Hundreds of inmates have staged a riot at Cameroon’s central prison in Yaoundé to demand better conditions. The mutiny by the mainly Anglophone prisoners, captured on Facebook Live, showed buildings set on fire and shots fired as police stormed the prison.
The revolt has created new fervour amongst the Anglophone population in Cameroon, as the government continues to grapple with the Anglophone crisis in the north and south west regions.
Nearly 600 prisoners – mainly Anglophone political opponents and separatists – took over various wings of Kondengui prison in the Yaoundé capital on Monday morning to protest against their conditions.
Men portraying themselves as Ambazonian separatists are heard venting their anger at the lack of food and water on Facebook live and calling for an end to arbitrary trials and overcrowding.
“Some of them have been in jail for two years, have not been taken to court, and believe that their process was not fair and they want the government to release them,” explains Agbor Nkongho, a human rights lawyer.
Witnesses said that other inmates joined the mutiny, including French-speaking Cameroonians, bringing the rioters to over 1,500, according to Reuters.
Police stormed the prison early on Monday evening and used tear gas to disperse the prisoners.
On Tuesday, reports indicated that the protests were still going on.
“Because the prison is congested, it is not very easy to manage 4,000 people in a space meant for 1,000 people. It just shows that the state cannot really handle the problem,” Nkongho told RFI.
The Kondengui maximum prison is where the vast majority of Anglophone activists from Cameroon’s three-year long crisis are being kept.
Feeling of injustice
Protests were driven by a range of everyday grievances from the inflexible school curriculum that privileged the French-speaking majority, to the legal system that makes justice harder to get for English speakers.
That same feeling of injustice underscores Monday’s prison revolt reckons Joshua Osih, the vice president of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the main opposition party.
“Prisoners who I’ve been in touch with, say they don’t understand why they are being deported to Yaoundé to be judged in the French language instead of in the north and south west,” he told RFI.
The transfer of detainees from the Anglophone regions to Yaoundé’s central prison has come under criticism from rights groups. In January 2018, the UNCHR slammed the arrest and deportation of 47 separatists who had filed asylum claims in Nigeria.
Among the claimants was separatist leader Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, president of the self-declared “Republic of Ambazonia”.
“The military tribunal refused to use the English language in the trial of Ayuk Tabe and the others. If it wasn’t granted for the leaders of the Anglophone movement, I don’t see any chance of it being granted to these prisoners,” Osih commented, saying it added to the “sense of injustice over this judicial system which is no longer working in this country.”
The UN estimates 1.3m people are in need of humanitarian aid in northwest and southwest Cameroon.
Search for dialogue
The government of Paul Biya is under increasing pressure to engage in talks with separatists to bring an end to the crisis. In Europe, the Swiss government is leading mediation efforts.
Meanwhile on the ground, the Catholic Church has been the most vocal about ending the crisis, with Cardinal Christian Tumi calling for an Anglophone conference between the main leaders of the separatist movement and the government.
Parties like the Social Democratic Front have welcomed the initiative but say it is not enough.
“The problem is not in Bamenda, or in Buea, the problem is in Yaoundé,” insists the SDF vice president Joshua Osih. The government, in his opinion, has shown little regard for Anglophone demands thus far.
President Paul Biya’s government has responded to nonviolent protests over perceived marginalisation by the French-speaking majority, with force. In late 2016, this resentment boiled over into an armed uprising.
For his part, Agbor Nkongho reckons a holistic solution is needed and for both sides to recognize their mistakes.
“The government cannot keep arresting people, where are they going to keep them? The detainees were shouting ‘enough is enough’ and that is a reflection of what people in Cameroon want,” he said.
The government held crisis talks all day on Monday. RFI reached out to officials for comment but received no response.