By Tata Mbunwe
Youths in Buea, regional capital of Cameroon’s conflict-ruined South West region lamented what they say is heightened harassment and extortion from police and military officers.
Most of those who spoke to MMI said, the situation has reached extremes since the 33rd edition of the TotalEnergies Africa Cup of Nations, AFCON began in the country.
Some say police and soldiers have been searching phones and their homes without any search warrant. The aim of such moves which our respondents said is part of a tradition of security intimidation and looting since the Anglophone crisis, the further said, is meant to exhort money.
Those who fail to pay they said, are detained under trumped up charges.
Neighbourhoods like Dirty South, in the prediminant student residential area in Molyko, is worse hit. Residents here say the phenomenon has continued unabated, despite increasing advocacy from civil society organisations and human rights groups.
In the evening at Dirty South, many youths say they move around without their phones for fear of being termed scammers. Even with this move, security officers, the youths said, always have a way around.
Some residents told MMI that once it is nightfall, most youths in that area are in anguish for fear of police or gendarmerie intimidation.
“Apart from the usual identification card searches, the officers check phones under the pretext that they want to sort scammers and most at times they make scammers out of their victims and accuse them of crimes they have not committed,” a resident said.
Although the officers have a duty to check crime and maintain peace, our sources say they are comfortably going beyond this.
Speaking to MMI on Friday, January 28, a Dirty South resident, whom we have identified as Simon for security reasons, lamented that he has been victimised twice by the officers.
“Harassment is common here. The police usually come here. They search people’s phones and find anything to implicate them. Sometimes when they find out you have nothing in your phone to implicate you they could even download dangerous apps which they use to implicate you and call you a scammer.
“I have been a victim of police harassment twice. The first time I was walking with my phone. They approached me and told me to let them check my phone. I gave it to them and they searched it and searched right into my Instagram and realised that I was following two white men on Instagram. They asked me why I was following them and they just used it to implicate me without any cause. I was taken to the station where I ended up spending FCFA 70,000 for no reason,” Simon said.
He further recalled that: “The other time I was walking on the street with a friend. They saw us. There was no light on that day. The whole night there was no light so around 1 o’clock in the afternoon we had to plug our phones on charge. We went to buy food so they saw us and demanded for our phones but we said we don’t have them because we left them on charge at home. But they said we were scammers, that’s why we didn’t move with our phones. They followed us right to the house; they opened the door and took the phones and searched them,” he further narrated.
Simon is not the only one suffering this ordeal. Another victim who spoke to MMI said he is a student of the University of Buea resident at Dirty South. He said, he was harassed on Wednesday, January 26, when the officers demanded for his identification card which he showed them.
“It’s becoming unbearable as young boys are often arrested and locked for committing no crimes. This is done to extort huge sums of money from youths as the normal bail fee is set at 50,000 francs by the elements of the gendarmerie in Buea,” the student told MMI.
Businesses suffer as youth desert streets
Dirty South residents said police and military harassments have slowed roadside businesses as youths now prefer to remain indoors in the evenings. The
“Business has been very slow all this while because the youths are now afraid to pass through this place at night due to fear of the police. Usually by 7am I will be done but now business is very slow,” Simon, meat vendor said.
At 9.30 pm when MMI team approached the local, he still had many sticks of beef which he usually roasts and sells mostly to students who retire home in the evening. But then, the business was slow and he had to leave.
“Sometimes they hide in dark corners around so that you will just bump into them and they start harassing you. They don’t even use polite language. When they realise you have no ID card, they treat you like a thief; they brutally force you into their pickup and take you to the station and you end up paying some money to be released,” our source said.
While some residents undergo victimisation and harassment, others in the same Dirty South neighbourhood are living in peace.
They are also people who believe that the police and military officers only harass people who do not have correct identification documents.
This Dirty South resident, who preferred not to be identified, said he has never been harassed by the police or military because he always moves around with his ID card.
“I have not been a victim of any police or military harassment because I always move with my ID card. But I see that officers have been going about more often maybe because of the AFCON to check people’s ID cards and phones but when you have your ID they let you go. Even when you don’t have it they deal with you based on how you also approach them,” he said.
He however agrees that the officers sometimes overdo their job and result in excesses against civilians. “So I see that they are just doing their job, trying to maintain security. But you know we are in Africa. Some of them usually do more than just their job and there are some excesses.”
This provision store owner told MMI that the police usually end at the entrance of the neighbourhood and they hardly come into the quarters. “I know that they search young people’s phones and whether you have ID card. If you have your ID card there will be no problem,” he said.
Rights advocates condemn rampant harassment
Human rights lawyers and advocates in Buea have noted the frequency of police-military harassment of civilians amid the ongoing Anglophone Crisis. According to Barrister Ligenju Vitalis, a human rights lawyer, harassments happen in Buea on a daily basis.
“On a daily basis, youths are arrested; youths are victimised. The highest is now, when they meet a young person, they just take your phone and when they see an image, maybe it was downloaded from the internet and so on you are victimised. Some are arrested; some are detained and money taken from them,” the legal mind stated at a human rights workshop on January 28.
He added: “You just get up in the morning you hear that there was mass arrest at Mile 16 and after this the youth of that environment are swept into detention. And we’ve had reports, though not verified, that money is taken from them.”
Also, women’s rights advocate, Sally Ndape, says she has been monitoring the human rights situation in the South West region and police harassment has been a common phenomenon.
“During this time most of our boys are being harassed in the name of ID card and identification. When you don’t have it, they take you and they put you aside. At times some are being accused of being scammers with no justification of such.
“If we go to the Buea Central Prison we will find many young boys. They are there because of the Anglophone Crisis. There is no justification why they have been kept there. Some it’s because of ID cards,” she said.
Authorities are aware
The issue of harassment has been acknowledged by local authorities who think government needs to address the issue.
In October 2021, when a gendarme officer shot dead a six-year-old pupil, Buea Urban Member of Parliament, Hon Malomba Esembe, said the police and the military have often brutalised and harassed citizens in Buea.
“There is an unfortunate tendency but, I think, a few bad elements in the forces of harassment of the population in Buea which I understand because several times I’ve had to intervene at the brigade and other units where I’m told, in doing their work of trying to identify miscreants, there’s a tendency where phones are checked and you could be tagged a scammer or any other thing and taken to the brigade or to some other unit,” he said.
“Our task as legislators is always to hold government to account and we will follow-up with these government officials to make sure that the military, the police, they stick to their work and the methods which are conventional,” Malomba said.