Despite somewhat slipping from global headlines in recent weeks, Cameroon has nonetheless maintained its death spiral. The root cause of the crisis can be unequivocally placed at the doorstep of the Presidency, or the Geneva Intercontinental Hotel, where President Paul Biya spends much of his time. As we have previously written on this site, President Biya is Africa’s oldest head of state, having been in power since 1982, and recently secured a seventh term in office despite credible allegations of vote rigging, electoral fraud, targeted threats of violence against opponents, and an ongoing, bloody uprising in the country’s Anglophone regions.
Biya’s main challenger in the October 2018 election, Maurice Kamto, has been subsequently charged by a military court with rebellion, insurrection and “hostility to the homeland,” after his political party staged peaceful protests in several of Cameroon’s major cities. To be sure, Kamto’s ordeal is only the latest example in a long succession of targeted harassment, intimidation and persecution of the country’s dissidents and opposition political figures. Akere Muna, for instance — another 2018 presidential challenger who ultimately joined Kamto’s coalition — has been repeatedly targeted by local authorities, as has Kah Walla, a former presidential candidate, leading women’s rights activist, and president of the Cameroon People’s Party.
Next week, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy visits Cameroon, Maurice Kamto and countless other political prisoners will likely remain behind bars and the country’s activist community still living in fear. Importantly, however, political leaders in the U.S. have begun to speak up, while certain sectors of the U.S. government have also taken actions to hold Cameroonian leaders accountable, or at least put the government on notice that human rights violations will not be allowed to continue without consequence.
Last month, for example, U.S. officials committed to “terminate” over $17 million in security assistance to the Biya regime, as well as the withdrawal of an offer for Cameroon to be a candidate for the State Partnership Program, which links 81 nations around the world with the U.S. armed forces “in a mutually beneficial relationship.” This move, indeed, was long overdue given the ongoing, absolutely horrific abuses being perpetrated in the country — most notably in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, which has resulted in tens of thousands of refugees and, according to recent public opinion polling, a dramatic decline in citizens’ faith in their leaders and state institutions.
U.S. Congressional leaders are also speaking out, including Representative Eliot Engel, the powerful chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who this week wrote a letter of concern focused specifically on Cameroon to Secretary Nagy, in light of his upcoming trip. This is no small feat. In the letter, Congressman Engel requested that Secretary Nagy — who has previously served in Cameroon — to “raise the fact that the Government of Cameroon has clearly violated the rights of Mr. Kamto and other political prisoners to assemble freely and express and disseminate their opinions, which are encapsulated in the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), which Cameroon ratified three decades ago.”
Certainly, the issue at hand is not about “western moralizing” or “American finger wagging” as it is often perceived or otherwise presented by Cameroon state media (and other repressive governments on the African continent). These rightful voices of concern are simply pointing out the fact that leaders in Cameroon, among others, often fail to live up to the language enshrined in their own constitutions, conventions, norms and regional standards. The ACHPR, for example, and the African Charter on Democracy, Governance and Elections exist for a reason. And they should be duly respected.
Instead of engaging in a comprehensive, much-needed dialogue with the political opposition, civil society, and Cameroon’s beleaguered business community, which is also suffering as a result of the crackdown, President Biya and the ruling cabal have doubled down, contracting highly paid lobbyists in Washington to whitewash their crimes while engaging in a scorched earth policy back home. Increased repression, and the climate of fear that is purposefully cultivated as a result, may keep President Biya and his enablers in power for the time being. The only viable path, however, towards achieving progress, development and ultimate peace will surely have to be based on respecting democratic principles and meeting the so far unmet aspirations of its people who are yearning for a better life — many of whom continue to quite literally put their lives on the line to secure a better, more prosperous country for future generations.