Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has asked three UN special rapporteurs to investigate exactly what led to the death of Cameroonian journalist Samuel Wazizi.
The government of Cameroon has announced that Wazizi died on August 17, 2019 while in military custody. He had been arrested in August 2019 for allegedly providing logistics to separatist combatants in the Southwest of Cameroon. Prior to the announcement which was made in June, the journalists fate was unknown to the public. His lawyer and family members were not allowed contact with the journalist during his incarceration.
Cameroonian authorities initially denied that Wazizi was in custody. Waziz's family says they have yet to receive his body from the government.
“I call on the authorities to shed light on the events that led to Wazizi’s demise and ensure that any contravention to his rights as a journalist and as a detainee are brought to justice," said Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, in a statement in response to the announcement of his death in June.
Wazizi whose birth name is Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe was born on June 6, 1984 and was a cameraman and journalist for Chillen Media Television (CMTV) in Buea, Southwest Region of Cameroon.
RSF states that they believe Wazizi was targeted because of his critical reporting regarding the way the government was handling the conflict in English-speaking regions.
Journalists working in Anglophone regions have found it difficult to report on the conflict at times. A 2014 law enacted to fight Boko Haram terrorists in the north of the country critics believe is being used to silence journalists reporting on this seperate conflict. The two conflicts have offered severe challenges to the rule of President Paul Biya who has ruled the country since 1982.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned this practice, with Angela Quintal, CPJ Africa Program Director stating that “Cameroon is clearly using anti-state legislation to silence criticism in the press. When you equate journalism with terrorism, you create an environment where fewer journalists are willing to report on hard news for fear of reprisal”.
No arrests have yet been made in the Wazizi case, but Quintal speaking to New Africa Daily asked for the release of other detained Cameroonian journalists:
“We repeat our call for the remaining 7 journalists in jail to be released. Several have been in pre-trial detention for lengthy periods. Wawa Jackson Nfor for more than 2 years and Paul Chouta for more than a year” she said over the phone, adding that “Some are in poor health, including Thomas Awah Junior. We wrote to President Paul Biya asking that he be released on humanitarian grounds. More recently we wrote to several African presidents, including Biya, to release the journalists amid Covid-19, Their continued incarceration in Cameroon’s overcrowded and shocking prisons, is a death sentence. That letter was co-signed by more than 80 media freedom and rights organizations”.
Cameroon ranks 134 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
Since protests began in Cameroon against the marginalization of the minority Anglophone community—about 20 percent of the population—in the Northwest and Southwest regions in 2016, several armed separatist groups have emerged.
The first bloodshed occurred when at least six people were killed in December 2016 in Bamenda during anti-government protests, but the conflict has its origins in the colonial period when the United Kingdom ruled part of the modern state of Cameroon from the end of World War I until 1960. Upon independence, the now English-speaking British Mandate Territory of Southern Cameroons was integrated into the broader Republic of Cameroon.
It is unclear exactly how many armed separatist groups operate in the two Anglophone regions, but in a May 2019 report the International Crisis Group put the figure at seven main rebel militias with an official name, a known leader, and at least 200 members. Between them, they had an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 fighters. Besides these seven militias, the Crisis Group had identified another twenty smaller armed groups.
Their common goal is the creation of a new country called Ambazonia. The name is derived from Ambas Bay, a geographical feature that early Portuguese explorers named after the local people in the fifteenth century, and which some consider as the boundary between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon.
The militias don’t collaborate and, in some cases, they have fought against each other, but their hit-and-run tactics are similar. Many of them seem to be armed only with basic one-shot hunting rifles, although some modern assault rifles have been obtained during fighting against government forces or by other illicit means. Under a 2016 law, illegal possession of a firearm is punishable by a fine and between five and ten days in jail. The government estimates there are about 30,000 firearms in circulation in Cameroon. Other improvised weapons include traps and what media reports sometimes refer to as cutlasses but are actually machetes.
New Africa Daily has culled information from open sources to develop this primer on rebel militias in Cameroon.
Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF)
This group, led by Benedict Kuah, is by far the best known and likely the largest of the militant groups fighting for independence. Its clear and observable ties to diaspora groups also mean it is likely the best funded. It wa founded as the armed wing of the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC), whose leader, Dr. Cho Ayaba, is based in Norway.
Ayaba says the ADF’s fighters number about 1,500 who are spread among twenty camps. In 2018, French journalist Emmanuel Freudenthal spent a week embedded with some of the ADF militants, the first journalist to do so. He could not confirm Ayaba’s claim, as he saw only about 100 fighters during this time though he did not visit every camp the group claims to operate.
According to the monitoring group Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), the ADF significantly expanded its reach in the Northwest and Southwest regions in 2018. The ADF apparently launched operations in Manyu, Southwest, and in Mezam, Northwest, in 2017 before shifting its focus to six other administrative divisions.
Southern Cameroons Defense Forces (also known as SOCADEF)
Along with the ADF, SOCADEF is one of the more active militant groups. It is headed by Ebenezer Akwanga, who, like Ayaba of the ADF, is a former student trade unionist. According to Agence France-Presse, Akwanga and Ayaba were students in the 1990s at the University of Buea in the Southwest Region, and they challenged the moderate strand of separatism at the time, taking their slogan about “the force of argument” and reversing it to “the argument of force.”
In January 2019, a commander of SOCADEF’s ground forces in Matoh, Southwest, “General” Andrew Ngoe, was killed during a raid by Cameroonian soldiers. It remains to be seen if the strike will be crippling for the group or if it will be able to revive its fortunes.
Southern Cameroons Restoration Forces
This rebel militia, which is also known as the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (similar to SOCADEF’S name), is mainly active in the Boyo administrative division in the Northwest Region. Led by Nso Foncha Nkem, the group had an estimated 100 fighters in 2019. In January 2020, the group was involved in clashes with the ADF, which led to the abduction of some forty ADF fighters, six of whom were later murdered.
The Red Dragons, a group based predominantly in Lebialem in the Southwest Region, is led by “Field Marshal” Lekeaka Oliver. Oliver started his career in the Cameroonian Army but, after witnessing massacres perpetrated by his colleagues, he defected and joined the separatists. As a former soldier, Oliver is a priority target of the Cameroonian government. Yet, thus far his group has taken advantage of the rugged terrain and dense forest of the region to build a series of camps where the group also manufactures improvised weapons. The group, which had an estimated 200 fighters in May 2019 and has proven effective in clashes with the government -- perhaps because Oliver understands his opponents’ tactics.
The Red Dragons is also adept atuse of social media to advance their cause, often posting videos on YouTube. The group pays allegiance to the Southern Cameroons Liberation Council, one of the splinter groups of a group known as Interim Government of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia (IG).
Tigers of Ambazonia
This militia is mainly based in the Manyu administrative division in the Southwest Region. Along with other rebel groups, it is reported to have started operations in the fall of 2017 with just ten to thirty fighters. In September 2018, the Tigers’ leader, Nchia Martin Achuo, claimed the group had some 2,000 fighters. He confirmed to Reuters that members of the Tigers had attacked a prison in the town of Wum and freed about 106 “innocent people." The Tigers reportedly collaborate with other militias, notably the ADF and SOCADEF.
This militia, which has an estimated thirty members, tends to cooperate with larger groups such as the ADF. The group has claimed responsibility for burning down government buildings. In May 2018, Vipers were blamed for setting fire to an examination center in Bamenda and some police stations in the area.
First Peace Talks
Attacks by these militias have led to the death of more than 3,000 civilians and the displacement of an estimated 730,000 people.
Following calls by the United Nations for a ceasefire, representatives of President Paul Biya’s government and nine separatist leaders—all currently in jail in the capital Yaoundé on terrorism charges—held talks on July 2. The nine separatists are members of the Interim Government of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia (IG), which claims to be the legitimate government, as dose Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC). Unfortunately, the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) at present has split from the IG and it is unclear if it is willing to hold talks with the government.
Hans Ngala is a freelance journalist who focuses on Christianity in Africa, politics, and health.
Efforts by Cameroonian president Paul Biya to grant further autonomy to the Anglophone regions of Northwest and Southwest Cameroon, along with other measures allegedly designed to increase local power, have been put on pause due to the ongoing health crisis posed by COVID-19. These measures were originally proposed during a “Major National Dialogue” held between September 30 and October 6, 2019.
Among the various proposals, one of the more symbolic ones was a suggestion to formally change the country’s name to the United Republic of Cameroon, acknowledging the different histories between the country’s Francophone and Anglophone regions, which were unified on October 1, 1961.
The Cameroonian parliament also introduced laws to formalize bilingualism; establish “super mayors” for the country’s fourteen largest cities, to be elected by popular vote, who would act as delegates to the national government; create regional assemblies composed of a house of representatives and a chamber of traditional chiefs; and provide greater financial assistance to the regions.
Anglophone separatists boycotted last year’s peace talks
While emblematic of the Biya administration’s sincerity in granting further autonomy to Cameroon’s provinces, the government has taken a hard stance against any sort of federal system, creating an intractable deadlock between Biya and Anglophone separatists, who boycotted last year’s peace talks in protest.
Complicating matters is the distrust among Cameroon’s opposition politicians, who view the National Dialogue as a public farce and doubt the legitimacy of the country’s current ruling party, which won the legislative elections earlier this year despite a high rate of voter abstention, potentially as high as 70 percent.
During a state visit by Cameroonian president Paul Biya to Switzerland in June 2019, Cameroonian exiles protested outside the InterContinental Hotel in Geneva where he and his wife were staying, venting their anger at the eighty-six-year-old’s management of the Anglophone Crisis, among other grievances. Biya’s presidency began in 1982 and will continue at least until 2025 following his 2018 re-election, making him one of the longest serving presidents still alive on the African continent.
These protesters had been mobilized from across Europe through the use of social media, which compelled the Biya administration to form a social media “cyber brigade” in August 2019 to combat anti-Biya sentiments online and in the streets.
Members disseminate pro-Biya messages and challenge anti-Biya commenters
Using a network of false accounts, members of this officially unacknowledged group disseminate pro-Biya messages and challenge anti-Biya commenters. In itself, this demonstrates a worrying manipulation of social media services by state actors, jeopardizing Cameroon’s already precarious internet freedoms. Targeted internet blackouts occurred in 2017 and 2018 in the English-speaking regions of the country to silence dissent and calls for secession. Tit-for-tat accusations have broken out between pro- and anti-Biya internet posters over the use of ethnically charged rhetoric to sow division.
The existence of this group alone demonstrates a disappointing prioritization of government resources. Instead of addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction in Biya’s presidency and the ongoing tensions between Anglophone and Francophone regions of Cameroon, the government has instead chosen to allocate funds to suppress and shape online discourse as a distraction.
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.
New Africa Daily spoke to Viola Llewellyn, president and co-founder of Ovamba Solutions, about her company’s approach to some of Africa’s challenges. Ovamba creates technologies for banks so they can serve small and medium-sized enterprises with sharia-compliant trade finance products.
New Africa Daily: Ovamba started in Cameroon. Could you tell us a little about your model and how Ovamba has transitioned from a classic fintech company to a tradetech company?
Viola Llewellyn: We started in 2013 as a platform for the African diaspora to take what would ordinarily be remittances and use that capital for investment in home communities. This was not a viable model back then and it failed before it even started. Our pivots since then took us through the journey of our actual customers. By going through bank account opening, loan application, trying to get services, importing, and looking at how risk works and who would be a reliable customer, we were able to shift effectively to our current model, namely a tradetech solution with additional services. It is comprised of a suite of services available on a mobile app and connected to a risk-measuring and transaction-authorization back office, from e-commerce to logistics services.
NAD: Do you think lending is a healthy option for development of prosperity in Africa?
VL: Lending requires a steep list of criteria to qualify, which inevitably excludes businesses and people who are a good risk but their best aspects cannot be measured by traditional credit processes. Credit that can be secured or not secured has a punitive consequence in the face of non-performance and can create a cycle of poverty, especially amongst sub-prime candidates. Africa requires capital and services together. It has been shown that focusing on inventory and business performance not only produces better transaction and capital deployment outcomes, but also trains businesses for better performance.
NAD: What has Ovamba learned regarding the formulation of risk models?
VL: We have learned that risk models that are formulated correctly open a wider catchment of customers. We formulate our risk models to look for ways to mitigate, not prevent, exposure to risk. We have noticed that in the African market, banks approach risk from the standpoint of total prevention of any exposure to risk, which shuts out customers who may just need an adjustment to the conditions of a transaction.
Case in point: It is common practice that if you want a loan of US$10,000, your bank will require that you have $10,000 “blocked” in your bank account. So lending is secured by your own capital, and you may be required to bring collateral to the table on top of that. This is not how risk management should be done.
NAD: What can sharia finance offer in terms of providing financial services to the informal economy?
VL: Sharia finance offers an ethical fee-based “risk-sharing” approach to finance. It puts inventory at the heart of the transaction, and not the client’s past or future financial performance. It removes the need to have a perfect track record from the main criteria for approval. After all, you can have perfect credit but absolutely poor choice in suppliers or business timing. That makes the transaction a failure. Or you could have great business acumen and mediocre cash flow or reserves, but if the financier has legal and physical control of the asset, there is a balance in the sharing of business outcomes. It works remarkably well for Africa, where wholesale and retail trade drive whole economies.
NAD: What does Ovamba’s description as a tradetech company mean to you?
VL: It means designing innovations to support and drive trade, while simultaneously impacting the business ecosystem through performance and capital. It involves customer selection and onboarding, and having deep knowledge of assets, inventory, logistics, market sector dynamics, value chain, and supply chains, all rolled into easily accessible innovations, apps, and processing algorithms. It is a suite of digital solutions for traditional problems.
NAD: What has Ovamba learned from working with African central banks? How can they be more efficient?
VL: We have learnt that central banks are not technology innovators. We also understand that policy development and response times cannot keep up with innovation. Central banks fully understand what is at stake. The general wariness of fintech and tradetech solutions is slowly giving way to collaboration in the form of sandboxes. Central banks are concerned about financial inclusion and the poor track record of banks who cannot control non-performing loans. We have had the opportunity to speak to quite a few central banks, which all agree that tradetech is a bona fide solution to financial inclusion and better portfolio performance from lending to the informal sector, but that it has to be at scale. Having a digital platform that has the security and bandwidth is the perfect tool to achieve this while also being mindful of data protection.
Viola Llewellyn is a member of the Africa Professional Services Group, the European Women’s Payment Network, and the African Women in Fintech & Payments. In October 2019, she was appointed to the board of advisors of Lobbying Africa. She was born in the United Kingdom to a Cameroonian family and currently lives in the United States.
Chad’s recent offensive into the Lake Chad Basin disrupted Boko Haram’s control of the area. Yet without sustained engagement in the region the terrorist group could easily return.
On 23 March, Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (JAS) attacked an army position in Boma, a Chadian peninsula on the Lake Chad Basin. Ninety-eight Chadian soldiers were killed, the most ever in an attack. About forty were wounded and military equipment was captured. Chad’s retaliation was as unprecedented as the JAS attack. The Wrath of Boma military campaign spans three countries: Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.
The Boma attack confirms that JAS remains as formidable a foe to the Lake Chad Basin countries as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). More than eight hours of fighting on a swampy semi-island with heavy casualties for Chad demonstrates JAS’s combat capacity, which included significant amphibious equipment, diligent planning and meticulous intelligence work.
It also shows that the JAS and ISWAP operational sectors often intersect and overlap. The sub-faction of JAS led by Ibrahim Bakura, operating around the northern part of the lake, has since 2019 allowed JAS leader AbubakarShekau to extend his area of operation beyond Southern Borno in Nigeria, into Niger and Chad.
Lake Chad Basin countries
(Click on the map for the full-size image.)
On the same day as the Boma attack, a Nigerian army unit was ambushed by ISWAP in the Konduga area in Borno State, resulting in around 100 casualties. A Nigerien military reconnaissance outpost in Chetima Wangou, Diffa Region, was attacked two weeks earlier, resulting in eight deaths.
Attacks for resupply and hostage-taking for ransom have persisted across the Lake Chad Basin, but assaults on military positions have intensified across the region since March 2020. These events are part of a trend since the last quarter of 2018 that show the resilience of Boko Haram factions, particularly ISWAP.
Recent attacks on civilians and humanitarian actors in the region have raised concerns about JAS’s enduring capacity to execute large-scale assaults. Since Boko Haram splintered in August 2016 and its strategic camp in the Sambisa Forest was dismantled in December that year, JAS was thought to have been diminished, disorganized and confined to Southern Borno.
Persistent attacks have also raised questions about the effectiveness of the Lake Chad Basin states’ responses to eradicate Boko Haram. The ability of governments in the region to enhance their legitimacy and deliver much-needed services to their communities has also come under scrutiny.
Assaults on military positions have intensified across the Lake Chad Basin region since March 2020
In March this year, before engaging in Lake Chad’s swamps and islands, Chad obtained agreement from Niger and Nigeria for its troops to deploy on their territory. Niger and Nigeria also agreed to block their respective territorial lake shores to prevent JAS fighters from fleeing. This large-scale military response has Shekau’s troops on the run, as is clear in his audio message from 11 April urging his troops to stand firm.
The intensity of Chadian combat operations could open a new chapter in counter-terrorism efforts in the Lake Chad Basin. But there are fears of history repeating itself. Military operations after the deployment of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in 2015 rolled back Boko Haram’s territorial gains considerably. But a failure to hold these spaces and win the hearts and minds of the communities meant the groups were never totally eradicated.
A state of emergency has been declared in the departments of Kaya and Fouli in Lac Province, Chad. People living in these border areas – which were declared a war zone from 27 March to 16 April – have been asked to move further inland to avoid being mistaken for Boko Haram combatants.
Lac has a total of 169 000 internally displaced people, 13 000 refugees and 47 000 Chadian returnees resulting from Boko Haram-related emergencies. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs adds about 20 000 to the above number of internally displaced people since the end of March.
Humanitarian consequences will worsen given that COVID-19 responses restrict inter-city movements
The humanitarian consequences will considerably worsen given that COVID-19 responses are restricting inter-city movements. These vulnerable communities are already the double victims of Boko Haram abuses and states’ security-based responses. There is currently no clear strategy to provide shelter or food for these new internally displaced people, exposing them to further health risks and deepening their vulnerabilities.
Beyond the strategic aim of degrading Boko Haram, operational priorities should also focus on helping vulnerable communities. On 4 April, Chad’s President Idriss Déby discussed the MNJTF’s control of the Lake Chad islands with force commander Major General Ibrahim Manu Yusuf. Yusuf has prioritized reconquering these islands by integrating the police and civil society. While this is happening, the Lake Chad Basin states must ensure the flow of humanitarian aid to help manage additional displacements.
The complex mix of actors trapped in Boko Haram’s operational areas must also be considered. Ongoing Institute for Security Studies research shows that large-scale military operations often trigger the return of voluntary and involuntary associates of Boko Haram in all four of the Lake Chad Basin countries. It’s important to differentiate between ex-combatants, abductees and detainees of Boko Haram in order to propose responses suited to each category.
The collaboration between Chad, Niger and Nigeria on the Wrath of Boma military operation should be extended to diplomatic, developmental and peacebuilding efforts. Cameroon should also be part of this partnership.
Beyond destroying Boko Haram, operational priorities should include helping vulnerable communities
Lake Chad Basin countries should use this opportunity to strengthen and sustain the regional cooperation required to both outlast Boko Haram and launch effective peacebuilding in the area. The MNJTF can enhance this coordination and ensure that liberated areas are held by civil defense forces that are able to protect citizens.
The countries of the Lake Chad Basin have missed some important opportunities to eradicate violent extremism and stabilize the area. Better communication and a coordinated response, both in the military and development fields, will help bring down Boko Haram.
Remadji Hoinathy is the scientific director of the Centre de Recherches en Anthropologie et Sciences Humaines (CRASH) in N’Djaména, Chad, and a lecturer at the Department of Anthropology at the University of N’Djamena.
This article was originally published on ISS Today under the heading “Is counter-terrorism history repeating itself in Lake Chad Basin?”
There are two sub-species of the African elephant, the African savanna elephant and the smaller African forest elephant. The latter is native to the tropical forests of Central and West Africa. Threatened by poaching and habitat loss, the African forest elephant population of Central Africa has fallen by more than 30 percent in the past seven years.
Forest elephant populations had declined by about 66 percent over eight years.
In 2010, Cameroon’s elephant population was 21,000, but that number has fallen drastically in the past decade due to poaching for the international ivory trade. In 2014, research funded by Save the Elephants revealed that the price of ivory in China, the world’s biggest market, almost tripled in the previous four years.
In 2017, wildlife censuses carried out in Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Gabon revealed that forest elephant populations had declined by about 66 percent over eight years.
The Demand for Ivory and Wood
Elephant poaching is rife in Cameroon’s Deng Deng National Park and Nja Biosphere Reserve, for example, and the area is known as a hub for the illegal ivory trade. But poaching is not the only threat facing these elephants. The logging industry has played an outsize role in decimating elephant habitats, not only by felling trees but also by setting up logging camps, thus bringing people deeper into the forest. This coincides with smaller-scale illegal logging, as people burn wood for fuel. As logging roads push deeper into the forest, new routes open up for poachers hunting for human consumption, as the trade in bushmeat is a full-time source of income for some, and for others a matter of survival in times of hardship.
What is happening in the Central African rainforests poses a dilemma for governments, which must weigh their obligations to protect the environment with the need to develop infrastructure and manufacturing capacities.
On April 11, Cameroon had 820 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 12 deaths, making it the country with the second-highest infection rate in sub-Saharan Africa, after South Africa. With tensions still running high in the anglophone regions and a growing Boko Haram threat in the Far North Region, the pandemic piles on yet another crisis for President Paul Biya’s administration.
Well before the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Africa, Cameroonians and opposition figures had been criticizing President Biya’s “hands-off” governing style, characterized by long absences without issuing public statements, delegating government functions to his prime minister, and taking extended private trips overseas. The last time the Cameroonian public saw the president was at a meeting with US ambassador to Cameroon Peter Balerin on March 11, during which Biya posed for press photos but did not speak to journalists. On March 28, opposition leader Maurice Kamto issued an ultimatum to President Biya demanding that he publicly announce an economic stimulus package within seven days. Five days later, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute revealed the creation of a US$16.67 million solidarity fund. During this period, the only other time President Biya addressed the public was through social media, urging Cameroonians to abide by public health guidelines.
Kamto’s ultimatum puts the Biya administration in an awkward position. The opposition leader capped off his statement with a clear warning, “I reserve the right to call on the Cameroonian people to draw all the consequences from his serious failure, which could then lead to ascertainment of his inability to govern.” Responses from Biya’s governing coalition were swift, condemning Kamto for politicizing the pandemic and calling it “shameful”. Though the country has closed schools and its national borders, banned political rallies, and instituted curfews for markets and businesses, this is still not enough, argues Agora Consulting associate director Stephane M’Bafou: “We must quickly declare a curfew, isolate the cities where cases are confirmed, and move toward a general containment regardless of the socio-economic cost.”
While minister of health Malachie Manaouda has taken point on the country’s COVID-19 response alongside the prime minister, President Biya’s habit of consulting ministers in private meetings at the presidential palace is unlikely to instill confidence in his leadership. With the median age of Cameroonians less than half the 38 years that Biya has been president, public confidence in him and his RDPC party is likely to deteriorate should conditions worsen and he were to remain out of sight.
With ninety-one known cases of COVID-19 and two deaths as of March 28, Cameroon is the Central African country that is the most affected by COVID-19. As restrictions are put in place to slow the spread of the virus, one area of Cameroonian society coming under greater scrutiny is its prison system. Across the country, 31,000 Cameroonians are imprisoned, overseen by 4,600 prison employees.
Enforcing social distancing is difficult under prison conditions, and Cameroon’s continued incarceration of new prisoners risks exposing prison populations to the deadly pandemic. Medical facilities and equipment are sorely lacking in Cameroonian prisons. On average, these prisons have only one doctor per 1,383 detainees.
Human rights advocates are urging the government to empty the prisons before an outbreak occurs in the country’s crowded prisons. A group of Cameroonian lawyers sent a letter to the Minister of Justice, Laurent Esso, on Thursday, March 26, to make their demands known publicly.
Why It Matters
Releasing prisoners may seem to be an extraordinary step to prevent the spread of a viral pandemic, but in fact the concept of releasing non-violent offenders has long been the position of prison abolitionists and other activists seeking criminal justice reform. Punitive detention facilities rarely rehabilitate inmates, leaving them to reoffend once they are released. Cameroon’s prison population has steadily grown over the past decade, which calls into question the efficacy of the country’s criminal justice system. Whether the Minister of Justice accedes to these demands or not, the Cameroonian prison system needs an overhaul.