By David Atangana
When it comes to human rights abuses, the government of Cameroon and its soldiers have made it a point of duty, not to be outdone. It is now common knowledge that over 40 commercial motorbike riders arrested in Oku a few days ago were the handiwork of the dreaded Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), an elite unit of Cameroon’s defense forces.
Cameroon government forces have been waging a war against armed English-speaking separatists in the North West and South West regions who are striving to create a breakaway state called “Ambazonia”. The war however, seems to be for the most part, against the civilian population than the armed combatants.
The war has been going on for nearly six years and counting. Both sides have recorded severe losses in human and material forms. These have made them always turn against the civilian population, making the transfer of aggression to become a common phenomenon. In most cases, the population is scapegoated and targeted by the warring factions.
The recent incident in Oku is not a new phenomenon and should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the conflict over the years. The axiom of ‘giving a dog a bad name to hang it’ holds true in this instance as Cameroon government forces rounded the said bike riders and tagged them Ambazonia fighters, thereby effectively transforming, civilians into enemy combatants. This claim was and is still being circulated by pro-government activists and military platforms. This raises serious concerns given that such allegations are sufficient grounds for summary execution or indefinite incarceration if we are to go by previous actions of the Cameroon government and its military.
The unfortunate young men who were traveling to Oku to bury a colleague, Mkong Roland, who was shot dead by government soldiers in Bamenda, will at this stage most likely be wondering if they will ever regain their freedom.
Locals were taken aback when the faces of these bike riders emerged on social media platforms tagging them as separatist fighters who have been captured alive by security and defense forces.
No weapons are reported to have been seen with any of the bike riders now believed to be detained somewhere in Bamenda, headquarters of the North West region. This, however, seems to be the least of the Regional government’s worries, as it is keen to prove to their ailing boss in Yaounde, that they are doing something worthwhile. It remains a mystery to many who question how a military force trained by foreign experts can go as far as implicating armless civilians in the name of fighting separatists without proof. Some critical minds however have argued that it should not be surprising, given that this has been the modus operandi of the Biya government for about 4 decades.
Describing the action of the military and by extension, the government of Cameroon as an act of cowardice will not be an overstatement given that the bike riders committed no crime nor have been proven to have links with the separatists. It is now clear that the Cameroon government and its military have decided to go for soft targets rather than engage their real enemy, the Ambazonian separatist fighters. Many people say if the soldiers are brave enough, they should go for the fighters and allow civilians in peace.
It is worth noting that government soldiers have been implicated in several atrocities against civilians following countless reports by human rights organizations. The burning of residential buildings, forced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, and targeting of women and children have been the hallmark of Cameroon’s defense forces in their campaign against armed separatists.
The impunity with which the Cameroon military operates as though they have been licenesed to molest and kill Cameroonians is nauseating. This is surely what happens in a system that is void of accountability and one in which the lives of citizens have completely lost value.
‘Our model of operation here is different from what obtains in the other eight regions. We can do anything and go free in as much as we use the word Amba against you’ a uniformed officer boasted. While there is some element of truth to the last part of the statement, the first part is questionable, given that the same soldiers were found to have carried out similar actions in the North of the country as they battled with Boko Haram.
The distinction between Cameroon’s so-called professional military and the armed separatist fighters who had no formal training and no visible chain of command is a blurred one. The actions of both groups with regards to their treatment of the population are very similar.
While unconfirmed reports have it that the arrested bike riders are detained in undisclosed facilities in Bamenda, many are skeptical, given the long history of summary executions. The case of journalist Samuel Wazizi, stands as a tall reminder, that anyone arrested by the military, could end up dead and their corpse never found.
Human rights lawyer, Cho Emmanuel Esq standing as Counsel for the arrested has been calling for their release. However, the likelihood of that happening is farfetched given that those merely implicated in the ongoing crisis are either killed or dumped in jail with hopeless court proceedings. The case of Kongnso Antoinette, Ex-Girlfriend of the self-styled Ambazonian ‘General No Pity’, who was arrested, while pregnant, assaulted, and kicked in the stomach by one drunk soldier known as Chief Moja Moja, and subsequently detained, but ended up spending significant time in jail, only confirms the caricature that the judiciary has become in the face of military excesses.
So far, there has been no official comment from Cameroon government officials regarding the arbitrary arrests in Oku. Leaders of bikers union in Bamenda are said to have met with Adolf Lele L’ Afrique, governor of the North West region pleading for the release of their colleagues but nothing positive has been heard so far. It is either the governor himself has become too powerless in the face of military brutality, or he is just exhibiting the ineptitude that is characteristic of the Biya government.
Nonetheless, there is no gainsaying the fact that all perpetrators of such human rights abuses are likely to be dragged to the International Criminal Court in some years to come. Until such a time, one cannot expect justice from the derelict system in Cameroon, where governance has failed and the military operates outside of the law.