Cameroon’s President Biya Under Pressure Over Human Rights

 

 

Buffeted by security and political crises and embarrassed by military blunders, Cameroon’s government has been forced to give ground on human rights under intense pressure from campaigners and the UN and from allies who once chose to overlook its flaws.

NGOs have long denounced abuses in the central African country, from the detention of journalists and arrests of opponents to the killings of civilians by soldiers.

But after a massacre by security forces and the death of a detained journalist, the international outcry has been so loud that President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, has been forced to make U-turns.

Three soldiers were charged this month with murder over the February killing of 10 children and three women in western Cameroon. The UN says at least 23 civilians had died.

The military had denied the killings for two months, blaming the deaths on fuel containers that had accidentally exploded during a firefight between security forces and anglophone separatists.

The investigation and prosecution of the soldiers mark an unprecedented step by a regime deaf to such accusations for decades.

From now on, “it will be difficult for the regime to resist international pressure,” said Cameroonian political scientist Ambroise Louison Essomba.

The government “has every interest, for its own survival, to closely study this question of human rights”, said another analyst, Jacques Ebwea.

The pressure is mounting as Cameroon is battered by violence: in the north, where attacks by Boko Haram jihadists are on the rise, and in the west where a three-year separatist revolt rages on, rooted in resentment among the English-speaking minority in the francophone-majority country.

– Dismissed as fake –
Violence between anglophone separatists and security forces has claimed more than 3,000 lives and at least 700,000 have fled their homes.

Although rights monitors emphasise that abuses have been committed by both sides, the armed forces have become mired in a series of high-profile atrocities.

“The use of violence has become almost commonplace,” said Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, director of the Central Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (REDHAC).

Under pressure from NGOs, the United Nations, the United States and France — the country’s former colonial ruler and a close ally — Biya announced an investigation into the February killings, which found that the “uncontrolled” soldiers had tried to hide their crime and falsified their reports.

The United Nations welcomed the “positive step”, but demanded that “all those responsible” for the killing be brought to justice.

“There are more and more convictions, but unfortunately they are slow to produce the desired result, which is to establish a true rule of law,” said Ngo Mbe.

In another high-profile case, seven soldiers are on trial for the execution-style killing of two women and their babies in the Far North, a region abutting Nigeria where Boko Haram jihadists fighters have carried out brutal attacks on civilians.

The atrocity was filmed and shared on social media.

The government had initially dismissed the images as fake before — under international pressure — changing position and arresting the seven.

– Political crisis –
On top of those conflicts, Cameroon has been experiencing an unprecedented political crisis since Biya — who is 87 years old and has ruled Cameroon since 1982 — was re-elected in 2018.

His challenger and main opponent, Maurice Kamto, and hundreds of his supporters were arrested shortly after the elections.

They spent nine months in prison without trial before being released in October 2019, again after strong international mobilisation.

“The international community’s interventions inconvenience the regime… but very often only at first, and very little over the long term,” said Christophe Bobiokono, a member of the National Commission for Human Rights and Freedom, a government institute.

Local and international NGOs announced in early June that anglophone journalist Samuel Wazizi, who had been arrested ten months earlier, had died in detention at the hands of the military after being tortured.

The army finally acknowledged the death but denied the allegations of torture, claiming that he had died of severe sepsis less than two weeks after he was arrested on a terrorism charge.

Wazizi’s family said they were never informed of his death.

NGOs immediately called for an independent investigation, and hours later the French ambassador announced to the press that Biya would launch a probe after the two had met to discuss the death.

The press watchdog RSF ranks Cameroon 134th out of 180 countries and territories in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, three places lower than the previous year.

 

 

-AFP

Cameroon Army Confirms Journalist’s Death In Custody, Denies Torture

 

Cameroon’s army on Friday confirmed anglophone journalist Samuel Wazizi died in detention last year, accusing him of associating with terrorists but denying allegations he had been tortured.

The army said Wazizi died “as a result of severe sepsis” on August 17, 2019 — 15 days after his arrest, according to press watchdog RSF.

The military’s statement came after Cameroon’s journalists union reported that Wazizi died and said the army had tortured him.

The 35-year-old had worked for the local CMTV channel in one of two regions where anglophone separatists have launched an armed campaign for independence from French-speaking Cameroon.

He was arrested in the city of Buea on August 2 and “accused of speaking critically on the air about the authorities and their handling of the crisis,” according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The army said that while “claiming to be a presenter on a television station,” Wazizi was “in fact a logistician for various terrorist groups,” a reference to English-speaking separatists.

– ‘Tissue of lies’ –
Denis Nwebo, president of the National Union of Cameroon Journalists (SNJC), said in a tweet that the statement was “a tissue of lies and a final provocation.”

France’s ambassador to Cameroon Paul Guilhou said on CRTV that President Paul Biya was going to “conduct an investigation” into the death, after the two met on Friday.

The army also said the journalist’s family had been notified at the time — a claim his lawyers refuted — and had not turned up to take his body.

“We are in close contact with his family, who say they were not contacted, and we were already representing him at the time of his death — we were the people to be told,” lawyer Edward Ewule told AFP.

Ewule said he first heard the confirmation of his client’s death when the army’s statement was read on national radio.

“I am devastated, 10 months ago I was the last civilian to see him alive,” he said.

The reports of Wazizi’s death sparked outrage among journalists and rights groups this week, many using the hashtag #JusticeForWazizi on social media.

Jude Viban, the president of the Cameroon Association of English-Speaking Journalists, said “only an independent commission of inquiry would be able to shed light on this affair”.

“Why did the government not inform the justice system of the death of our colleague?”

RSF said on Twitter that it was “outraged” by the military’s statement.

“The family was never informed of his death and the journalist was in perfect health at the moment of his arrest,” it said.

The army called media reports of Wazizi’s death “a new episode of demonising our defence and security forces”.

– Separatist revolt –
The West African country’s Southwest and Northwest regions have been gripped by violence since the separatist revolt began in October 2017.

The conflict, rooted in long-standing perceptions of discrimination among Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, has claimed more than 3,000 lives and forced nearly 700,000 people to flee their homes.

Rights groups say atrocities and abuses have been committed by both the separatists and the security forces.

The RSF described Wazizi’s death as the country’s worst assault on journalists in a decade.

It ranked Cameroon 134th out of 180 countries and territories in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, three places lower than the previous year.

Cameroon Government Under Fire As COVID-19 Tally Rises

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 06, 2020 Some people wear masks as they walk by the entrance to the Yaounde General Hospital in Yaounde as Cameroon has confirmed its first case of the COVID-19 coronavirus, a French national who arrived in the capital Yaounde in February, the government said on today. AFP

 

Cameroon’s government faces mounting accusations that foot-dragging and incompetence have helped coronavirus gain a deadly grip.

In less than three months, the official case tally has risen to nearly 6,600, including 200 deaths — the third-highest number of infections of any country south of the Sahara.

Compared with Europe and America, this total is low, but experts warn of COVID-19’s ability to spread like wildfire in countries where health systems are weak and testing is poor.

Despite forecasts that cases would peak in June, schools and universities were suddenly told to reopen this week, prompting teachers and parents to warn that safety preparedness was nowhere near ready.

Cameroon on March 5 became the first central African country to register a case of the virus — a 58-year-old French national who had arrived in the capital Yaounde in February.

But it was not until two weeks later that the authorities set down restrictions for the country’s 25 million people.

READ ALSO: Armenia Hospitals Overwhelmed As COVID-19 Cases Surge

The opposition has repeatedly criticised what it says is the government’s failure to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously, as many other African countries imposed radical containment measures early on.

Albert Ze, an economist specialising in health issues, told AFP that management of the epidemic had been “disastrous.”

“We missed the opportunity to contain the virus at the very beginning,” he said.

President Paul Biya, who has been in power for nearly four decades, only appeared publicly on television on May 19, pressured by the opposition and the World Health Organization (WHO) after more than two months of silence.

– No lockdown –

“We are seeing a particularly significant progression of the epidemic — it’s extremely serious,” Eugene Sobngwi, vice chairman of the health ministry’s scientific council, told state television on May 24.

Cameroon could become “the laughing stock of the world,” he said.

Rebutting such worries, Health Minister Manaouda Malachie on Monday said the case figures “should not be a cause for alarm… so far the government has been in control of the situation”.

Ze accused the government of a lax response in key areas as the epidemic began to brew.

“Cameroon did not close its land, air and sea borders until March 18 — 12 days after the first ‘imported’ case, and weeks after many other African countries,” he said.

The government was also laid back in social distancing, limiting gatherings to 50 people while other countries on the continent set a maximum of 10.

No lockdown has ever been imposed in Cameroon, and restaurants, bars and nightclubs were only forced to close after 6pm.

And those restrictions, as well as rules for distancing on public transport, were not implemented until mid-March.

Despite the late response, the impact of those measures was “immediate — Cameroonians understood there was a major problem,” said Professor Yap Boum II, an epidemiologist and head of a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) research centre in Yaounde.

A month after the start of the epidemic, the authorities required wearing of facemasks, and this too helped strengthen awareness and tighten control over the virus, he said.

But on April 30 the government abruptly eased public transport restrictions and allowed bars, restaurants and nightclubs to reopen in the evenings.

In the public’s mind, the brakes were now off, said Boum.

The move “led to almost total relaxation of the population, as if this announcement sounded the end of the epidemic,” Boum said.

“We saw fewer and fewer people wearing masks, and more and more people in bars — and a month later we more than tripled” the number of cases and fatalities, he said.

– Back to school –

The reopening of schools and universities, another unexpected move, has been attacked as premature by teachers’ unions and parents, who have taken to social media to voice their fears.

The amount of equipment made available is “ridiculously small,” said Roger Kaffo, general secretary of the National Union of Secondary School Teachers, pointing out that the supply of 3,000 masks was not even one mask per teacher at secondary-school level.

Daniel Claude Abate, president of an association of small and medium-sized businesses and member of the ruling RDPC party, defended the government’s decision not to impose the toughest restrictions.

“We cannot afford to shut down our countries, with fragile economies, as others do,” he said.

Even so, “there should have been surveillance policy measures” to track the virus, he said, conceding the government had made “some mistakes.”

AFP

Cameroon President Breaks Media Silence After Two Months Of COVID-19 Pandemic

Cameroon President Paul Biya speaks as he meets with French former hostages at the presidential palace in Yaounde on April 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO / REINNIER KAZE
Cameroon President Paul Biya speaks as he meets with French former hostages at the presidential palace in Yaounde on April 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO / REINNIER KAZE.

 

Cameroon’s 87-year-old President Paul Biya has made a televised address to his people ending more than two months of silence as the central African nation dealt with a burgeoning coronavirus crisis.

Biya’s long silence was for supporters a sign of gravitas but for critics one of failure.

“Like most countries in the world Cameroon is suffering from COVID-19,” Biya said Tuesday night on state channel CRTV.

“The number of people infected rises day after day, bringing proof that the fight against the pandemic is complex and difficult.”

Biya urged people to respect “measures taken by the government, such as the obligatory wearing of masks”.

He also asked them “not to give in to panic and not to believe false information put out on social networks”.

He last spoke to the nation on March 5, although Cameroon had counted by Monday 3,500 cases including 140 deaths, and has been hit harder by the virus than most sub-Saharan African countries.

Speculation about his death even circulated on the internet in late April and the government was moved to put out a denial.

In his 37 years in power, Cameroonians have become accustomed to Biya’s long absences, mainly because of poor health.

But his silence over the pandemic raised numerous questions for a leader who has overseen many crises since he took power in 1982.

READ ALSO: Burundians Vote Despite COVID-19 Outbreak

He posed for the cameras after talks with the US ambassador on March 11 and again after meeting the French envoy.

His subsequent absence from public view saw the opposition question his role.

Main opposition leader Maurice Kamto, the runner-up to Biya in 2018 elections, said he had launched proceedings for the Consitutional Council to declare the presidency vacant.

Six opposition activists were arrested last week in Cameroon for “illegally” distributing face masks and disinfectant gel.

All are supporters of Kamto whose initiative to collect funds to fight the virus has been banned by government.

They were released after five days.

Biya reappeared finally on the eve of national day.

“Most of you have fully understood that faced with the silent danger that COVID-19 represents it was time to set aside political quarrels and form a united front,” he said.

AFP

Cameroon Releases 1,300 Prisoners In Bid To Stop COVID-19 Spread

Cameroon President Paul Biya speaks as he meets with French former hostages at the presidential palace in Yaounde on April 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO / REINNIER KAZE
Cameroon President Paul Biya speaks as he meets with French former hostages at the presidential palace in Yaounde on April 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO / REINNIER KAZE

 

Cameroon has freed more than 1,300 prisoners in its two main cities in a bid to ease overcrowding and contain the spread of the new coronavirus, officials said.

In April, President Paul Biya in April signed a decree to commute sentences and free some prisoners as part of measures to combat the pandemic.

The justice minister said in a statement that 608 prisoners had been freed in Doula, the economic capital, and another 700 released in the capital Yaounde.

More prisoners in other areas are in the process of being released, the ministry said, with the exact number to be determined by commissions put in place to study who is eligible.

Cameroon has officially registered 1,163 infections and 42 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, the second most affected country in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa.

Cameroon has a prison population of around 30,000 with more than half of those awaiting sentencing and mostly held in overcrowded facilities.

Overcrowding, poor hygiene conditions and a high rate of illnesses such as tuberculosis, cholera and AIDS make the prison populations vulnerable.

 

AFP

Africa Nations Cup Qualifiers Postponed Over Coronavirus Outbreak

File: A Beninese fan cheers for his team prior to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) Round of 16 football match between Morocco and Benin at the Al-Salam Stadium in the Egyptian capital Cairo on July 5, 2019.
Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

 

The third and fourth rounds of qualifying this month for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon have been postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak, the organisers said Friday.

A total of 48 matches were scheduled to be played between Wednesday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 31.

Confederation of African Football acting secretary-general Abdel Bah said in a statement that several factors led to the postponements.

READ ALSO: Four More Sampdoria Players Test Positive For Coronavirus

These included many African stars being based in European countries that have been severely affected by the virus.

Bah said players travelling to Africa could have been quarantined for several weeks, and some European clubs had refused to release African players.

New dates have not been announced and one possibility is that the final two rounds of qualifying, set for June 1-9 and August 31-September 8, could change from one matchday to two.

AFP

Cameroon Confirms First Case Of Coronavirus – Health Ministry

 

Cameroon has confirmed its first case of the novel coronavirus, a French national who arrived in the capital Yaounde in February, the government said on Friday.

The man, 58, has been placed in isolation in a hospital, the health ministry said in a statement.

READ ALSO: South Africa Records First Case Of Coronavirus

(FILES) This file handout illustration image obtained February 3, 2020, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
Lizabeth MENZIES / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention / AFP

In sub-Saharan Africa, Senegal has registered four cases, all foreign nationals, and South Africa and Nigeria have one case each since the outbreak emerged in December in China.

Violence, Boycott Overshadow Cameroon Elections

 

Cameroon voted Sunday in polls overshadowed by a partial opposition boycott and separatist violence that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Elections for the central African country’s legislature and local councils are taking place for the first time in seven years, after two postponements.

They are unlikely to ruffle the enduring rule of President Paul Biya, one of the world’s oldest and longest-serving leaders, who has held a tight grip on power for 37 of his 86 years.

As voting began large numbers of police and soldiers were seen deployed on the streets of Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region, one of two provinces gripped by bloody separatist violence.

But the polling stations in the city were almost deserted an hour after they opened at 8am (0700 GMT).

The main opposition party, the Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) is refusing to field a single candidate.

The boycott will all but guarantee a crushing victory for the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (RDPC in its French initials), which in the outgoing legislature had 148 out of 180 seats.

The other large opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), which currently has 18 seats, will take part in Sunday’s vote, going back on a threat to snub it.

In the capital Yaounde, it appeared that enthusiasm for the vote was subdued, with no crowds outside polling stations as they opened in the district of Briqueterie.

“I want to do my duty as a citizen,” said Abdias Lah, one of the few voters to cast an early ballot.

– ‘Spiral of violence’ –

Cameroon is struggling with two conflicts.

In the two English-speaking regions — the southwest and northwest — the armed forces are battling separatists who want to secede from the majority French-speaking country.

The 28-month conflict has claimed more than 3,000 lives and caused more than 700,000 people to flee, according to tolls compiled by NGOs.

Amnesty International said there has been a “surge in violence” by the Cameroon military in the weeks leading up to the vote, resulting in killings and the displacement of thousands in the English-speaking regions.

“In recent weeks, brutal military operations have been conducted while crimes committed by armed separatists continue unabated. Civilians are finding themselves trapped in a spiral of violence,” said Fabien Offner, Amnesty’s Lake Chad Researcher.

The SDF traditionally draws much of its support from the anglophone regions but now fears that it has been outflanked by the radicals — and says its candidates there have come under attack.

Similar worries are being voiced for the safety of polling stations in Cameroon’s Far North region, which has been battered by Boko Haram jihadists crossing from Nigeria.

The government on Friday announced that all of Cameroon’s borders would be closed until Monday, and shops and drink outlets had to close on polling day.

– City power –
MRC leader, Maurice Kamto, spent nine months in jail after his defeat in 2018 presidential elections and is now abroad.

“We could have had a few seats in parliament and some town councillors, but how would that enable us to influence events in Cameroon?” Kamto said in an interview with AFP in Paris last month.

Given the seemingly inevitable outcome of legislative vote, most media attention has focused on the municipal elections that are also taking place.

Some cities, including Douala, the country’s economic hub, could swing to the opposition, according to some forecasts.

City chiefs are to gain powers under measures taken in December to decentralise some authority out of Yaounde.

The reforms have been triggered by the anglophone crisis although they fall far short of meeting the separatists’ demands.

“The stakes (on Sunday) are local,” said Stephane Akoa, a researcher at the Paul Ango Ela think tank in Yaounde.

Two Killed, 20 Houses Burnt As Boko Haram Attacks Cameroon Village

 

Suspected Boko Haram jihadists attacked a village in northern Cameroon early Tuesday, torching homes and killing two civilians just days before legislative and municipal elections, security sources said.

“Boko Haram made an incursion a little before 2:00 am in Mozogo village,” in the Extreme-Nord province “killing two people,” a police officer told AFP.

They torched about 20 homes and two motorbikes and stole another five motorcycles, the officer said.

An army officer confirmed the incident.

Security has been tightened in Cameroon ahead of Sunday’s elections. Anglophone separatists are fighting government troops in western Cameroon while the north of the country has come under attack from Boko Haram.

Based in neighbouring Nigeria, Boko Haram has stepped up attacks from bases hidden in the vast Lake Chad area, where the borders of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria converge.

Cameroon says the group has carried out nearly 13,000 attacks on its territory since 2014, with the loss of “several thousand” lives.

The insurgency has forced more than 250,000 people to flee their homes and triggered an influx of 60,000 people from Nigeria.

Boko Haram was formed in Nigeria but attacks have spread to neighbouring countries. The group has also split and a faction affiliated with the Islamic State group, ISWAP, is particularly active around Lake Chad.

rek-cma/ach/pvh

Five Killed In Jihadist Attack In Cameroon

 

Five people were killed in an overnight attack by jihadists in the Lake Chad region of northern Cameroon, sources said on Wednesday.

“Five civilians were killed by Boko Haram in Blaram,” a village in the Blangoua district of Cameroon’s Far North region, a local official said.

The toll was confirmed to AFP by an army officer in the region.

Based in neighbouring Nigeria, Boko Haram has stepped up attacks in the vast Lake Chad region where the borders of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria converge.

Cameroon says the group has carried out nearly 13,000 attacks on its territory since 2014, with the loss of “several thousand” lives.

The insurgency has forced more than 250,000 people to flee their homes and triggered an influx of 60,000 people from Nigeria.

AFP

Gunmen Abduct Eight Sailors In Cameroon

 

Armed men attacked a Greek oil tanker in the Cameroonian port of Limbe on Tuesday and abducted eight seamen, Greece’s merchant marine ministry said.

The five Greeks, two Filipinos and a Ukrainian were part of a 28-member crew aboard the Happy Lady, including one, a Greek national, who was injured, the ministry said in a statement.

“Merchant Marine Minister Yannis Plakiotakis is following developments closely, along with the Greek foreign ministry and the oil tanker’s operator,” the statement said.

Attacks on ships and kidnappings for ransom are relatively frequent along the West African coast.

Pirates hijack ships sometimes for several days as they pillage their cargo while demanding hefty ransoms in return for the release of the crew.

Armed men raided another Greek oil tanker, the Elka Aristote, in November around 10 nautical miles off the Togolese capital Lome, capturing four sailors.

They released three of the men on December 13, but one died in captivity.

An investigation is still under way, but “it appears his death was not a result of actions by the hostage-takers but of illness,” the tanker’s shipbuilder said at the time.

AFP

Boko Haram Terrorists Kidnap 21 Civilians In North Cameroon

Boko Haram militants have kidnapped 21 civilians in the north of Cameroon near the Nigeria frontier, police and local officials said on Thursday.

“Boko Haram attacked around 2300 (22:00 GMT) in Mbreche district, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the Nigeria border. They kidnapped 21 people, but four managed to escape,” a local official said.

A police official confirmed the number of kidnapped people.