Death Toll Now Higher than in War against Boko Haram
By Ntumfoyn Boh Herbert
WASHINGTON, DC, 11 JULY 2018 – One hundred and fifty-one people were killed in May 2018, the deadliest month yet in the hardly publicized war waged by Cameroon’s armed and security forces against pro-independence campaigners and armed insurgents seeking recognition for the self-proclaimed Republic of Ambazonia.
“It is a threefold increase in fatalities for May 2018 compared to the average monthly deaths so far,” said Hon. Donald Yamamoto, Acting Assistant Secretary in the Bureau for Africa Affairs at the U.S. State Department. Yamamoto spoke Wednesday on Capitol Hill during a congressional hearing before the Sub-Committee on Africa of the U.S. House of Representatives.The May 2018 death toll is much higher than previously reported by, among others, Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department. In effect, more civilians are being killed in the restive territory – formerly the United Nations British Trusteeship Territory of Southern Cameroons – than in Cameroon’s counter-terrorism operations against the Islamic extremist sect, Boko Haram.
Over the four years since 2014 when Cameroon launched its counter-terrorism operations against Boko Haram, an estimated 1,900 people have been killed in the northern regions of Cameroon; being an average 40 people killed per month.
Yamamoto put the number of fatalities in Ambazonia at 108 from 30 December 2017 to 30 April 2018; being just under seven people killed on average per month prior to Cameroon’s dictator Paul Biya declaring war last November against those he calls “secessionists” and “terrorists”.
In the height of the killings in mid-May 2018, the American Ambassador to Cameroon, Peter Henry Balerin, accused the armed and security forces of Cameroon’s 85-year-old dictator Paul Biya for “targeted killings” and for the widespread looting and razing of entire villages.
A report put together by parliamentarians representing Ambazonia had earlier blamed Cameroonian armed and security forces for killing a total of 121 peaceful protesters during a ten-day period, from 22nd September 2017 – when millions staged peaceful non-violent protests – and 1st October 2017 – when even larger crowds thronged the streets, waving tree branches as a sign of peace, to celebrate the symbolic restoration of the independence of Ambazonia.
Yamamoto said Wednesday that the violence has created a humanitarian crisis. The government of Cameroon and the United Nations have issued an appeal, seeking $15 million to address the crisis. No fewer than 160,000 people are internally displaced by the crisis – most of them sheltering in forests without access to food or medicines.
“We believe that the number of the internally displaced is under-estimated,” said Yamamoto, warning that the crisis – if left unaddressed – will only get worse, notably as the rainy season deepens, food reserves deplete and abandoned farms are left unattended.
Cameroon government forces are blamed for adopting scorched-earth tactics in which they have razed over 80 villages prompting cries that troops have committed war crimes, atrocity crimes, crimes against humanity and acts bordering on genocide.Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), Chair of the U.S. House of Representative Sub-committee on Labor, Employment and Pension, thanked his colleagues for organizing the hearing, recalling that it is failure by the world to speak up that facilitated the 1994 Rwanda Genocide in which one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered over a period of 100 days.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), a ranking member of the Sub-committee said the hearing was organized to determine who is to blame for the killings and to help avert a civil war from breaking out in the country.
“We want the government of Cameroon to know that the international community is watching,” Rep. Bass told the hearing. She stressed that all governments must adhere to the rule of law and ensure that minority rights are protected. She also reminded pro-independence campaigners that the world will only hear their voice if they remain peaceful and non-violent.
“As Congress, we need to decide if we should continue our security sector cooperation with Cameroon and, if so, how,” said Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), Chair of the Sub-Committee.
Rep. Smith said the ongoing crisis “is not a domestic affair.” Rather, he described it as “a regional one which implicates U.S. interests.” Although U.S.-Cameroon trade is small – $158 million in U.S. exports to Cameroon for $117 million in imports from Cameroon – the country borders the Gulf of Guinea, on a major trade route for millions of barrels of oil from a host of African countries headed to the United States.So far, the violence has driven more than 21,000 people into exile in refugee camps in neighboring Nigeria, according to the United Nations.
The Chair of the Sub-committee, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), said the hearing was organized to help Congress decide if America should continue its security sector cooperation with Cameroon.
U.S. support to Cameroon includes $48 million in food aid and support for economic recovery projects; $59 million for healthcare projects; $3.8 million in military training assistance; and $2.5 million in congressional notification money for counter-terrorism operations.
Concerns have grown ever since the Biya Government has not only said it considers and will treat pro-independence campaigners as “terrorists”.
“Ambazonian insurgents are worst than Boko Haram terrorists,” said Paul Atanga Nji, Cameroon’s Minister for Territorial Administration and one of the diehard opponents of an independent Ambazonia.
Shortly after Biya’s declaration of war against “secessionists” and “terrorists” in November 2017, the government ordered villagers to evacuate 16 villages in Manyu, close to the border with Nigeria’s Cross River State, or be treated as “terrorists”.
“My understanding is that the domestic uprising in Cameroon is not terrorism,” Yamamoto told the congressional hearing Wednesday, debunking the blanket claim the Biya regime has brandished in the hope of justifying its heavy-handed response to the crisis.
The Biya regime has also used the claim that its troops are fighting terrorists to push back on calls by the United Nations, the African Union, the Commonwealth of Nations, the United Kingdom and the United States for an inclusive dialogue that addresses the root causes of the crisis.
“We will continue to press for an inclusive dialogue, without preconditions,” Yamamoto promised Wednesday, adding that the U.S. will insist on “identifying those responsible for the violence and killings and holding them accountable.”
Pressed to comment on whether troops – notably members of the American-trained and partially-funded elite force known as the Rapid Intervention Brigade (BIR) – were involved in the killings and violence as shown by video on social media, Yamamoto said he did not believe BIR officers trained by the U.S. were involved. He also said he believed weapons provided by the U.S. had not been used in the killings.
“We track the equipment,” Yamamoto told the hearing.
Citizens of Ambazonia who thronged the hearing room gasped in disbelief at what they heard, with many of them recalling that video on social media shows BIR officers torturing civilians in the dungeons they run as well as show armored personnel carriers from the U.S. driven into towns to help put down peaceful protests.
Yamamoto suggested that Congress would need a session behind closed doors for him to be more forthcoming on details that his request seemed to suggest must be classified or top secret. He would also not respond to a question from Rep. Joaquim Castro (D-TX) on whether or not Cameroonian armed and security forces have committed atrocity crimes.
The U.S. will “condemn any extension of the term of the president if it is unconstitutional,” Yamamoto said, in discussions focused on crucial elections planned for later this year in Cameroon. He explained that the U.S. was not providing any assistance to Cameroon on elections. “The commitment to electoral reform is not there,” he told the hearing as Rep. Bass wondered aloud why the U.S. provides security sector support to a government without also helping it to build democratic institutions.
“Any elections will be high risk,” said Hans de Marie Heungoup, an expert from the International Crisis Group (ICG), pointing out that six of ten regions in the country are locked in some form of violent conflict. ICG estimates that no fewer than 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents remain at large in the country’s three northern regions, where up to 12,000 young people have been recruited into vigilante groups by Cameroonian authorities in an effort to defeat the insurgency.
“Biya must hold talks without preconditions and the U.S. will help organize them,” said Yamamoto, regretting that several members of the regime do not even recognize that there is a crisis.
“I believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed,” said Efi Tembon, Executive Director of the Association for Bible Translation in his testimony to the congressional hearing. “There are mass graves,” Tembon explained adding that if what is unfolding in Ambazonia is not genocide he does not know what genocide is.
“The world failed Rwanda,” Tembon added, pleading with the Congress, People and Government of the United States to “listen to the cry for independence by Ambazonians.” He described the determination of Ambazonians to achieve independence as “unbreakable”.
“This people are willing to die,” Tembon said, inviting the United States to take a leadership role in organizing international meditation and negotiations to end the crisis that should involve “self-determination for the people of Southern Cameroons”.
“The situation in Cameroon is alarming and worsening” and “the time to act on Cameroon is now,” agreed Adotei Akwei, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, in his oral statement to the hearing.
Amnesty International, said Adotei Akwei, believes that U.S.-trained BIR “have used similar tactics” on pro-independence campaigners in the restive Ambazonia as they have used “on Boko Haram” terrorists in the country’s three northern regions. He blamed the heavy handed response of the Biya regime on largely peaceful political protests calling for reform of the structure of the country for radicalizing the movement.
Amnesty International accuses Biya of “gambling with lives” stressing that the “world should not accept for him to make such a gamble”.A woman shot in the leg in Muea, in the outskirts of the Ambazonian capital, Buea, and awaiting amputation of the leg at a hospital, told reporters that she was shot at point blank range by a white French soldier. An audio message, gone viral on social media, from Anjin in Ambazonia’s Northern Zone, said no fewer than six white French soldiers are engaged in the fighting. Neither Cameroonian nor French officials would confirm or deny the claims.
Under a cooperation agreement signed with former colonial master, France, on 26 December 1959, French troops may be called to intervene in Cameroon to help fight an external aggression or to put down a rebellion. The territory for which that agreement applies does not include Southern Cameroons or present-day Ambazonia, which was under British indirect rule at the time.
From the late 1950s to 1962, a French expeditionary force led by General Max Briand, a veteran of Indochina, spearheaded a campaign of repression and mass murder in the Republic of Cameroon. An estimated 61,300 to 76,300 civilians were slaughtered in that campaign, according to the British archives. General Max Briand put the number of those killed in just one region of Cameroon – the Bamileke Region – at 20,000 civilians.