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.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Cameroon: Politically motivated mass arrest of Anglophones

Anglophone Cameroonians, a minority in a country that prides itself as "diverse" and "bilingual" but does little or nothing to respect and promote minority rights - feel, and rightly so, that they are being marginalized, "francophonized" or assimilated by the French-speaking majority. To add salt to injury those who voice dissent and organize themselves in a bid to bring the "Anglophone problem" to the fore are swiftly arrested on trumped-up charges. This includes individuals who neither use nor advocate violence. 

Cameroon's "Anglophone problem" is as old as the Republic, and it has always been there - brewing below the mask of "national unity." However, from time to time the problem erupts like a volcano. When it does erupt the government is always quick to sweep it under the rug by way of brutal crackdown on protests, killings, bans and mass arrests. The recent episode of the problem, which was sparked by lawyers in English-speaking parts of Cameroon aggrieved by a host of issues including the absence of English versions of some legal texts and the appointment of Francophone judges who lack English language proficiency to precede in English-speaking courts, was - as expected - followed by a wave of human rights violations, including killings, arrests and enforced disappearances. Since protests broke out in the closing months of 2016 many Anglophones have been brutalized and arrested in relation to the Anglophone struggle.
Frontpage of a local newspaper
Leaders of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC), Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla and Fontem Aforteka'a Neba were arrested, and the Consortium banned - together with the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC). According to state-controlled media CRTV the organizations were banned by Ministerial order because their purpose and activities are contrary to the Constitution and could jeopardize the security of the state, territorial integrity, national unity and national integration. The president of Cameroon People's Party (CPP) and former presidential candidate Kah Walla posted on her Facebook page that she visited the arrested leaders of CACSC at the Secretariat of State for Defense known by its French acronym SED, and that charges brought against them are of "extreme gravity". The charges, according to Kah Walla, include secession, treason, inciting rebellion and acts of terrorism.

A prominent protester, Mancho Bibixy, was also arrested. He was a vocal protester who staged the famous coffin protest decrying bad roads in Bamenda, capital of the northwest region. State media describes him as "a secessionist ring leader" - but an interview with France 24 paints a different picture of the activist.

Ayah Paul Abine, a former presidential candidate, chairman of Popular Action Party (PAP) and Advocate General of the Supreme Court, was also reportedly arrested. News of his arrest was posted on his Facebook page. According to the update he was arrested by 6 armed men from SED who had no arrest warrant. Ayah Paul has been vocal in the call for resolution of the Anglophone problem. In an interview with STV News (in French), for example, he did not mince words.

According to reports as of the time of this writing, another vocal Anglophone - Joseph Wirba, a Member of Parliament from Kumbo who took Cameroon by storm with a spirited speech in parliament highlighting the plight of Anglophones, has been arrested.

Worthy to mention that numerous other civilians have been arrested since November 2016 when civil disobedience erupted in English-speaking regions of Cameroon, and according to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) in a scathing press release - more than nine (9) deaths have been reported. The Commission also noted that the government is planning mass arrests, kidnappings and assassinations as a means to "thwart" the Anglophone struggle.

My Take

As Abraham Maslow once said, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." All the government of Cameroon has is an iron fist - hence it cracks down on anyone or anything that dissents.

The CACSC was banned on same day it issued a press release calling for "greater self-discipline" and condemning violence "unreservedly" - an indication that the organization is nonviolent. Claims that its objectives are contrary to the Constitution and could jeopardize national security are unfounded. The objectives listed on its website (accessed on 23 January 2017), include identify problems affecting the existence of Anglophones in Cameroon; educate, advocate, mediate, advise and speak for and on behalf of Anglophones in Cameroon; propose policy alternatives to improve the lives of the people. Looking at the organization's objectives it is plausible to conclude that the ban and arrest of CACSC leaders were politically motivated. The intention is to scape-goat them and cow Anglophone dissidents into silence and submission - with the ultimate goal of ending an effective strike that has been in place since November 2016.

According to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a person is a political prisoner if he or she, deprived of personal liberty, meets any of the following criteria:
  1. Detention violates basic guarantees in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols, particularly freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of expression and information; and freedom of assembly and association.
  2. The detention is imposed for purely political reasons.
  3. The length or conditions of the detention are out of proportion to the offense.
  4. He or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.
  5. The detention is the result of judicial proceedings that are clearly unfair and connected with the political motives of the authorities. 
Amnesty International defines prisoners of conscience as "people who have been jailed because of their political, religious or other consciously-held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, color, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth, sexual orientation or other status - provided that they have neither used nor advocated violence." According RFE/RL Amnesty International makes a slight distinction between "political prisoner" and "prisoner of conscience." The latter is a subset of the former -- as evidenced by the use of the phrase "prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners" in this report on political prisoners in Iran.

Based on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's criteria and on Amnesty International's definition of "prisoner of conscience," if convicted on trumped-up charges including secession, treason or incitement of rebellion and acts of terrorism Barrister Nkongho, Dr. Fontem, Mancho Bibixy, Ayah Paul Abine and Joseph Wirba - all arrested for nonviolent political activism would qualify as "political prisoners" or "prisoners of conscience". Their arrests are, the way I see it, politically motivated based on their political belief that Anglophone Cameroonians are marginalized, and on their loud calls for change.

There is an "Anglophone problem" in Cameroon, and people should have the liberty to express views on the problem, and propose possible nonviolent solutions, including a return to federalism - or even secession - without fear of retribution. No nonviolent proposal should be illegal. Banning nonviolent groups like CACSC and arresting strike leaders is an assault on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and amounts to attempts to stifle political discourse on the plight of Anglophones.

Whenever civilians with misgivings about the sorry-state of affairs in Cameroon rise up in protest the government resorts to undemocratic measures designed to stifle dissent. This has been the government's modus operandi for decades. If the government of Cameroon is serious about upholding the Constitution and law and order it should investigate and prosecute security forces responsible for crimes against unarmed protesters -- serious crimes including killings, arbitrary arrests, assault, destruction of property and abuse of power.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Cameroon: Not a state of law or a democracy

Whenever there's a protest by civilians in Cameroon, including students, teachers and even lawyers - the Head of State, a man who has been in power for thirty four (34) years, or one of his cronies, usually the Minister of Communication, delivers a speech in which he states, among other inaccurate claims, that Cameroon is a "state of law". Months after lawyers, teachers, students and general public in English-speaking parts of Cameroon voiced grievances through protests that led to an indefinite strike action due to the government's inability or unwillingness to solve the issues raised, the Head of State, this time in his routine end of year speech, stated, among other things, that Cameroon is a state of law that is inclusive, bilingual, unique, one and indivisible.

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".

My Take
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.

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