Facing a growing pro-democracy movement, Cameroon is resorting to an old formula – namely unleashing government power in the form of threats, arrests and excessive force.
Hundreds of supporters of Maurice Kamto, leader of the opposition Cameroon Resistance Movement, have been filling the streets, demanding his release from detention but were detained themselves by security forces on June 8, 2019. According to his lawyer, Kamto could be charged with: insurrection, hostility against the homeland, criminal association, threats to public order, rebellion, group rebellion, and inciting insurrection.
A respected professor of international law, former dean of the faculty of Juridical and Political Sciences at University of Yaoundé II, and former chairman and special rapporteur of the UN International Law Commission from 1999 to 2016, Kamto has been locked up since January 28 after he challenged the sweeping electoral victory of President Paul Biya. His offenses could result in the death penalty.
He and his other jailed supporters are reported to have begun a hunger strike.
Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, commented: “The Cameroonian government’s crackdown shows that it is unwilling to accept a role for opposition parties, sending a chilling message to those who would dare challenge the status quo.”
She added: “The latest crackdown was consistent with the methods of a government whose security forces have committed grave abuses against civilians and dissenting voices in recent years.”
Local activists condemned authorities for denying lawful permits to protest – a violation of the Constitution. “We are exercising our constitutional rights,” said Christopher Ndong of the Cameroon Resistance Movement, “because we have a right to march and protest when things are going wrong.”
Human rights activist Jean Pierre Bengono also criticized the government of Paul Biya for deploying the security forces in riot gear to disperse crowds in Yaounde, Douala and Mbouda. Organized democracies need the opposition to check political excesses and discuss the well-being of its people, he maintained.
Kamto challenged the vote totals in the presidential election of October 7, 2018, and accused President Paul Biya, who has led the country for 36 years, of stealing his victory.
Beyond Cameroon’s borders, calls for his release have come from the UN Secretary-General, Amnesty International, and Board of The Hague Academy of International Law, in which Kamto serves, among others.
Government minister Paul Atanga Nji responded to the growing chorus of condemnation with a warning. “We can no longer tolerate those who undermine the laws of the republic. He [Kamto] has a hidden agenda to destabilize Cameroon. We will not give him the opportunity,” he said.