By Andrew Nsoseka
A military operation in Cameroon’s Northwest region, dubbed “Operation Bamenda Clean” has seen the region and Bamenda, in particular, losing many of its youths to military raids, as the operation “cleans” them off the neighbourhoods and streets.
The operation which was introduced alongside a ban on the circulation of motorbikes, a principal means of transportation in the town has also seen many youths who relied on commercial bike riding for a living, losing their only source of income, in the heart of a civil war that has made life difficult for most people.
In a communique announcing the military operation, signed by the commander of the 5th joint military region, Brigadier General Nka Valere, alongside the commander of the 5th joint Gendarmerie, Brigadier General Okongwese Divine, and the Northwest Regional Delegate for National Security, Police Commissioner Gousmo Emile, stated, “The population of the city of Bamenda and its environs are hereby informed that on instructions from top command, Defence and Security forces (DSF) have initiated a special operation, to secure the city of Bamenda and its surroundings code-named “Bamenda Clean” from Tuesday, September 8/2020.”
Stating that the reason behind the operation was to rid the town of ‘terrorists’, and criminals, who kidnap, rob banks and stores, loot, as well as target and kill civilians as well as state security forces, the General re-echoed that the ban on commercial motorbikes in the Urban perimeter of Bamenda city must be respected. The regional authorities claimed that criminals in the region, as well as separatist fighters, were using motorbikes to carry out their operations, as such, the sector had to be banned to limit crime wave in the region.
Critics have, however, argued that the ban on commercial bike riding in the city will rather increase crime, because the thousands of youths who depend on it for a living, especially during the crisis that has seen many economic activities halted, will easily be lured into criminal gangs, or into Separatist activities.
After weeks of the implementation of the “Bamenda Clean” campaign, the civilian population has been hard hit. The raids and wanton house searches, accompanied by mass arrests in several neighbourhoods has placed the population on a tight spot. The several arrests made, often end up with the locals paying colossal sums paid for the arrested to be released.
Raids in neighbourhoods resulted in deaths of several youths, who after their execution, they are often branded as separatist fighters. The operation rather brought in an atmosphere of fear and tension, with several gun battles that have worsened the situation of life in the city, forcing many to stay only indoors, thus grounding economic activities in the town.
In a counter move by separatist fighters operating in the City, a ban was also placed on vehicles operating in town. They stated that vehicles will only be allowed to move freely when motorbikes are also permitted to circulate. This made transportation in the town a nightmare as the few taxis that braved the odds, to circulate could not ferry everyone around. The City council introduced buses to transport people within the town, but again separatist fighters have warned locals against using the buses, and have promised to attack the buses and its occupants, who they say they will consider and treat the same way as military personnel.
Bar Council Condemns Security Operation and Fallouts
After weeks of the operation, elected representatives of Northwest lawyers, who are also members of the Cameroon Bar Council wrote a terse letter the Attorney General of the Northwest region, telling him that the operation is rather punishing civilians and not protecting them, as was insinuated in the communique announcing it.
“Albeit the commendable objectives on which this operation is predicated, we are compelled by our noble role as watchdogs of the society to decry and condemn any act(s) which undermines the law, dehumanizes the population, flaws laid down rules, principles or procedures and/or equally violates national and international legislation as well as fundamental principles of justice.” The lawyers in their letter, signed by the Northwest regions Representative of the Batonnier, Mbah Eric Mbah Esq, and Bar Treasurer, Akum Michael Nche Esq stated.
The lawyers said they condemn atrocities committed on the population and security forces by Separatist fighters in the region, but went on to tell the Attorney General that they find it compelling to draw his attention to the shortcomings in the execution of the military operation and the security outreach.
Pointing out that they expect more from trained state security and defence forces, the lawyers highlighted that the execution of the operation on the field is largely characterized by intimidation, extortion, assault and torture, illegal arrests and incommunicado detentions of civilians in outfits unknown to their families and inaccessible to lawyers and that the arbitrarily arrested are often released against the payment of astronomical sums or even killed extra-judicially. They further stated that such acts can only be lamented by the helpless and voiceless civilian population, which they, the lawyers, seek to protect.
The lawyers further stated that a system of extortion has been deployed in the “Bamenda Clean” operation whereby cases are registered of forceful entry into houses, searches conducted without warrants nor a declaration of a state of emergency thereby intimidating the inhabitants and their fears exploited via financial gains.
“Considering the already precarious socio-economic and other effects of the Anglophone Crisis on the inhabitants of the region amidst the endless cycle of violence and hostilities, any oppressive conduct as currently evidenced in the ongoing initiative, if unchecked, might rather render it counter-productive, in strict contrast to its good-intended objectives and propelling motives.
“Such excesses can only help to boost the spirit of civil disobedience which nourishes radicalism, thereby undermining the efforts being made by the government and relevant stakeholders to ensure the return and prevalence of justice and peace (in the region); being indispensable ingredients for the return of normalcy.
“The civilian population of Bamenda, engulfed by fear are wondering and hoping that the law steps in to ensure that the Operation “Bamenda Clean” does not end up as a cleansing, or a worsening of an already bad situation.” The lawyers said.
Though the Bamenda and its environs have been tense since the crisis escalated into an armed conflict, the military operation has made it worse, with the frequent gun battles, the restricted movement as well as locals being unable to travel in and out or through the town on schedule, because of the volatile situation.