The separatist agitation in Cameroon following the declaration of the Republic of Ambazonia appears to have escalated since Nigeria deported some Cameroonian freedom fighters and refugees to Cameroon. In this interview with ONWUKA NZESHI a lawyer and human rights activist, Abdul Oroh, who was in Cameroon recently, says the crisis could degenerate into a full blown civil war if Nigeria does not intervene
What is the situation of the Cameroonian freedom fighters who were deported to their country by Nigerian security forces early this year?
The situation remains very critical. Apart from those who were arrested and detained, about eight other refugees in Ikom, Cross River State, were also deported on March 3, 2018. As we speak, about 100 detainees who were previously in Nigeria are being held by the Cameroonians. Among them is a 23-year-old girl and a one-year-old child. They are still in detention and in very harrowing conditions in Cameroon.
Based on the information that we have now, after they were arrested here by about 20 armed security operatives around 6.45 pm on January 5, 2018, they were taken to the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and held at the third floor, underground cell. For the period they were in detention, they did not see sunlight except when the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) visited them and that was after they had been detained for two weeks.
At what point and in what condition were they deported?
They were deported on January 24, 2018. As they were being taken away at around 9.00 pm, they were blindfolded, handcuffed and taken to the airport by armed soldiers . They were handed over to heavily armed and masked Cameroonian gendarmes. At the Abuja airport, two of the detainees were released because they were actually Nigerians. Their fathers are Nigerians but maybe their mothers are Cameroonians.
They were not deported alongside the others because of their Nigerian nationality. The other 10 were thrown into the Cameroonian military plane. While in the plane, they met about 25 heavily armed hooded soldiers in black uniform. These people were very hostile to the detainees and did not allow them to talk to each other. They kept abusing and harassing them menacingly until they go to Yaoundé that night. They were detained and held incommunicado at the headquarters of the Cameroonian Police for about for 13 weeks. They were not granted access to lawyers or family members. Nobody knew their whereabouts by the time we went to Cameroon based on information, they were held in solitary confinement without sunlight and fresh air. Some time in February, another 40 youths who were arrested in Gembu and also deported to Cameroon were reportedly tortured. They were beaten every now and then for a few weeks. But the other 10 were not subjected to the same torture. In March, an additional eight persons were arrested and detained there.
How did you get to know all this, especially as some one living in Nigeria?
I was monitoring the situation through some of my contacts. However, by the time I travelled to Cameroon, the information I had was that about 100 detainees were with the gendarmes.
I was worried about the state of these people; Femi Falana and I went to the Cameroonian High Commission in Nigeria here to request to be allowed to visit them in Cameroon. They said we should bring a letter. We sent a letter and actually met with the High Commissioner, His Excellency Salaudeen and he said they would contact us when they are ready to receive us in Cameroon. After a while, I didn’t feel comfortable that these people were in detention and I had no access to them. We weren’t hearing anything about them and no one knew what was happening to them.
At that same time, we were receiving reports of massacres, burning of villages and many people were either being killed or buried alive. In fact we were receiving reports of genocide in the South East and North West Provinces of Cameroon. I then decided to brave the odds and travelled to the Ministry of Justice in Cameroon and asked to see the minister. I reported to them that I was the lawyer of those people who were detained. Well, they received me but they said that I didn’t give any advance notice or book an appointment.
What about the letter you wrote earlier?
Yeah, I told them that I wrote a letter but apparently they were not aware of the letter, they didn’t receive it. It is either their High Commissioner did not transmit it to the Ministry of Justice or he transmitted it to their Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they didn’t act on it. It may have also been lost in transit.
So I now submitted another letter which they acknowledged by stamping a duplicate copy if it.
I then proceeded to their Human Rights Commission; they kept me waiting for almost two hours. Eventually, I met Dr. Banda, Chairman of the Cameroon National Commission for Human Rights and Freedom. Later, I visited the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross to see the Co-ordinator in charge of Central African region. I also met some lawyers, journalists and some civil society people with whom I exchanged views on the situation in their country. Although, I wasn’t allowed to see my clients where they were being detained but I was able to speak to some members of their families on phone. Many of these relatives were in places such as Bamenda and Douala. After about five days, I returned to Nigeria.
So, what were your findings?
I discovered that Cameroon was like a state under siege. It was like how Nigeria was during the Gen. Sani Abacha regime. Even taxi drivers were afraid to talk to me about happenings in their country. Even journalists were afraid to talk even inside the car. We were in a restaurant in a hotel and I wanted to speak with some people, they were reluctant, hence we had to leave and took a walk down the road to a quiet area before they could talk because there was security everywhere.
Although, people were worried for my safety but I think that Cameroonian authorities were smart enough to know that I didn’t come to interfere in their crisis. My sole interest was the liberty of my clients. I was there to know the way they were being treated by the security forces. I didn’t go there to join issues with anyone or any group about their internal affairs. I was concerned that these people were taken from Nigeria and detained in an unknown location and I have a duty to know about their condition in detention. I was hired by their families and these families need to know that we haven’t abandoned them but that we are still working to ensure that they are released.
What’s your next line of action?
I must say that the Nigerian government should intervene in the Cameroon crisis. The international community should intervene in the crisis in Cameroon because massacres are reported on a daily basis. People are killed on a daily basis. Villages are being burnt on a daily basis. I am happy that the United States has already started showing interest and they have warned Cameroon not to use the military equipment they gave them to fight the separatist struggle in the South West but they can be used to fight Boko Haram. They gave them two aircrafts. Of course, the British Parliament has also shown concern. The United Nations and a number of international human rights and civil society organisations have equally shown interest in what is happening in Cameroon. But in Cameroon now, they see Nigeria as a collaborator; they blame Nigeria for everything.
Who are these people?
Yes. They believe it is Nigeria that deported these people and because of their deportation, the crisis has escalated. According to them, the role Nigeria ought to have played was that of a mediator in the crisis. Since all these people were resident in Nigeria, we should have intervened in such a way that the liberty of these detainees would have been protected instead if handing them back to Cameroon to undergo torture.
Our government should have leveraged on their presence here in Nigeria to see how they can promote dialogue between them and the Cameroonian government. Nigeria could have been in a better position to negotiate for the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Cameroon. I also think that that is what Nigeria should have done and it’s not too late. We’ve made a mistake by deporting them to a hostile environment and I think it’s our duty now to de-escalate the crisis in Cameroon by playing a mediatory role. Already a lot of people are being killed, massacred, thrown into burning houses or sometimes buried alive. The situation is so bad that if a single gendarme is killed, they attack a whole village. People who are running away are thrown into burning house,
whether they are men, women or children. Many people have actually fled their homes into the forests and many of the communities are now ghost towns.
According to the United Nations, about 150, 000 people have been displaced since the crisis escalated in January. Over 20,000 refugees from Cameroon have been registered in Nigeria. Some have escaped to Ghana and other neighbouring countries. Some have also escaped to Europe, America and other parts of the world. So, I think that Nigeria has a duty to intervene and persuade the Cameroonian authorities to consider the dialogue option with these people and resolve whatever problem they have internally.
What do you think will be the fate of these detainees?
No one can tell now what may happen to them. If we don’t act fast, they could be executed. What I see now is like the late Ken Saro Wiwa situation. People thought it will not happen but then it happened. My observation during my stay in Cameroon is that unless the Cameroonian government released these people the situation in Cameroon will continue to escalate. It’s now very deadly serious. People are being killed every day. The militants or freedom fighters are killing the gendarmes and the gendarmes are killing the civilians.
Do you know whether the Cameroonian authorities have charged them to court?
We did not receive such information. But we know that some activists that we’re in detention were tried recently by the military tribunal and sentenced to various terms of imprisonments. These were lawyer and journalists; they didn’t run away from their country, but even the lawyers who were defending them were arrested and also put on trial. Some were also harassed to withdraw their cases from the courts.
Why do you think the Cameroonian government does not seem disposed to negotiating with these people for peace to reign?
There are so many issues involved in this crisis. It’s just like the Nigerian government saying that the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable. They are supposed to be two separate countries coming together with different cultures, different orientations, different languages and different attitudes. But now one part is being dominated and marginalised by the other group. Now they are trying to impose a culture and a language on the other. This is the crux of the matter.
Specifically, the Francophone Cameroon is trying to dominate and super-impose itself on the Anglophone Cameroon. They had two legal systems but there is a policy of assimilation which is threatening to obliterate the Anglophone culture and legal system. One of the lawyers told me that as a lawyer, if you file a case at the Ministry of Justice in Cameroon, unless it us written in French, they won’t treat the case. What you now do is to go and look for somebody who can translate it into French. There is so much anger and bitterness in that country.
Do you think that Nigeria with its own load of challenges particularly insecurity, internal contradictions and poor economy has the capacity and moral authority to intervene in the crisis in Cameroon?
We were under military rule when we intervened in apartheid South Africa. We were under military rule when we stepped out to restore democracy in Sierra Leone and Liberia. We have been carrying out peace-keeping operations, not just within but even outside Africa. We are talking about our immediate neighbours whose citizens are pouring into our country as refugees on daily basis. These refugees are putting pressures on our lean resources. If we don’t help them to solve that problem, it will continue and could get to a stage when it could even become a threat to our own security too. So, it is not a question of moral right because human lives are involved in this conflict. It is true that we have our own challenges but I am not saying we should deploy our troops there to help one side to defeat the other side. I am saying we should help them to get to talk, negotiate peace and resolve their differences amicably.
Why do you think the international media is not focusing on this crisis in Cameroon?
No. They are but it’s just that the Nigeria media is not following the events closely. I do not see the reason the foreign media from Europe and America will be reporting what is going on at our backyard and the Nigerian media is standing aloof You don’t need a visa to visit Cameroon. From Lagos to Yaoundé is about one hour, 25 minutes; it’s like travelling within Nigeria. You can even go by road if you want. Go there and find out what is happening. Right now, there is genocide going on under our nose. While I was there, I met several foreign journalists; why can’t we have Nigerian journalists there as well?
We must realise that for the two countries to be peaceful and relating with each other is a win-win situation. There are more than four million Nigerians living in Cameroon. Ninety per cent of the auto parts dealers in Cameroon are Nigerians. We don’t just have an Embassy in Yaounde; we also have a Consulate in Bouyer. We have many Nigerians doing businesses in Cameroon, and it will be a win-win situation if we have peace in that country.
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