“I write to you in hiding and with so much fear that at anytime, anywhere, I can be picked up by the police or military and immediately tried for felony for just sending this email.”
These are the desperate words of a Cameroonian activist, contained in an email message sent to me, that point to a deeply concerning and worsening human rights crisis in Cameroon.
“The situation in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon is so scary. A walk in any part of the regions, you will automatically feel like you are in a war zone”.
The war zone effect that this activist, who did not want to be named, is referring to is a result of a brutal, militarised crackdown by the authorities in response to peaceful protests, which has created a climate of repression, fear and intimidation in the English-speaking South West and North West regions. The shooting dead of unarmed protesters, arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, disappearances, harassment and intimidation by security forces are some of the reported human rights abuses that have been continuing for more than four months now. Regular “Ghost Town” boycott protests, also begun months ago, leave city streets deserted, schools closed and businesses shuttered.
The activist had to risk traveling to a neighboring Francophone region just to send me her email. An internet blockade that has been in effect since mid-January has cut off internet access and disrupted cellular services for millions of Cameroonians in the English-speaking regions.
In October, lawyers and teachers launched strikes to demand greater inclusion of English-speaking professionals in the legal and teaching sectors. Weeks later, civil society organisations called for public demonstrations in support of the strikes and in protest against the “marginalization and deprivation” of English-speaking Cameroonians by the Francophone-dominated government of President Paul Biya. The government response was to dispatch security forces to quash dissent.
The hiding activist’s email ends with a heartfelt appeal to the international community to come and bear witness to what is going on and intervene to help bring an end to the crisis.
In response to such appeals, Africans Rising – an emerging movement of people and movements, working for peace, justice and dignity – embarked on a fact-finding mission to Cameroon in February. Our goal was to investigate the conflict and better understand it and its context and to join in solidarity with the people of Cameroon in efforts to help bring about lasting peaceful and just solutions to the crisis.
I led a four-person delegation that traveled through the militarised regions to meet discreetly with stakeholders including activists, religious leaders, youth, lawyers, trade unionists and ordinary residents, many of whom requested anonymity out of fear for their safety. They shared eyewitness accounts of human rights violations and their impact on local communities. What we discovered and the actions we recommend are contained in a report just published on the mission.
In Bamenda and Buea, the capital cities of the North West and South West regions respectively, we were told that citizens could be targeted for arrest, interrogation and prosecution merely for discussing the protests, let alone supporting them or the demands they promote.
Inside a car in a church parking lot, a religious leader who had been subjected to raids on his home by security forces described the impact of heavy-handed security tactics. “They really go after the boys,” he said, explaining that, in a country with 60 percent of the population under 25, authorities appeared to especially target male youths. Indeed, an investigation by the statutory National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms found that minors were being held in Cameroon’s notorious prisons as part of the clampdown on protests and called for their immediate release.
Our delegation also directly observed the devastating economic impact of the Internet blockade, disrupted cellular communications, the closure of businesses and the negative social impacts on education, healthcare and general security in the regions affected by the government’s crackdown.
The Internet blackout that was instituted on 17 January 2017 – the same day the government banned the activities of the civil society organisations leading protests and jailed their leaders – remains in effect and has left millions of Cameroonians without any Internet access and disrupted cellular communications.
France-based NGO, Internet Without Borders, recently estimated that the shutdown has cost Cameroon upwards of $1.5 million. Small to medium enterprises that rely on the Internet to function, have borne the brunt of that cost. We were told that some have been forced to shut down, as a result. Social services that rely on connectivity to function properly such as hospitals and medical centres have been also been adversely affected.
As part of the “Ghost Town” stay-at-home boycotts, students in the English-speaking regions have not been attending classes for months, while for their French-speaking counterparts, lessons have been continuing as normal. This lapse in education, our mission found, is likely to have far-reaching implications for English-speaking students and could increase existing disparities.
In order to resolve this deepening crisis, the Africans Rising recommends that the government immediately stops repressive actions and fear by ending its militarised security operations in the the affected regions with immediate effect. Other recommendations include the immediate and unconditional release of all people – including children, civil society leaders and journalists – arrested and detained in connection with the process; the immediate restoration of internet access; the resumption of schooling; and the establishment of an open, independently-mediated dialogue process between government and the leadership of English-speaking civil society to address all grievances.
It is also worrying and disappointing that a crisis of these proportions, which has implications not only for Cameroon but the region and the continent, is not getting the attention it deserves from African leaders and African media. To date, there has been no clear response from the regional bloc, the Economic Community of Central African States (CEMAC), even after President Biya raised the conflict at a CEMAC Summit in December 2016. The African Union’s only response to date has been to express concern about events and call for dialogue to resolve the crisis.
Negotiations between the government and civil society, whose leaders are being tried on terrorism charges for calling for peaceful protests remain stalled. Africans Rising is recommending open, honest dialogue guided by an independent mediator.
Cameroonians are calling for the AU to assume its mandated responsibility by actively engaging the crisis to help find a lasting, peaceful resolution that ensures the rights and freedoms of Cameroonian citizens and addresses the grievances at the root of the conflict.
Africans Rising believes that this crisis – and crises like this, concerning group rights – impacts all Africans on the continent in many different ways. We would like to see African civil society and solidarity networks take up the challenge to engage this situation in Cameroon in a spirit of unity of purpose for the rights and prosperity of all Africans.
*Pambazuka. Kumi Naidoo is launch director of Africans Rising, an emerging movement of people and formations, working for peace, justice and dignity. Africans Rising officially launches on 25 May 2017, Africa Liberation Day.