When the world's heads of state and government meet in Manhattan at the UN General Assembly this week, Stony Brook University professor Patrice Nganang will be especially interested in what his former president — and recent jailer — Paul Biya of Cameroon has to say.
Nganang, 48, a native of the Central African country and a naturalized U.S. citizen, joins a number of Long Islanders who are highlighting the worsening civil unrest in Cameroon, where Nganang was detained for three weeks by government forces in December.
Other Long Islanders weighing in on Cameroon's crisis include a former private investigator from East Northport and a Republican congressman from Shirley, who both hope something can be done to fend off civil war.
Nganang, a prolific literature professor, caught the Biya administration's attention through writings and social media postings critiquing the president's treatment of the English-speaking, or Anglophone, minority of about 5 million in two contiguous regions of western Cameroon. He was released on Dec. 27 after intense media scrutiny and international pressure from private citizens, organizations and governments, including the United States.
But he is now an exile, banned from returning.
Nganang, who was born part of Cameroon's French-speaking majority, and others are casting a spotlight on alleged atrocities committed against Anglophones by Biya’s military with hopes of countering any effort by Biya to use his UN appearance to gloss over his government's alleged crimes.
Biya, who has been in power since 1982, faces an election less than two weeks after he appears at the podium for the General Debate, a high-profile event that the world’s 193 leaders often use as the ultimate campaign stump.
Nganang's message to Biya? “Step down, go away,” Nganang said.
Anglophones are clamoring for Biya's ouster. If they can’t get him to resign or lose the election, they hope to split from their 20 million French-speaking compatriots and create a country for themselves called Ambazonia.
The English-speaking Northwest and Southwest areas, also known as Southern Cameroons, have exploded in violence over the past two years as the government cracked down on an emerging separatist movement among Anglophones, who have felt marginalized politically and economically for decades, UN officials and experts have said.
The suppression tactics included shutting off the internet, burning villages, torturing activists, rape, and executing even small children, human rights agencies have said. One video, which purports to show Cameroon soldiers executing women and children, was widely shared on the internet and drew worldwide condemnation. Another showed several men executed by another band of armed men, apparently soldiers.
Government forces have also waged a battle in Cameroon’s north against Boko Haram, the Islamic State-affiliated terrorist group that has destabilized several African countries, including Nigeria, Chad and Central African Republic, each of which borders Cameroon. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has registered 32,000 Cameroonians who have fled west to Nigeria, and some 200,000 people have been internally displaced.
Separatists, too, have taken up arms and attacked government forces in the escalating crisis, leading to casualties on both sides. The crisis has been documented by human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It has also caught the attention of the U.S. State Department.
“It is like a volcano that was always there,” Nganang said of the language divide. His just-released novel, "Empreintes de crabe," or "Crab Imprints" in English, addresses the linguistic roots of internecine conflict in Cameroon. “It has always driven the politics in Cameroon.”
In May, the U.S. ambassador to Cameroon, Peter Henry Barlerin, praised the U.S.-Cameroon military partnership in the battle against Boko Haram and was assured by Cameroon’s minister “that U.S. equipment would only be used in the fight against Boko Haram and the Islamic State,” not for fighting separatists. He added that the United States could not train or work “with units against whom credible allegations of gross violations of human rights have been lodged.”
In February, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) introduced House Resolution 718, a measure that condemned Biya’s government for discrimination against Anglophones and seemingly arbitrary detention of several people besides Nganang.
Like Nganang, Zeldin is looking to Biya's speech to tamp down the tensions in the country. The United States has supplied tens of millions of dollars in aid to Cameroon, he said. In this fiscal year, the State Department has spent $36.92 million, with $22.9 million for humanitarian assistance, according to figures Zeldin supplied. In the previous fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Defense gave $19.7 million to Cameroon in military assistance as part of an African training and equipment program.
"Soldiers have forcibly evacuated people, opened fire on villages, tortured detainees and burned down homes," Zeldin said. "It's causing a lot of instability for their country and honestly it is important for the president of Cameroon to articulate a vision for how to move his country in a better direction."
John Chichester of East Northport, a former private investigator and Long Island native, has gotten involved in trying to help the Anglophone minority found Ambazonia.
He admits he is an unlikely foot soldier for an independence movement in Africa. But he said he became impressed with the struggle of the Anglophones and wanted to help them achieve self-determination.
“I’m the kind of guy — I jump in with both feet,” he said, adding that he visited Cameroon last November. “I was so impressed with the people and the way they treated me, their spirit in general and their intelligence.”
Chichester has registered with the state’s Secretary of State a nonprofit organization designed to raise money for people fleeing the unrest in Cameroon. In July, he set up the Ambas Bay Refugee Foundation, based in East Northport.
“We’re trying to get worldwide attention for them,” Chichester said, adding that he knew very little about Cameroon or its politics a year ago but has studied its history intensely since visiting. “The foundation is to secure donations. We need money. People are starving over there, and we are trying to give them whatever we can."