Authorities have entered a more repressive phase in dealing with Anglophone leaders after a series of failed talks with teachers and lawyers, who have disrupted schools and courts since November
On Tuesday, gendarmes arrested two leading members of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) in Buea, within hours of the central government banning the organization, along with the Southern Cameroons National Council, the SCNC. It followed a decision by the government to unilaterally suspend talks with striking teachers’ unions, which are members of CACSC. Since last night, troop levels have increased around Anglophone regions. Disruptions in internet services in Anglophone regions have rendered communication with the outside world almost impossible, and raised fears of a pending carnage.
With its new attitude, the government has moved into a more intransigent position regarding its opposition to any change to the structure of a government, which is championed by the pro-federalism CACSC and the pro-independence SCNC as the ultimate solution to the Anglophone Problem. It increases bad blood and casts doubts on the ability of any dialogue after now to succeed with frankness and sincerity. And significantly, it is unlikely to quiet Anglophone dissent and the quest for a self-determined future. At best, it will drive CACSC underground and further radicalize a group that has already demonstrated its openness to dialogue and unity, two goals also pursued by the government. By opting for a path that is likely to lead to more confrontations, the government has put these goals out of the reach of both sides, at least in the foreseeable future.
That leaves only one option: the authorities appear to be laying the groundwork to use even more force, drawing from the ban and wide ranging powers it just entrusted in judicial officials and civil administrators to enforce public order. Monday’s ban provides a legal justification, even if controversial, for the massive arrest of protesters, which are already taking place. Through the ban and ensuing arrests, the government sought to assert itself and demonstrate a show of strength, after failing to have its way, particularly in getting schools to reopen through a combination of meetings, lobbying, the use of lethal force and allegedly blackmail and bribery. By directly empowering judicial and administrative officials to infringe on fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly, the government has opted for an anti-democratic response.
Yaounde will come out of this seriously bruised. Its option of force entrenches the administration’s bad reputation among the international human rights community of repressing dissenting voices. In 2008, troops killed about 100 people, according to NGO tallies (the government said the number was much lower) who had taken to the streets to protest the high cost of living and planned constitutional changes. Authorities’ silence in the face of security forces shooting unarmed civilians (at least six people have been killed in the last three months) and of footages and images making the rounds on social media of troops molesting students in Buea and torturing civilians in what looks like military facilities (there are several more) makes their case of working in the public interest difficult to rest.
The government’s response to the Anglophone unrests of recent months has exposed its own failings and given the impression that its ultimate goal is preserving the state’s position of strength. It draws for a false assumption, insinuated by President Paul Biya in his last address to the nation and repeatedly by public officials in words and actions, that authority cannot be challenged. That kind of mindset is dangerous for any democracy and only makes sense in an absolutism, which Yaounde is becoming more and more like.