The crisis in Cameroon continues to fester without much international concern about serious human rights violations. With his close ties to France and his support for the American-led war against Boko Haram terrorism in the north of the country, President Paul Biya may ignore local pressure. But the conflict between the French-speaking and English-speaking parts of Cameroon will not simply vanish.
At a Higher Judicial Council meeting in Cameroon chaired by President Paul Biya on 7 June, it was expected that at the top of the agenda would be the Anglophone Problem and the arrest of 28 civil society leaders from Anglophone Cameroon. Amongst those detained now for five months is a sitting Chief Judge at the Cameroonian Supreme Court, Ayah Paul Abine, and several other prominent leaders with international profiles like and human rights lawyer Nkongho Felix Agbor Ball, the President of the now banned Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CASC).
The ten-member Council includes the minister of justice and, amongst other things, handles disciplinary issues in the judiciary. Yet initial reports from the Council meeting make no mention of discussions on Judge Ayah Paul Abine or the case of the 28 leaders that are being tried jointly on charges which include treason. Conveniently also on 7 June, the court case against the leaders went back into session, only to be postponed again until 29 June.
The phonic rift has its roots in Cameroon’s colonial past. At Independence, Cameroon formed a federal government between an area that had been under the French and a smaller area under the British. Confidence deteriorated amongst the Francophone political leaders that feared federalism would lead to secession of the Anglophone state. A centralised state was formed under Francophone leadership and has been consolidated under President Paul Biya who has held onto power for 35 years and has maintained close ties to France.
The current problem began in October 2016 when lawyers and teachers went on strike demanding greater inclusion of English-speaking professionals in the legal and teaching sectors. This led to rising dissent in the weeks that followed in support of the strikes and in protest against the ‘marginalization and deprivation’ of Anglophone Cameroonians by the Francophone-dominated government.
Protests in Anglophone Cameroon were very much alive three months after the initial strike but there seemed to be a chance that the impasse could be broken when in January the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium entered into dialogue with the government. The Consortium pulled out of the dialogue when four unarmed civilians were shot by security forces, and called for a stay away to create a “ghost town” in peaceful protest on 16 and 17 January 2017. The action was successful, empowered by the ability to structure, unify and share over social media. In response, the Cameroon government launched an attack on civil space, arresting leaders of the Anglophone Consortium and taking action by blocking internet and cell phone data access.
The internet blockade was used as a weapon to create more than economic hardship. It went on for months and whilst it served to demobilise, it was also punitive extended censorship and repressive control to everyone in the region. A delegation led by Kumi Naidoo, the Launching Director of Africans Rising, in February 2017 observed its devastating effects one month into the internet blockade. They observed the extensive impact of isolation in these regions, severely affecting the ability for businesses and services including healthcare and education to function.
Apart from international outcry for the brutal put-down of the 2016 actions in the Anglophone regions, the unlawful arrest and detention leaders from the Anglophone Consortium has not gained much momentum. Some human rights organisations like Frontline Defenders and Amnesty International have called for the release of some of the Anglophone Consortium leaders.
A strong statement came from the African Human and Peoples Rights Commissioner Reine Alapini-Gansou. He expressed concern for the deteriorating human rights situation in Cameroon in December 2016 and described the response of the government as “the disproportionate and deathly use of force and violence to dispel peaceful and unarmed lawyers, teachers, students, civilians and protesters in Bamenda, Buea and Kumba; the raping of students in Buea; the arbitrary arrests, detention and merciless beatings orchestrated by the police, gendarmerie, military and the BIR following strikes and protests that have been going on since October 2016.”
The UN has taken a quiet diplomacy approach to the Cameroonian government’s response to the Anglophone Problem. Admittedly, internet connection to the Anglophone regions, which had been blocked for four months, was reinstated in April a week after the UN Representative, François Louncény Fall, ended a visit with a press conference where he called for the re-establishment of the internet throughout Cameroon. Louncény did not openly criticise the continued detention of the Anglophone Consortium leaders; instead he said their release would create confidence building conducive to ending the crisis.
The repressive status quo it seems will continue without any meaningful international criticism because the Northern Cameroon border with Nigeria is a front on which to fight the Boko Haram. In addition to Cameroonian troops, the US has a drone base and 300 soldiers stationed here. But perhaps the continuing crisis will not escape the attention of UN representatives that are scheduled to visit Cameroon in June and they will address more than the Boko Haram with the Cameroonian government.
Time is running out for Cameroon to find its way back. The final outcome of Biya’s Higher Judicial Council and the resolution of charges against the Anglophone Consortium leaders will determine whether the rule of law and an independent judiciary have a chance to survive this latest onslaught.