Human Rights Developments
The human rights situation in Cameroon has been characterized by tight restraints on freedom of expression and association, security forces that act with impunity, and abysmal prison conditions, all of which serve to intimidate those who might voice dissent. In early 1990, however, a growing number of citizens began calling for democratization. The government responded by cracking down on the pro-democracy movement, beginning with the arrest of those trying to form an alternative political party and culminating in the killing of seven people at a rally for that party on May 26. Although the government later seemed to accede to some of the pro-democracy demands, there were indications that conditions were tightening up again at year's end.
The crackdown began with the arrest in February of ten prominent citizens -- later dubbed "the Douala Ten" -- who attempted to form an alternative political party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF). They were tried from March 30 to April 5 on charges of "subversion," under Ordinance No. 62-of-18 of March 12, 1962. Three were sentenced to prison terms: Yondo Black, a lawyer and former president of the Cameroon Bar Association, received a three-year term; Anicet Ekane, a company director, a four-year term; and Jean-Michel Tekam (tried in absentia), a five-year term.1 Ekane's prison term included a parallel conviction for "insulting the President" under Article 153 of the Penal Code. The trial galvanized protest among previously silent sectors of the population, including lawyers, journalists and students.
The government denied that the ten had been arrested because of their efforts to form a political party, claiming instead that the arrests were for "the holding of clandestine meetings, [and] the fabrication and distribution of tracts hostile to the regime, abusive of the President and inciting revolt." The government's claim was contradicted, however, by its inclusion among the allegedly "hostile" tracts of a draft document on the formation of the new political party.
Theoretically, political pluralism is permitted in Cameroon. Article 3 of the Constitution states: "Political parties and groups may take part in elections. They shall be formed and shall exercise their activities in accordance with the law." In reality, Cameroon is a one-party state controlled by the Rassemblement Democratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC) (Cameroon Peoples' Democratic Movement), under the presidency of Paul Biya.2
Despite the obstacles to judicial independence, the Cameroon Bar Association has become increasingly vocal in advocating an opening in the political system and the establishment of basic human rights guarantees. In protest against the detention of Yondo Black and his co-defendants, more than 200 lawyers from the Bar Association attended the trial and, dressed in their black robes, acted as part of the defense team. As a further sign of protest, they decided that as of March 28, they would not attend other trials until the "Douala Ten" case was concluded. Some of these lawyers were subjected to harassment by the government, including efforts to close down their offices and investigate them for tax irregularities. In addition, some received death threats. One of the defense lawyers, Pierre Mbobda, was killed by police under suspicious circumstances in Bafoussam on April 4.3 Some 150 lawyers from the Bar Association attended his funeral.
By mid-1990, it seemed as if the Biya government was beginning to soften its stand. One of the most notable changes has been the significant easing of censorship, which has led to considerable press freedom, virtually without government interference. During the party congress at the end of June, Biya announced a series of liberalizing steps, including: ending certain aspects of the emergency regulations that had been in force since 1962, such as the laws on subversion; easing travel restrictions by abolishing the need for exit visas; reinforcing press freedom; and establishing a national human rights commission. This statement was followed later in July with an announcement that all political prisoners would be released. On August 10, Biya issued a presidential decree granting clemency for political prisoners, under which Black and Ekane, as well as another well known political prisoner, Djeukam Tchameni, were released.4
The Bush administration generally supported the pro-democracy movement, although its human rights policy would have been enhanced had the US embassy in Yaoundé been willing to back up this support with public statements. The embassy, and particularly Ambassador Frances Cook, deserve credit for putting human rights concerns on their agenda and for sending signals of support to the pro-democracy movement. By keeping in regular contact with pro-democracy activists, the embassy demonstrated its interest in their efforts and provided a measure of protection for the individuals involved. In addition, the embassy sent a representative to the trial of the "Douala Ten," and played a role in ensuring that representatives of other Western embassies were present. These signals did not go unnoticed by the Cameroonian authorities. However, Africa Watch is unaware of a single public statement made by the embassy or the State Department in Washington to reinforce these signals.
The only statement on the public record during 1990 was the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The report presented an accurate picture of the serious human rights abuses in Cameroon, including the abuse of detainees, arbitrary arrest and detention, harsh prison conditions, and violations of freedom of expression and assembly. Nevertheless, Africa Watch is unaware of any repetition of these observations by the State Department during 1990.
The Work of Africa Watch
Africa Watch, which began monitoring human rights in Cameroon in April 1990, published a newsletter in June documenting the Cameroonian government's crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. The newsletter expressed Africa Watch's concern about the government's efforts to silence those demanding an end to one-party rule, and called on the government to adhere to internationally accepted human rights standards.
Africa Watch wrote to the government in July requesting permission to send an official fact-finding mission to Cameroon. The Cameroonian authorities have yet to respond. Africa Watch will continue to pursue this effort, in the hopes of conducting research inside the country in the near future.
2 In 1982, Biya was handed the presidency by President Ahmadou Ahidgo, who had headed the nation since Cameroon's independence in 1960. Ahidgo's party, the Union Nationale Camerounaise (Cameroon National Union), was the RDPC's precursor. There have been no recent efforts to gain recognition for alternative political parties in Cameroon. The last attempts, by the Union des Populations Camerounais (Cameroon People's Union), the banned opposition group, were rebuffed in 1985.
3 The circumstances surrounding his death are still unclear. According to one version, the police shot him when he put his car in reverse and pulled away from a roadblock. According to another version, the police had been following him and, after he stopped the car to relieve himself, a plainclothes policeman startled him and then fired his weapon when Mbobda reversed his car to get away. Minister of Justice Adolphe Moudiki said that the incident would be investigated. At this writing, Africa Watch has no further information on the case.
4 It should be noted that on April 22, President Biya announced that those still in prison for their role in the April 1984 coup attempt would be released. The government's communiqué stated that the amnesty reflected the need to strengthen national unity. It is believed that this measure would affect some 100 prisoners, although no exact information is currently available. Some of these prisoners have already completed their sentences but have remained in detention; a few of those arrested after the coup may have died in detention.