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.

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