Clashes between government military, opposition forces and civilians in the Anglophone areas of Cameroon have reached “crisis level” according to the UN’s human rights chief and recent reports by international human rights monitoring organizations.
The unrest is escalating several months after Stony Brook University literature professor Patrice Nganang was detained for three weeks in his native country after criticizing the Cameroon president’s treatment of people in the English-speaking Southwest and Northwest regions.
“There are reports that armed elements have carried out kidnappings, targeted killings of police and local authorities, extortion and have torched schools,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, speaking from Geneva on Wednesday.
He added: “There are also reports that government forces are responsible for killings, the excessive use of force, burning down of houses, arbitrary detentions and torture.”
The UN official’s concern comes as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released reports documenting a deteriorating situation between the government of President Paul Biya and the citizens in the Anglophone regions.
A widely circulated video depicts the recent apparent assassinations of two women and two young children — one an infant — by government forces. Zeid and other observers, including the U.S. State Department, said they were disturbed by the footage and called on Biya to investigate.
“The government of Cameroon has an obligation to investigate this atrocious crime urgently," Zeid said, adding that his representatives have not been granted access to the areas where there are reports of violence and possible human rights violations. "I am deeply worried that these killings captured on camera may not be isolated cases.”
He added: “Given the seriousness of the reports of violence against Cameroonians in the western part of the country, we have asked for access to be able to verify allegations made against both security forces and armed elements. We will now need to explore other options, including remote monitoring.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Wednesday that the United States was "gravely concerned" about the recent video. "We call on the Government of Cameroon to investigate thoroughly and transparently the events depicted in the video, make its findings public, and if Cameroonian military personnel were involved in this atrocity, hold them accountable.”
Cameroon’s most recent waves of violence can be traced back to late 2016, when Anglophone residents began protesting the installation of French-speaking schoolteachers, court attorneys and judges. Anglophones considered it an example of unfair treatment and the latest symbol of decades of marginalization by Biya’s French-speaking government. The demonstrations escalated into violence in late 2017.
Human Rights Watch’s 59-page report, "These Killings Can Be Stopped: Abuses by Government and Separatist Groups in Cameroon’s Anglophone Regions," said abuses by government forces and armed separatists had displaced more than 180,000 people since December 2017.
Although Anglophone separatists have extorted, kidnapped and killed civilians, government forces have responded disproportionally, killing civilians and using excessive force against demonstrators, the report said. It also accused government forces of torturing suspected separatists and detainees while burning down hundreds of homes.
“The human rights situation in Cameroon has reached crisis level and could still get much worse,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “International action is needed to ensure that both sides protect civilians and ensure justice for crimes against them.”
Adotei Akwei of Amnesty International testified last month before a Congressional subcommittee that “the human rights situation in Cameroon is alarming, it is worsening and the government of President Paul Biya — who has been in power for over 30 years — has to date, shown little inclination or political will to effectively address the crisis.”
The human rights activists noted that though Cameroon was facing a severe threat from the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram terrorist group, the nation had launched an eradication campaign that they feared had meted out similar treatment to the Anglophones seeking self-determination and the Islamic militant group that had waged terror in several African states.
A case in point: The women and children in the viral video were accused of being members of Boko Haram before they were shot to death.
“Cameroon is in crisis and the Biya regime appears to believe that it can weather Boko Haram’s insurgency while trying to crush protests driven by the increasing anger and frustration of the Anglophone speaking population,” Akwei said before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations. “The United States, Africa and the international community cannot afford to make that gamble, and the people of Cameroon deserve better.”