Nigerian journalist and spokesman of former President Goodluck Jonathan, Reuben Abati, in this piece discusses the agitation in Southern Cameroons for an independent nation state, which is similar to that of the Biafra movement in Nigeria, and what the world should do about it.
On Sunday, 1 October 2017, Sisiku AyukTabe, Chairman of the Southern Cameroons Governing Council, formally declared the independence of Southern Cameroons or the Federal Republic of Ambazonia: “We, the people of Southern Cameroons are slaves to no one”, he said, “Not now, not ever again! Today we reaffirm autonomy over our heritage and over our territory… It is time to tell Yaounde that enough is enough!”
The response from Yaounde has been characteristic. Weeks before the protests and the declaration of independence in Southern Cameroons, soldiers were sent to the region to shoot in the air, prevent rallies and intimidate the people. About 15 persons have so far been killed. “This division will never happen,” says Cameroon’s Communications Minister, Issa Tchiooma Bakary, speaking for the central government.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a wave of nationalist agitations across the world resulting in self-determination, secession and partitions, and the emergence of new countries. But self-determination or secession is not an automatic process, and it is not in every instance that the protests result in the Nirvana that the separatists seek.
Biya must get off his high horse
In Cameroon, the Biya administration must get off its high horse and engage the leaders of the separatist movement in dialogue. The international community must prevail on him to put an end to the abuse of human rights and the killings in Southern Cameroon. It is the refusal of the central government to address the grievances of the people of Southern Cameroon that has brought Cameroon to this moment.
To quote AyukTabe, again: “The union was always intended to be a union of two equals. Unfortunately what our peace-loving people have experienced ever since is oppression, subterfuge, discrimination, violence, intimidation, imprisonment, forced occupation, cultural genocide, and misappropriation of our natural resources by the leaders of the Republic of Cameroun.”
It is instructive to note the similarity between the expressed concerns of the Ambazonian movement and similar movements in recent times in other parts of the world, and the attitude of the governments in power.
In Spain (the Catalan secessionist move), Nigeria (the Biafra movement) and Iraq (the Iraqi Kurdistan) – the Catalans have held a referendum to leave Spain, but the Spanish government says this is “unconstitutional.” Biafrans want a referendum in Nigeria – the government says this is unconstitutional because Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable. The Kurds also want out of Iraq, but the central government is opposed to it on the grounds that the 25 September referendum is unilateral and unconstitutional!
It is not just rhetoric that is involved, the military is deployed, violence is unleashed on separatists or critics of the extant union and the government. While these may seem to be traditional responses, the assault on the human rights of protesters now includes an increasingly important territory: the internet.
Shutting down the internet
Generally, shutting down the internet has become the new mode of repression and a standard response to dissent. African states and governments have joined the trend. In the last year alone, 11 African governments have shut down the internet in one form or the other.
The worst anti-internet culprit so far in Africa would be in my view is Paul Biya’s Cameroon where intolerance and unpleasantness have been elevated to the level of state policy.
In January, the government of Cameroon shut down the internet in English-speaking parts of the country. This lasted for more than three months. This has again been repeated. It is unacceptable.
The cost of internet shutdowns is enormous and disruptive, and the gain for governments is so small. The free flow of information is breached, the targeting of specific regions as in Cameroun is discriminatory; the right to free speech is violated, along with other rights: association, choice, and freedom of thought.
The UN Human Rights Council in 2012, 2014 and again in July 2016, resolved that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”, and all states must refrain from taking such measures that can violate internet freedom. The African Union Declaration on Internet Governance (Algiers, February 13, 2017) is on all fours with this UN Resolution. The UN should go further and impose sanctions on countries that violate internet freedom.
Similarly, with growing internet penetration in Africa, so many businesses are dependent on the internet. Indeed, the internet is increasingly a shopping mall – for bloggers, advertisers, consultants and the average consumer of services, an internet shutdown in the light of this, undermines economic growth and development.
Human dignity and relationships are also affected. The internet is a networking tool, so much so that many families depend on it for contact and interaction, and many individuals on it for survival. Shutting down the internet rolls back the gains of the democratization process in Africa.
Internet registries worldwide should sanction errant governments which deny their citizens access to the internet. Men of conscience and thought leaders should speak out against the growing trend of internet shutdown or violation by African governments.
Putting pressure on Biya
To return to the politics of imperialism and dissidence in Cameroon, Nigeria (for strategic reasons – the proposed Ambazonia being a buffer zone between Nigeria and Cameroon), ECOWAS and the African Union should intervene early to prevent an outbreak of social and humanitarian crisis, if not chaos in North West and South West Cameroon. The feuding parties should be encouraged to go to the negotiating table. What is going on in that country is as much a Cameroonian problem as it is a Nigerian problem.