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.


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