“Until injustice and lopsidedness in national affairs in Cameroon is property addressed… we will continue to have incidence like this.”
Certainly, the kidnapping of 79 Cameroonian students by gunmen last week was a veiled message to the government that the Ambazonian separatists are indefatigable in their demand for autonomy and would make all sacrifice to achieve the goal.
Though the gunmen were not immediately identified and the students have been released, it is instructive that they rejected ransom. Rather, they demanded that the school should be closed. It is not the first time students would be kidnapped but it is the first time such a large number of students were involved and ransom was not demanded.
Apparently, the demand for the closing of schools is to ensure the safety of the students. However, the kidnapping of students by insurgents to drum home their message has remained a worrisome development in the subregion. But beyond the closure of schools in the two regions, what is clear now is that Cameroon is sliding into civil war. Last week, President Biya asked the separatists to lay down their arms or face the rigour of the law and the determination of the defense and security forces. He spoke during his inauguration for the 7th term in office.
He reportedly promised to defeat terrorism in the country. Agency reports quoted him as saying that they would continue fighting terrorism until separatists in the two English-speaking regions drop their guns or are defeated. He however said “a good number of responses” will be provided “through the framework of accelerating the decentralization process which is underway,” adding that “the future of our compatriots in the Northwest and Southwest lies in the framework of our republic.”
In this report, Nigerian journalist, lawyer, activist and Special Adviser (Media and Publicity) African Bar Association, Mr Osa Director comments on the crisis and proffer solution. African Bar Association has been is a strong advocate of respect for fundamental human rights in Cameroon and other African countries.
Asked to react to the kidnapping of the 79 students, Director condemned the act, describing it as “an unfortunate development.” He said: “No sane and rationally minded human being will be happy at the incarceration or deprivation of the freedom of others.”Kidnapping is an issue that is subjected to immense physical torture. So, I felt sad and disappointed.”
With a cautious voice, Director was quick to say it is also important to identify the factor(s) that may have instigated the action of the gunmen. “However, we have to look at the root cause of such incident which I think is not unrelated to the crisis in Cameroon, where the English-speaking people are seeking independence from the dominance of the French-speaking north.
But for how long will Cameroon remain in a state of anarchy? Director said “until injustice and lopsidedness in national affairs in Cameroon is property addressed with a sense of fairness, justice and equity, we will continue to have incidence like this.” Director is aware of the implications of kidnapping of students by insurgents, either in Cameroon or in Nigeria. He pointed to the situation in Nigeria and how payment of ransom has encouraged kidnapping. “Unconfirmed source indicated that the Nigerian government always pays ransom to Boko Haram, although the government had continued to deny it. But even the international community continues to insist that certain ransom were paid.
“Those kind of attitude will embolden other kidnappers, knowing that it is now a veritable way of making money. So, it has serious implications for Nigeria in the sense that whatever happens in Cameroon can easily dovetail into the Nigerian states having borders with it . . . Akwa Ibom and Cross River.” He expressed fear that “some of these kidnappers could even be operating from the borders of Nigeria, knowing how porous our borders can be.” He suggested the tightening of Nigerian borders. “It means we have to tighten our security network and processes to ensure that the impact is not maximally felt in Nigeria as a way of causing tension and putting life at risk in these states.’
The Cameroonian crisis started with peaceful protests against the imposition of the French language on the schools and courts in the two Ambazonian regions where English is the general language used in schools and other public institutions. The thinking among observers at the time was that the crisis would be resolved, especially after international bodies like the European Union and the United Nations called for peace. So, what happened? Director believes that “in a situation like this, there must be a meeting ground.”
Since the crisis started, calls for dialogue between the government and the separatists have been made without tangible result. Director puts “the blame at the doorstep of the government.” He wondered why the government is reluctant to embrace dialogue when “the right to self determination is guaranteed under the UN charter. And if people say they want to secede, all you need do is to have discussion with them, it is possible that after the discussion, they may change or review decision.”
Describing President Biya as a tyrant and dictator, he said the president has been uncooperative, recalcitrant and reluctant to dialogue with the separatists. He wants the government of Cameroon to know that “nothing on earth can muzzle people who are determined and who are focus.” He believes that it is going to be a matter of time for the Ambazonians to realize their dream.
He dismissed claims that the separatists were giving tough conditions for dialogue with the government. “In negotiation, one of the parties should not be in a position of immense superiority. The Ambazonians are saying if we have to dialogue, the environment had to be equitable and there must be unbiased mediators in this process. So, it cannot be said that the Ambazonians are giving impossible conditions if the Cameroonian government is unwilling to have unbiased mediators in the process and in an environment that is seen to be equitable to both parties.”
Some observers have argued that Nigeria has the vigour to resolve the crisis but it is shying away even as some of its states are overwhelmed with Cameroonian refugees. Director agrees with this school of thought. “Nigeria is seen as a big brother in Africa and especially in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) but in this particular circumstance, it has played a very disappointing role,” he said.
Buttressing his argument, he said Nigeria bowed to the demand of the Cameroonian government when it “deported nine Cameroonians, seven of them are professors in Nigerian universities.” According to him, some of the deported Cameroonians are naturalized Nigerians. But even more surprising to him was that the deportation took place “in spite of the fact that some of my colleagues, Abdul Oroh and Femi Falana had gone to court to enforce the fundamental human rights of the Cameroonians. The government deported them before the application was held in court.”
Nigeria is a democratic country that has respect for fundamental human rights. It against this backdrop that Director said: “If Nigeria can connive with a dictatorial regime to deport even naturalized Nigerians, even though they were originally Cameroonians, that tells you that it has not been up and doing in trying to resolve the challenges in the Ambazonian regions. He accused Nigerian of not acting with an open mind and with a sense of transparency and fairness to all the parties involved He wants Nigeria to have a rethink on its position over the crisis.
“I will urge the Nigerian government to sit back and review its foreign policy disposition and ensure that if it wants to interfere or interface with areas of conflict in the subregion, it should be done with a sense of commitment, fairness, determination and be resolute in its decision irrespective of whose Ox is gourd, not by oppressing the weaker side and backing the government in power.”
The Cameroonian crisis came on the heels of agitation for secession by several groups in the south-south and northeast regions of Nigeria and the Federal Government has been mindful of its action in some neighbouring countries. Perhaps, it does not want to be seen as supporting secession in those countries. Director thinks differently. Hear him: “Yes, you can say that sentimentally and diplomatically, it would appear as if it is not in the interest of Nigeria to encourage secession in neighbouring countries when there are also pockets of agitations within Nigeria. “But as I said earlier, even though people are asking for self-determination, at the end of the day, all parties must sit on the round table and have discussion. And even at the end of the day, every war ultimately gets decided at the conference table.”
What exactly does Director wants Nigeria to do? His response: “If the Ambazonians say they want to secede, what I expect the Nigerian government to do is to encourage dialogue between the two parties just like we are saying in Nigeria that any region that is agitating for secession should not be crushed by military might.
“It does not necessarily mean that when a group says it wants to secede, it really meant it, it is only saying so because it believes it has been deprived of fairness, justice, equity and access to development and the enforcement of their full constitutional rights in the present set up. And if the government can guarantee those conditions, it will not secede.”
Though ECOWAS has been praised as an active subregional body in Africa, analysts say the body seems to lack the capacity to intervene in the Cameroonian crisis. They point at the speed with which the crisis is escalating without pronouncements by ECOWAS. The analysts are not alone. Director also believes ECOWAS has not lived up to expectation. He explains thus: “It is with a sense of disappointment that most of us have watched ECOWAS behaving like a lame duck, unable to resolve conflicts within its own subregion.
“ECOWAS has left much to be desired as far as this matter is concerned. And that may not be unrelated to the fact that the key drivers of ECOWAS like Nigeria are sending conflicting signals and are being lukewarm too, in confronting and trying to resolve the crisis in the Ambazonian regions. That in a way has brought out the general outlook, character and disposition of ECOWAS in the crisis in Cameroon.”
He does not agree with those who believe Africa must depend on Europe and America to resolve its problems. Referring to African leaders, he said “these are the same people when they are being rebuked by the international community, we would say we are independent nations. “But when there is crisis in another sphere, they would say what is America doing, what is UK doing and what is EU doing.” He said it must be remembered always that “you can’t approbate and reprobate. The only way the subregion can progress is by ensuring that it is able to solve its own problems in its own way, taking into consideration the historical peculiarities and nuisance of the subregion or continent.”