The message of national solidarity around the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have been lost in Cameroon. While several other governments are calling on its citizens to pull together and help one another, Cameroon’s ruling party is using the pandemic to settle scores and punish the opposition.
On May 11, 6 volunteers from the “Survival Initiative,” a fundraising initiative launched by opposition leader Maurice Kamto to respond to the health emergency, were arrested while handing out protective masks and sanitizing gel for free to people in Yaoundé, the capital. The arrests would be laughable if they weren’t so serious. The volunteers face charges of rebellion and remain in detention. If found guilty, they could face up to 4 years in prison.
Earlier in May, the health minister rejected a donation by Kamto’s initiative of 16,000 protective and surgical masks and 950 Covid-19 screening tests, claiming the initiative had not been legally established.
On April 7, Minister of Territorial Administration Paul Atanga Nji told anyone fundraising to fight Covid-19 to stop and told citizens instead to make contributions to the “Special Fund of National Solidarity” created by Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya.
On April 9, Nji ordered accounts belonging to Kamto’s initiative to be closed and its money frozen, and later called for an investigation into the “Survival Initiative.” He also told communication companies to close mobile accounts opened to support the fund.
The arrest of the six volunteers shows the steps the government will take to crack down on any efforts by the opposition, fuelling political divisions when joint efforts are most crucial.
Health officials have confirmed 2,800 cases of Covid-19 and 136 deaths across Cameroon. On April 9, in an attempt to slow down the spread of the virus, the government made wearing face masks mandatory in public spaces. But masks are in short supply and expensive.
Distributing free masks to those who need them is not rebellion and it certainly should not land people in jail. Cameroonian authorities appear to be more concerned with defeating the opposition than protecting public health.