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.

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