Cameroon: What will President Paul Biya’s regime do with its opponents?

By Franck Foute

Posted on Monday, 27 September 2021 09:34
Maurice Kamto during a meeting in Yaounde, 30 September 2018

One year after the 22 September 2020 demonstrations were repressed, the proceedings against the imprisoned activists are stalling. Is Cameroon’s judiciary simply moving at its usual slow pace on this heated political affair or is it intentionally trying to stifle the opposition? This question is stirring public opinion.

The 43 activists from the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (CRM) that are detained in Kondengui’s central prison celebrated a strange anniversary on 22 September. A few party officials came to the prison to bring them a message of encouragement from Maurice Kamto, as well as a generous portion of ndolé and cake that had been prepared for the occasion. The prison officers then put an end to the “festivities”.

Just like those in Yaounde, 124 other people that were arrested on the sidelines of the 22 September 2020 demonstrations have commemorated their 12th month in detention. Inmates at the prisons of Mfou, Bafoussam and Doula sadly reflected on the events of that crazy day.

Obstruction of justice

A year ago, opposition parties and civil society organisations called for peaceful street protests against the government’s decision to organise regional elections without amending the electoral code, against the Anglophone crisis and to demand more transparency regarding the management of funds allocated to the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN). Security forces acted quickly. They used tear gas and water cannons, and arrested nearly 550 supporters of opposition parties. Among them were Olivier Bibou Nissack and Alain Fogue, two pillars of the CRM political machine.

Those arrested had varying outcomes in court. The majority of them have since been released, but 116 have appeared before military courts to answer charges related to their participation in the demonstrations or their activism. In Douala and Bafoussam, the trials are now underway, while in Yaoundé, the detainees’ cases are still being investigated. Additionally, eight other defendants have been convicted by a civil court on similar charges and are currently serving two-year prison sentences.

These oppositionists’ lawyers, who all belong to the collective Sylvain Souop, feel that these procedures are “unjust and unacceptable.” On 9 September, they decided to lay down their robes to protest against what they describe as obstruction of justice.

“We cannot associate ourselves with arbitrariness and illegality,” said Hippolyte Meli in a public statement, citing, among other things, “the lack of access to fair justice…the civilian or military judges in charge of these cases’ lack of independence and fairness, [and] a manifest refusal to apply the law.”

Many within the CRM are convinced that the party is being muzzled. “The judiciary refuses to issue a ruling because many have a grudge against the CRM,” says one of its leaders. “Our party is solidly established and its level of organisation scares the regime in Yaoundé, which uses anti-democratic shortcuts to try to break its momentum.” The fact that Kamto spent three months under house arrest in the wake of these demonstrations, without ever receiving the slightest explanation as to why, is proof of this.

“Hostility against the fatherland”

Since September 2020, the Cameroonian authorities have provided little information on the imprisoned activists’ fate. Last December, René Emmanuel Sadi, the government spokesperson, insisted on the “insurrectional” nature of the demonstrations and stated in a written statement: “Legal proceedings against the leaders and organisers […] will continue. Several people arrested within the context of this insurrectional movement have already been released. Others will be released as the legal proceedings progress and in consideration of their degree of involvement and the threat they pose to society.”

In the corridor of power, the judiciary is seen as independent and charged to do its work ‘with due diligence’. “It is important to know that the charges levelled against these individuals are sufficiently serious for the justice system to take the time to investigate them properly. When we are talking about hostility against the country or insurrection, we are not talking about a little petty theft in the neighbourhood,” says an administration official.

Human rights organisations have begun to express concern about the situation. “The authorities should immediately and unconditionally release all those who have been arrested for expressing their political views or for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and end the repressive campaign against peaceful protesters and government critics,” said the NGOs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, on the sidelines of the first anniversary of the 22 September 2020 protests.

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