Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

Human rights violations in Cameroon in 1991 were closely linked to rising calls for democratization. Tensions between the government and the political opposition worsened in the second half of the year, reaching new heights of violence and bloodshed as the government killed dozens of opposition demonstrators and beat many others. Some demonstrators were responsible for beatings of police and other civilians and for acts of vandalism. The government also continued to arrest opposition activists and refuse the opposition's demand for a national conference.

To its credit, the government declared an amnesty for political prisoners in late March, releasing about one hundred who had been held in administrative detention without charge or trial since the abortive coup of 1984. But the government's often brutal response to the wave of demonstrations and strikes during 1991 raised serious doubts about its stated commitment to democratization.

On December 19, 1990, new legislation was enacted regarding the state of emergency, the press, associations and political parties, among other matters. Although the government claimed to be liberalizing the laws in these areas, the revised laws in fact retained much of their repressive nature. The press law, for example, continues the practice of prior censorship – that is, all publications must be submitted to the censor before publication. Although prior censorship has existed in Cameroon since independence, the new press law codifies the practice for the first time.

The new law on associations permits the government to ban any organization which it deems to have deviated from its objectives and or to threaten public order or state security. The law relating to the state of emergency repealed legislation dating from 1962 but permitted the declaration of states of emergency by presidential decree for up to six months; extensions are permitted after "consultation" with the National Assembly. During a state of emergency, the authorities are given broad powers of administrative detention. Although opponents no longer face the prospect of criminal trials for "subversion" before military tribunals, a new law permits political trials to be held before the recently created State Security Court, from which there is no appeal.

The government's attitude toward dissent was demonstrated early in 1991. Célestin Monga, an economist who writes for the independent newspaper Le Messager1 as well as the Paris-based Jeune Afrique Economie, and Pius Njawe, the editor of Le Messager, came under investigation in late December 1990 for an open letter to President Paul Biya that had been published in Le Messager. The letter, written by Monga, criticized President Biya's December 3, 1990 address in which he had stated, "I have brought you democracy and liberty."2 On January 18, the two journalists were each given six-month suspended sentences and a fine of 300,000 CFA (approximately $1,100) on charges of insulting the courts and the members of the National Assembly. The trial sparked large demonstrations in support of the defendants, and three demonstrators were killed in the northern city of Garoua.

Pro-democracy demonstrations were broken up, often violently, in various parts of the country in early 1991, and the violence escalated in April. Between April 10 and 15, at least eight demonstrators were killed and several others wounded in the north and southwest of the country, as well as in the major cities of Yaoundé and Douala. In addition, several hundred people were detained in Yaoundé, including some three hundred students after security forces attacked the university.

Tensions, and the death toll, continued to rise in May, June and July, after clashes between police and demonstrators. On June 25, the opposition announced "Operation Ghost Town" in an attempt to force the government to accede to their demands for a national conference. The "Ghost Towns" campaign, which was continuing in many parts of the country through December, involves the voluntary closing of businesses, shops and taxi services, and the refusal to pay government taxes. Meanwhile, the government formed the Operations Commanders, charged with re-establishing public order in areas where demonstrations and unrest have occurred in seven of Cameroon's ten provinces. These commanders, who are superior to the local military structure, are widely believed responsible for the continued use of excessive force against demonstrators.

In July, six independent organizations were banned – Cap Liberté, the Cameroon Organization for Human Rights, the Collective of Women for the New Deal, Human Rights Watch,3 the Association of Professional Drivers, and the National Association of Cameroonian Athletes. The groups were dissolved by order of the Minister of Territorial Administration on the grounds that their activities were incompatible with their legal status, i.e., they were engaging in political activity. All six groups were part of the Opposition Coordinating Group, and their banning was clearly meant to dampen the political opposition in Cameroon.

Over the summer, the government began a new crackdown on the independent press. Independent newspapers, notably Le Messager, were frequently confiscated. In July, a new censorship authority was created within the government-run printing house (where most newspapers are printed), which reinforced government censorship of independent newspapers. In August, without explanation, the government banned five of the leading independent newspapers: Le Messager, La Vision, Galaxie, La Nouvelle Expression and Challenge Hebdo. Two other newspapers were later suspended. The banning order against Challenge Hebdo and Galaxie was lifted in late September or early October, and the remaining banning orders were lifted late in the year.

On September 4, when dozens of independent journalists staged a peaceful march to protest the banning of the newspapers, they were attacked by security forces. Several of the demonstrators were injured, and approximately forty were detained.

In late September, at least thirty and possibly as many as sixty opposition activists were arrested in Douala after publicly protesting the arrest of a leading activist, Jean-Jacques Ekindi, founder of the Progressive Movement. Despite the protesters' lack of resistance, the police severely beat those arrested, stripped them, and put them in a filthy cell. Charles Tchoungang, a lawyer and president of the banned Cameroon Organization for Human Rights, was among those seriously mistreated. Others arrested were Samuel Eboua of the National Union for Democracy and Progress; and Anicet Ekané and Henriette Ekwé, former political prisoners.

In October, President Biya announced that legislative elections would be held in February 1992, and invited representatives of the opposition parties to meet with the prime minister in early November to discuss a revision of the electoral code and access by the opposition to the media. In late November, the opposition split, with forty-one parties signing an agreement with the government while other parties and individuals maintained their opposition. However, many Cameroonians remain skeptical about the government's intentions, given its refusal to convene a national conference, lift the ban on independent associations, and disband the Operations Commanders. In addition, during the night of November 17-18, Benjamin Senfo Tonkam, the leader of the independent student movement, was arrested in Douala, and continues to be held without charge or access to lawyers and family. There are serious concerns about his treatment in detention.

The Right to Monitor

Since the banning in July of the six independent organizations, three of which were reportedly human rights organizations, there have been no independent human rights monitoring groups in Cameroon. The three banned monitoring organizations – Cap Liberté, the Cameroon Organization for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch – were formed in 1991. Some of them are reportedly attempting to continue their work despite the ban. There is also a governmental human rights organization – the National Committee of Human Rights and Liberties – which has not criticized the government.

Most reporting on human rights in Cameroon is done by the independent press. Le Messager, in particular, often reports on human rights violations around the country and criticizes the government for these abuses. However, when Le Messager published a list of the political prisoners who had been held since the 1984 coup attempt and were released in the government amnesty, the authorities confiscated the issue. Such reporting was one of the factors that led to the August banning of the leading independent newspapers. Throughout 1991, editors such as Pius Njawe were arrested, threatened, prevented from traveling abroad and kept under strict surveillance. In September, during a peaceful march for press freedom, Njawe was threatened at gunpoint by police in Douala, and several other protesters were injured.

The Cameroonian authorities have never responded to Africa Watch's repeated requests to send a fact-finding mission to Cameroon.

U.S. Policy

During 1991, the U.S. government made no public statements about human rights in Cameroon. State Department sources told Africa Watch that this silence was due in part to the encouraging trend in human rights during most of the year. They cite the legalizing of opposition political parties, the lifting of many restrictions on the press and the freeing of political prisoners. However, given the increasingly disturbing pattern of human rights abuses in the second half of the year, this lack of public protest was unfortunate.

U.S. Embassy representatives, including Ambassador Frances Cook, reportedly raised human rights concerns privately in their dealings with Cameroonian authorities. According to the State Department, the Embassy made a number of demarches to the Cameroonian authorities about human rights abuses, including expressions of concern about excessive force used by the police and army against civilians, arbitrary arrest and detention of opposition activists, harassment of journalists and suspension of independent newspapers.

The Embassy also deserves credit for maintaining contact with opposition activists, journalists and other victims of human rights abuse. Because of these contacts, the Embassy is often informed quickly about the arrest or mistreatment of opposition activists. In January, the U.S. consul in Douala attended the trial of Celestin Monga and Pius Njawe, who were accused of slandering President Biya. On three occasions, according to the State Department, the United States protested abuses privately in both Yaoundé and Washington: on June 21, when a number of opposition activists were arrested in front of the U.S. Embassy after meeting with Embassy representatives to present a letter calling on the U.S. government to distance itself from President Biya; in early July, when a number of activists representing the Opposition Coordinating Group were arrested for holding a meeting after the Embassy's annual July 4th party;4 and in September, when some thirty journalists demonstrating for press freedom were beaten in Douala. According to the Embassy, their officials attempted on several occasions to visit people imprisoned on political grounds, but their request for access was not always granted.

In early May, President Biya traveled to the United States on a private visit to receive an honorary degree from the University of Maryland. Biya met briefly with President Bush and Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, but no public statements were issued. However, State Department sources indicate that U.S. officials told Biya privately that he should do more to accommodate the opposition, including meeting with opposition representatives, and that the U.S. government was concerned about the use of excessive force and continued censorship. However, by not making any public comment, the Bush Administration missed an important opportunity to demonstrate U.S. concern for mounting human rights abuses in Cameroon.

As in the past, the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1990 provided an accurate description of human rights abuses in Cameroon, including cases of extrajudicial killing, beating and torture of detainees, harsh prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and detention, and restrictions on freedom of the press.

The Work of Africa Watch

In February, Africa Watch published a newsletter describing attacks on the independent press in Cameroon. The newsletter focused on the January trial of Monga and Njawe as well as the publication of the new press law codifying censorship. The newsletter was translated into French in the spring.

In April, Africa Watch published Academic Freedom and Human Rights in Africa, which discussed human rights violations against the academic community in fourteen countries. The chapter on Cameroon described the problem of self-censorship in the university, reinforced by the pervasive presence of security agents and occasional acts of violence by the authorities.

Africa Watch also published articles on human rights in Cameroon. In February, an Africa Watch article discussing attacks on the independent press in Cameroon and Togo appeared in The Nairobi Law Monthly. In early May, just before Cameroon's President Biya was to receive an honorary degree from the University of Maryland, Africa Watch published an article in The Baltimore Sun describing the attacks underway against students in Cameroon and the severe restrictions on academic freedom. The article was translated and reprinted in Cameroon in the May 8 issue of Le Messager.

Le Messager was created in 1979 as a weekly journal of information, debate and political commentary. It had a circulation in Cameroon of fifty to sixty thousand, as well as subscribers in other parts of Africa, Europe and North America.

Monga wrote: "Like many other Cameroonians, I was shocked by the outrageously condescending, paternalistic and pretentious tone that you used at the National Assembly.... This is a country where every day the most fundamental human rights are ridiculed and where the majority of the people do not have enough to live on, while a small handful of opportunists share the riches of the country with impunity."

The Cameroonian Human Rights Watch is not affiliated in any way with the New York-based organization responsible for this report.

The U.S. Embassy invited a cross-section of Cameroonians to their Fourth of July party – opposition activists as well as government officials.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.