John Kirby Assistant Secretary and Department Spokesperson, Bureau of Public Affairs Washington, DC November 28, 2016
President Barack Obama’s government said on Monday it was “deeply concerned” by the loss of life, injuries and damage as a result of protests that turned violent in Bamenda and Buea, the respective capitals of Cameroon’s Northwestern and Southwestern regions, where English speaking lawyers and teachers are demanding justice and equality.
“We call on all parties to exercise restraint, refrain from further violence, and engage in dialogue for a peaceful resolution to the current protests,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
“The United States urges the Government of Cameroon to protect and defend human rights and fundamental freedoms, ensure that all voices are heard and respected, and preserve the guarantees enshrined in its constitution and international obligations,”
the statement read.
“Apart from the events in Bamenda and Buea, we are also concerned over recent Cameroonian government actions to restrict free expression and peaceful assembly, including ten-year prison sentences for men who exchanged texts referencing Boko Haram and the arrest of 54 members of the opposition Cameroon People’s Party while they were peacefully conducting a party meeting.
“The constitution of Cameroon guarantees freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and we believe that non-threatening rhetoric and activities – especially private conversations and gatherings – warrant neither prosecution nor government censured”.
In recent days, at least three protesters have been killed and many injured by Cameroonian security forces sent to squash lingering protests by English speaking lawyers and teachers who took to the street to demand justice and equality in a country where their long serving President has not spoken English in more than three decades.
President Paul Biya, a francophone, has been in power for 33 years and has communicated with his country only in French. The anglophones often have to rely on long delayed and imperfect translations.
The protests by lawyers and teachers have mainly taken place in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s northwest region and in the southwestern region of the country populated mainly by English-speaking Cameroonians.
Cameroon has ten regions, eight of them French speaking while only two, about 20 percent of the 22 million population are English speaking.
English and French speaking Cameroons became united in 1961 but it was more than a decade after that the federal system was abolished.
Since the abolition, the English speaking people in Cameroon have complained of marginalisation and have been advocating for a federal system that would give them more power, justice and a sense of fairness.
But security forces have been deployed to the protest sites and have been caught on camera beating up senior lawyers, crushing them to the ground.
Those protesting talk about marginalisation in appointments, development and even communication.
Although Cameroon boasts of having French and English as official languages, all government communication take place in French and then translated into English, sometimes many hours or days after.
The justice system is different and Francophone trained lawyers and judges who do not understand Common Law are often sent by the government to English speaking parts to handle cases with an instrument they do not understand.
With all that, the lawyers said enough was enough and stormed the streets in peaceful protests, but the country reacted ruthlessly by sending heavily armed operatives to crush the protests.
Cameroonians at home and abroad have expressed shock and outrage with some warning that it was not an Anglophone versus Francophone fight.
Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh, President, The Fomunyoh Foundation, a well known Cameroonian based in Washington DC, called for calm.
“In the past few weeks, I have watched with utter dismay, anguish and sadness developments in North West and South West Cameroon,” he said in an opinion article sent to TheSimonAtebaNews.
He said the demonstrations by Common Law lawyers in Bamenda in October and on November 8, and by Common Law lawyers in Buea on November 10, and the teachers’ strike that began on November 22, are affecting institutions of academic learning from primary through secondary and higher education in both regions of the country.
“These events endanger the rule of law and education, which are two very sensitive pillars of our national fabric and human development. They also bring to the fore grievances that demonstrate the disaffection of a sizable segment of our population with the manner in which the Biya government approaches governance in these critical sectors,” he said.
He added: “These very unfortunate events have also exposed to the entire Cameroonian population as well as the international community the inability of the authorities to listen to the voices of citizens and to provide appropriate platforms for meaningful discourse and exchanges that must take place in every democratic society between citizens and those that govern. Democratic governance in the 21st century entails constant engagement with citizens, providing opportunities for their grievances to be addressed, and taking concrete measures to ensure that fellow compatriots feel a sense of belonging and ownership of resulting reforms. This is the only way to restore their dignity and foster responsible citizenship. By failing to address these grievances, the government has exposed its inability to govern in an inclusive and responsive manner.
“As I have said in the past, the issues raised by Common Law lawyers and now teachers and parents in these two regions of the country deserve proper attention at he highest level of the State. These issues speak to the core values that enabled the establishment of the Fatherland to which we all belong. We cannot allow for that national fabric to be undermined by the government of the day. Sadly enough, these events also mirror recent strikes in Yaoundé and threats by the Union of francophone teachers to demonstrate in coming days. There is no doubt in my mind that a general malaise overshadows the current political environment in our country.
“I therefore call on President Paul Biya to speak directly to the nation to calm fears and to take concrete steps to address the expressed grievances in the most just, equitable and timely manner. I also call on the government not to use force against innocent unarmed citizens who peacefully advocate for their rights.
“The government should set up a special, broad based commission to attend to the grievances raised with regards to the educational sector. It is noteworthy that these issues raised by teachers, students and parents surpass the jurisdictions of the four cabinet ministries that now oversee educational matters in Cameroon – Ministry of Higher Education, Ministry of Secondary Education, Ministry of Basic Education and Ministry of Labor and Professional Training – none of which is headed by anyone educated in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. For a country that prides itself of adopting and strengthening its bicultural tradition, such a political set up does not lend itself to a proper understanding of the values that Anglophone teachers, student and parents seek to preserve.
“At the same time, I call on lawyers, teachers, students and parents in the North West and South West regions to be patient and to remain open to dialogue, knowing that the vast majority of Cameroonians appreciate highly the values of fairness, justice and integrity that they seek to defend. It is only on the basis of these shared values that Cameroon will stay strong and united”.