The prompt response by police leadership suggest that racism in the Finnish police force is neither structural nor institutional. In a structurally racist institution leadership, I think, would turn a blind eye and Marko Forss, for example, would still hold his post. The authorities took good preliminary steps in the right direction in the immediate aftermath of the scandal. However, further action is needed against all other officers involved. Failure to sanction or charge and prosecute all those whose comments meet the standard under Finland's ethnic agitation law would intentionally or unintentionally produce an outcome that puts a racial group at a disadvantage, and could lend credence to the assertion that racism is a structural problem in the police force.

Some comments in the racist police group on Facebook definitely meet the standard of agitation against a religious group. Worthy of honorable mention is the ludicrous assertion reportedly made by a police officer in the group that Islam is an "expansive religion" and "Europe is a victim". Such a comment is emblematic of a twisted world view shared by far-right extremists like Anders Breivik who went on a mass killing spree in in Norway in the summer of 2011. It is extremely disturbing that such a view is shared by a police officer. While there are definitely racists in the police force who carry out practices such as racial profiling that have adverse outcomes on people of African descent and members of the Roma minority group the practices have not been "normalized" and "legitimized" by the National Police Board or prosecutors - at least not yet. Racial profiling, for example, is outlawed in the Aliens Act and in the police code of conduct, according to the Finnish police board. Also in the immediate aftermath of the scandal the rector of the police academy, according to Helsingin Sanomat, sent an email to students and staff of the academy in which he stated, amongs other things, that expression of racist opinions by police is unacceptable. According to the rector this stance is not debatable.

In addition to criminal charges and prosecutions the National Police Board should implement long term sustainable solutions such as compulsory human rights education for all police officers. In the wake of the Facebook racism scandal the Secretary General of Finnish League for Human Rights (Ihmisoikeusliitto) wrote a blog post in which she called for compulsory human rights education for all police. Besides human rights education she floated the idea of inclusion of some sort of "attitude test" in police entrance exams and the recruitment of more representatives of minority groups. Racial prejudice is widespread among members of the Finnish police force based on what was revealed in what I consider to be a marvelous piece of investigative journalism by Long Play, which includes a 40-page article on ethnic profiling by Finnish police. All ideas that could help curb the problem and restore confidence in police among affected groups in the country should be considered. Compulsory human rights education is a good start.

Based on the definition of "structural racism" and the damning revelation by Long Play, it is plausible to conclude that Finland's police force is eerily close to having racism as a structural problem. The only missing ingredient to complete the recipe is normalization and legitimization of racist practices. Failure by police leadership to adequately deal with the serious allegations of racist conduct by police officers online would seriously damage trust and confidence in the Finnish police force -- especially among ethnic minority communities, including people of African descent, Muslims and members of the Finnish Roma minority group.

UPDATE: 12.7.2017

A district prosecutor decided not to launch a criminal investigation into the Facebook police group and the National Police Board cleared police of unlawful ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring.

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.

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.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Cameroon: Commissions don't solve problems

Commissions created by undemocratic, corrupt governments are smokescreens designed to mask grievances raised by the people. They are intended to show "goodwill" to the international community, including international human rights watchdogs and foreign aid donors - so as to delegitimize the people's demands and escape reprimand. The government of Cameroon announced the creation of a commission to promote bilingualism in the wake of protests and civil disobedience in English-speaking parts of the country as a result of marginalization of Anglophones. 

As strange as this may sound - Cameroon has a national human rights commission - which is known as the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF). It may sound strange because more than two decades after it was decreed many Cameroonians have never heard about it, and the state of human rights in the country is still nothing to write home about. According to the Commonwealth Forum of Human Rights Institutions  the human rights commission is an independent institution created by Presidential Decree in 1990, and by law in 2004. Its functions include receiving denunciations of human rights violations, conducting inquiries and visiting penitentiary establishments, popularizing human rights standards, liaising with NGOs and proposing human rights measures to the authorities.

As a result of an on-going strike and mass civil disobedience in English-speaking parts of Cameroon another commission was created called the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. According to state-run CRTV it was created by Presidential Decree on 23 January 2017, and tasked with ensuring the "effective use of English and French as two official languages of equal value."

Over the past couple of months the government of Cameroon has been struggling to quell mass protests and strikes by Anglophones - or English-speaking Cameroonians - in the Northwest and Southwest regions of the country. Anglophones, led by lawyers, took to the streets in protest of what is described as the "Anglophone problem" - a phrase used to describe discrimination and marginalization of English-speaking Cameroonians who make up twenty (20) percent the population. Lawyers in the two English-speaking regions took to the streets to protest erosion of the Common Law system and the imposition of French and French-speaking judges in Anglophone courts. Teachers joined the strike - protesting the "francophonization" of English schools. The oppose, among other things, the appointment of Francophone teachers with little or no English-language proficiency to teach students in English-speaking parts of Cameroon. According to an accountant in Bamenda, capital of the northwest region, he pays someone to translate his brother's schoolwork from French to English because Franchophone teachers sometimes teach in French - even though their students are Anglophones. Students and the general public in English-speaking parts of Cameroon joined lawyers and teachers in the strike, and as a result schools and courts have been shutdown since the closing months of 2016.

The response of the government to the protest was typical: denial of the existence of an "Anglophone problem" - accompanied by a brutal crackdown on protests. Civilians lost their lives and many were beaten and arrested. The government banned the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) and the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), and arrested strike leaders and critics of the government, including Agbor Nkongho, Fontem Neba, Mancho Bibixy and Ayah Paul Abine. According to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) more than nine (9) Cameroonians lost their lives during protests in Bamenda, Buea and Kumba.

Photo of the decree posted on Facebook by CRTVweb
As strike action and "ghost towns" persist in English-speaking parts of Cameroon despite government crackdown on civil liberties the government announced the creation of the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. This raises questions whether or not a commission is an effective solution to the numerous problems faced by Anglophone - problems which, according to many Cameroonians, go beyond language.

My Take

Commissions do not solve problems in Cameroon. The are all smoke and mirrors. It follows that, I believe, the newly created National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism won't guarantee the "effective use of English and French as two official languages of equal value" in Cameroon. The commission won't guarantee bilingualism in the same way the creation of the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF) more than two decades ago neither guaranteed respect for human rights nor change the government of Cameroon's attitude towards human rights. The existence of a national commission of human rights has not made the state of human rights in Cameroon any better. Protesters are still being beaten, arrested,disappeared and some killed; associations are still being banned and their leaders arrested on trumped-up charges; and there is still impunity for crimes committed against civilians by state security forces. In the face of the recent full-scale assault of human rights in Cameroon following protests in English-speaking parts of Cameroon the NCHRF has been largely ineffective - due to a culture of impunity and lack of political will to respect human rights in Cameroon. It is fair to state that although the national human rights commission punches below its weight - it does some commendable work. For instance, according to information on its website (accessed on 25 January 2017) the Commission visited detainees held at SED and at the the Judicial Police in relation the protests in English-speaking parts of Cameroon, and helped release thirty four (34), including four (4) minors. However, there is a lot of room for improvement in the work of the Commission, especially in the area of human rights protection. Impunity for crimes committed against civilians is the order of the day, and NCHRF is saying or doing little or nothing about it.

The bilingualism commission will face the same lack of political will faced by NCHRF. Eighty (80) percent of Cameroonians are Francophone and almost all top brass - people with the power to change things - in the government are Francophones. Ordinary Francophones also play a part in marginalization of Anglophones. Unless there is a change in their mentality toward Anglophones in Cameroon the Commission for bilingualism would not register any meaningful success. In addition, it might take years for it to gain the force of law. The human rights commission, for example, was decreed by the president in 1990 but gained the force of law in 2004 - fourteen (14) years later.

CRTV's George Ewane pointed out (see CRTV link above) that the Commission for the promotion of bilingualism and multiculturalism is modeled on Canada's Multiculturalism Act and on the Canadian Royal Commission of Inquiry on Bilingualism and Biculturalism - which was, by the way, established in 1963. He failed to point out that the model works in Canada due to political will and strong institutions to support it. Cameroon lacks both political will and strong institutions, including a strong, independent judiciary to support the work of the Commission.

There are some positives to be taken away from the creation of the Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. Its creation is represents acknowledgement of the "Anglophone problem" by the government. By creating the Commission the government recognizes the fact that there is a problem - a problem that has festered for decades. However, Anglophones should not put down their guard and become complacent - bearing in mind that a Commission cannot redress the situation. The struggle for equality should continue.

If the government is serious about promoting bilingualism Anglophone Cameroonians should, for starters, also be appointed to serve in top positions that are currently filled with Francophones. An Anglophone Prime Minister with no real power is not enough. According to a Facebook post by Ayah Paul, former presidential candidate, leader of the Popular Action Party (PAP) and Advocate General of the Supreme Court, the President of the Supreme Court is a Francophone, the Attorney General is a Francophone, the Head of Judicial Division is a Francophone, the Head of Administrative Division is a Francophone, the Head of Audit Division is a Francophone, the Head of Special Criminal Court is a Francophone,the Director of Military Justice is a Francophone, the Registrar-in-chief of the Supreme Court is a Francophone, the Secretary General of the Supreme Court is a Francophone, just to name a few; decent roads should be constructed in English-speaking regions that have basically been forgotten by the government; Francophone judges and teachers who lack English language proficiency should be withdrawn from English-speaking Cameroon; all Anglophones arrested in relation to the Anglophone struggle should be released unconditionally; and atrocities committed by security forces, including killing of protesters should be investigated and those responsible brought to book. A return to Federalism as a form of government - or even secession - should not been taken off the table. According to the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) in its 26th Activity Report "the people of Southern Cameroon can legitimately claim to be a ´people´" since they have a "distinct identity which attracts certain collective rights." Under International law "a people" have the right to self-determination. Cracking down on those who nonviolently promulgate federalism or secession as a solution to the Anglophone problem is a violation of international human (and peoples') rights standards.

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