Reports started to circulate on June 3 that Cameroonian television presenter Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe, better known by his screen name Samuel Wazizi, had died while in military detention. Lawyer Christopher Ndong said he had died in a military hospital in Yaoundé of wounds inflicted during brutal torture, but no one knew when this had happened, and there was no immediate comment from the authorities.
It had been ten months since police took Wazizi in for questioning and handed him to the military a few days later. He worked for Chillen Muzic Television (CMTV) as a presenter of a popular pidgin English news program Halla Ya Matta (Shout Out Your Problem) in Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region.
Both the Southwest and Northwest English-speaking regions have been in the grip of violence since the Anglophone separatist revolt began in October 2017. Reporters Without Borders said Wazizi was accused of criticizing the authorities’ handling of the conflict on air and for allegedly supporting the separatists. Since then, his family and lawyers had had no news of him. Journalists who tried to see him in late September were told he had been transferred to Kondengui Prison in Yaoundé.
The first official acknowledgement of Wazizi’s death came on June 5, when the defense ministry issued a statement saying he had died of “severe sepsis” shortly after his arrest in August 2019, but denying he had been tortured.
“We need those who were responsible for his death to be held accountable”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement in response. “The Cameroonian government’s cruel treatment of journalist Samuel Wazizi is truly shocking,” said Angela Quintal, Africa program coordinator for the CPJ. “It is unbelievable that authorities covered up his death in custody for ten months despite repeated inquiries from press freedom advocates and his family, colleagues, friends, and lawyers. An independent autopsy should be conducted immediately, and Cameroon must also launch an independent commission of inquiry so that those responsible for Wazizi’s death are held accountable.”
“We need those who were responsible for his death to be held accountable,” Quintal told New Africa Daily. “We cannot have another case of impunity in the death of a journalist in Cameroon, as we saw with Bibi Ngota’s death in Kondengui Prison over ten years ago.”
Indeed, Wazizi’s death marks the second death of a Cameroonian journalist in detention since the CPJ began keeping records in 1992. Ngota had been investigating corruption involving a politician when he was detained.
“We repeat our call for the remaining seven journalists in jail to be released,” Quintal says. “Several have been in pre-trial detention for lengthy periods—Wawa Jackson Nfor for more than two years and Paul Chouta for more than a year.”
The Anglophone Crisis
Wazizi’s death has attracted international attention to a conflict that has raged largely in the shadows. Known as the Anglophone Crisis, it is rooted in the perception that the English-speaking minority—about 20 percent of the population—are marginalized by the Francophone-dominated government in the political, cultural and economic spheres.
On October 1, 2017, separatists in the anglophone Southwest and Northwest regions declared the independence of Ambazonia. The government of President Paul Biya responded to initial peaceful protests with excessive force, arbitrary arrests, and torture, sparking radicalization. Rather than an organized front, the struggle is being waged largely by semi-independent guerrilla groups that the government likens to bandits. About 3,000 people have been killed in the fighting and more than half a million have been displaced.
The imprisonment of journalists is a potential death sentence
Journalists have suffered abuse at the hands of not only government forces but also rebels, who have kidnapped and tortured people accused of insufficiently supporting the separatist cause. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Cameroon 134th out of 180 countries.
Quintal says in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the imprisonment of journalists is a potential death sentence. Crowded detention centers are at particular risk of outbreaks, now that the official tally of cases has reached 8,000. In April, Biya announced steps to release thousands of prisoners, but those would not include separatists, political opponents, and journalists critical of his rule.
One separatist group has heeded the appeal to declare a ceasefire to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but none of the other groups—estimated to number fifteen—have done so, nor has the government.