Since October 2016, Cameroon has known sustained protests in its two English-speaking regions. Lawyers, teachers and the general population in these two regions have been protesting discrimination and marginalization of the Anglophone population and the violation of agreements made at independence. These protests which have been non-violent for the most part, have been met with armed, violent response by the state.
Dozens of Cameroonians have been injured, about 5 people have been killed. Police brutality has been caught on camera. To date, no police officer has been publicly charged with brutality or murder.
Of greatest concern to us at this time is the arrests of leaders and members of the Anglophone movement. Some key leaders are slated for trial on Wednesday, February 1, 2017.
The Bamenda Arrests
On December 8, 2016 hundreds of young people came out to protest against the ruling party which wanted to hold a “peace parade” in Bamenda, the capital of the North West region. People in Bamenda had engaged in protests since October and were dissatisfied with government response. It was inconceivable to them that the ruling party would then endeavor to hold a peace parade in their town portraying what to them would be a lie. Protestors blocked roads and stopped anyone who tried to participate in the parade. Young men, filled with frustration used sling shots and stones to stop police from clearing a pathway for the parade.
Government response was stunningly violent. About 5 young men were killed that day, at least two shot in the back by police. Several dozen young men were arrested. To this day, the exact number arrested and their names have not been released by government. Activists identified 21 persons arrests. 10 were later released. Today it is unclear how many young men still are being detained. It is unclear whether they all have access to legal counsel, food and basic healthcare.
The Arrests of the Leaders
On January 17th, the Government of Cameroon published a ministerial decision banning the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium. This Consortium included over 20 legal associations and trade unions, notably the lawyers’ associations and teachers’ unions with whom government had been negotiating for over 3 months. Less than 3 hours after banning the Consortium, its leaders, Lawyer Agbor Balla and Dr. Fontem Neba were arrested. Subsequent arrests of leaders followed. To date, the Anglophone leaders arrested include:
Two Attorney Generals have also been arrested.
Arrests of Grassroots Activists
In the week of January 23rd, arrests continued. Several grassroots activists are reported to have been arrested. We unfortunately do not have exact information on names and numbers.
Of particular concern is the disappearance of Jean-Claude Agbortem, internet activist and formerly a spokesperson for the Consortium. Jean-Claude disappeared on January 26th and has not been heard from since. It is believed that he was arrested. However, he has not been given any opportunity to contact family or legal counsel and his exact whereabouts are unknown.
Government Breaks the Law
None of the arrests have followed due process. Under Cameroon law to arrest someone, police must have a warrant, a police convocation or catch the culprit while the crime is being committed.
All those arrested so far have been kidnapped without any form of notification and often for 24 hours or more friends and family had no idea where they were. In the case of Jean-Claude Agbortem, 4 days later, we have no idea where he is.
Cameroon has a specific process for arresting Supreme Court Justices, which both of these Attorney Generals are. This legal process was not followed. Judges were also kidnapped from their homes.
Cameroon law gives you right to legal counsel upon arrest. Of course, if no one knew where these people were, they were deprived of counsel for days after arrest.
Those arrested have been charged under the law on terrorism. Charges include: secession, inciting rebellion, treason and acts of terrorism. Under the law on terrorism in Cameroon, the maximum penalty on these charges is DEATH!
We are demanding that all these prisoners be simply released! Government cannot discuss and negotiate with people one week and declare them terrorists the next. The breaking of the law at the time they were taken into custody, nullifies these arrests.
The Cameroon Government as well as all other stakeholders know that these persons represent the millions in these two regions who are profoundly disaffected with government. They chose non-violent protest to express their political opinion. This is a fundamental right stipulated by the Constitution of Cameroon.
These arrests are having a highly undesired effect. They are polarizing the people of the South West and North West regions. These intimidation and fear tactics by government are increasing the number of people who feel they can no longer live under the Cameroonian state. Government tactics are swelling the ranks of secessionists and putting at risk the prospect of a peaceful resolution to these very real problems.
Background Information on the Anlophone Problem in Cameroon
The protests began with teachers and lawyers in the South West and North West regions of Cameroon. They called for reforms of the legal and educational systems to fight against the discrimination and marginalization of the English-speaking population that has taken root in Cameroon since its reunification.
All of this coupled with the poor governance that is experienced by all the regions in Cameroon, notably the lack of: water, electricity, roads, healthcare, schools, etc. Anglophones reached breaking point. Protests that started with the lawyers and teachers in October 2016 were quickly taken up by the general population.
Various protests tactics are being used, but of greatest impact are the teachers and lawyers strikes which mean millions of children are not going to school and courts are paralyzed. “Ghost Towns” which are general stay-at-home strikes are heavily impacting the economies of these regions.
Following the brutal response of the authorities, the population and the Anglophone leaders are not only demanding reforms in the legal and educational systems. The moderates demand that Cameroon return to its original two-state federation form (an Anglophone state and a Francophone state), leaving the Anglophones to manage their affairs on their own and calls for secession, which have existed marginally since independence, grow louder daily.
While these massive protests have been led by the Anglophones there is significant sympathy from the Francophone population which recognizes the effects of bad governance that have pushed the Anglophones to the edge. However, there are very mixed feelings about the stance on secession or even two-state federation which the government is very effectively portraying as a move by ‘terrorists” and “outside forces” to divide Cameroon.