Soldiers in Mozogo, in the Far North region of Cameroon, have forced civilians to perform local night guard duty to protect against attacks by the armed Islamist group Boko Haram, Human Rights Watch said today.
At the beginning of this forced labor, from mid-March to late April, 2020, soldiers beat or threatened those who refused to perform the tasks, although Human Rights Watch was told that for now, following denunciations by local nongovernmental organizations and the National Human Rights Commission, the beatings appear to have stopped. However, people in the town report that they continue to live in fear of beatings resuming, and that the forced labor and threats continue.
“The Cameroon authorities should immediately stop forcing civilians to perform night guard duty and instead protect civilians through lawful means,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Cameroonian authorities should investigate the reported beatings, threats, and forced labor and members of the security forces found to be responsible should be brought to justice.”
Boko Haram has since 2014 waged a violent campaign against civilians in the Far North region. The Cameroon army started to forcibly mobilize civilians after a February 4 Boko Haram attack, during which its fighters burned an estimated 40 homes in Mozogo and killed 2 civilians, one of them a blind man, who was killed and then burned inside his home.
In April and May, Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 people by telephone who have been forced to perform night guard duty under threat. Six had been beaten for initially refusing to join. Human Rights Watch also spoke with 12 Mozogo residents who witnessed but had not been subject to the forced labor, 4 victims and witnesses of other alleged military rights violations, and 4 representatives of local human rights groups.
Human Rights Watch shared its research findings on June 9 with Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, the secretary-general and Samuel Mvondo Ayolo, the Civil Cabinet director, both at Cameroon’s Presidency, requesting responses to specific questions. Human Rights Watch also followed up with a senior official from the Presidency on June 18. Cameroonian officials have yet to respond.
The civilians who were forced under threat to perform guard duty received no compensation and were put in harm’s way. They were not trained, were unarmed, and were told to run back to town to alert the army if they saw Boko Haram fighters approaching. Human Rights Watch has been monitoring local media, including Sembe TV, L’Oeil du Sahel, and reports by nongovernmental groups, for accounts of attacks by the militant Islamic group. This monitoring indicates that since January, Boko Haram has carried out over 200 attacks and raids in the Far North region, killing at least 126 people.
Mozogo residents said the military unit based in Mozogo – the 42nd Motorized Infantry Battalion (BIM) – worked with local authorities to compile lists of about 90 men and at least one boy who were required to join the night guard duty and displayed these lists in public spaces. They identified at least 12 locations in and around Mozogo as posts for night duty and assigned nine civilians to each location. Those who did not willingly comply were sought out in the neighborhoods and threatened with death and beatings. Some were beaten in public.
According to victims, witnesses, and residents, at least 40 people were threatened with death and beatings or were beaten for refusing to take part.
A 38-year-old man said that a soldier beat him after he initially refused to perform night guard duty in early April: “A soldier came to my house around 10 p.m. He asked why I skipped my duty. I said that it was not my job. So, he forced me to do push-ups and hit me several times with the flat end of a machete. Then he took me by force to the river to serve guard duty.”
Once the civilians were on duty, it appears, the soldiers usually stayed until midnight, then left the civilians alone to guard the areas without any means of protection and communication. The civilians said that they would generally stay from 7 p.m. until around 3 or 4 in the morning.
A 28-year-old man who was forced to serve as a night guard for at least two months, described the forced labor: “They said everyone whose name is on the lists needs to go, but they don’t pay us anything, they don’t give us anything to protect ourselves. If Boko Haram attacks Mozogo, we will be the first targets.”
At least 40 men fled Mozogo after soldiers threatened them. A 23-year-old university student said he fled to Maroua, 100 kilometers away, after being beaten and forced into guard duty. “If I wanted to be a soldier, I would have joined the army,” he said. “But I chose to study. I do not want to spend my nights in dangerous locations and face Boko Haram fighters.”
The night guard system in Mozogo has no legal framework and those forced to perform it are not only untrained, but also lack the necessary experience and supervision needed to perform the dangerous security tasks demanded of them.
Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc in the Far North region, carrying out abusive attacks, often indiscriminate and sometimes directly targeting civilians. The attacks have included suicide bombings in crowded civilian areas; kidnappings, including of children; and widespread looting and destruction of civilian property. As a result of Boko Haram’s abuses, over 297,000 people have fled their homes and are internally displaced across the Far North region. Cameroon also hosts approximately 113,000 refugees who have fled Boko Haram’s attacks in Nigeria.
In the face of such atrocities, the government of Cameroon has the legitimate duty to protect civilians, but it must do so while upholding its human rights obligations under domestic and international law, Human Rights Watch said. Cameroon has ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the 1930 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Forced Labour Convention No. 29, which prohibit the use of forced or compulsory labour.
Human rights groups have reported widespread human rights violations and crimes under international humanitarian law by security forces, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, incommunicado detention, systematic torture, and deaths in custody. Witnesses, victims, and residents have reported that security forces in and around Mozogo continue to commit other abuses, including extortion and sexual violence.
“Cameroon security should address threats posed by Boko Haram in a way that respects rights and wins the trust of the population,” Mudge said. “That trust has been broken by a climate of near total impunity for the military’s abuses.”
Soldiers from the 42nd Motorized Infantry Battalion have been based in Mozogo since at least the beginning of 2020 and have forced civilians to perform local night guard duty since mid-March. When people refused to perform this duty, soldiers beat them or threatened them. In April, the National Human Rights Commission visited Mozogo and raised concerns with local authorities about this practice. Local human rights groups echoed this call saying it is illegal and puts people at risk. While reports suggest that the beatings have stopped, people continue to report threats, and participate in the duty out of fear of abuse at the hands of soldiers.
Abuses Related to Forced Guard Duty
A 33-year-old man said he was beaten by a soldier in April for arriving late to his night guard duty.
I had a family emergency and went to the hospital to assist a relative. I arrived late for the night guard and a second-class soldier beat me up. He slapped me several times. I was in pain for two days; my ears were hurting so much. He told me not to tell anyone what had happened.
A 25-year-old farmer said he was beaten by soldiers in mid-March and forced to perform the night guard duty:
Several soldiers came to my neighborhood late in the evening. They were looking for men whose names were on the lists. My name was on the list. The soldiers approached me and said, “You are going to spend the night by the river and carry out the guard duty. If you do not agree, you’ll pay the consequences.” I replied that I did not want to go, so they slapped me several times in my face and forced me to go. Since then, I have no other choice by to go. I do not want to be beaten again.
A 43-year-old man said that he was threatened by soldiers in mid-March when he refused to join the night guard duty for health reasons:
A BIM officer came to my neighborhood and asked me why I did not go to perform my night guard. I explained to him that I had been sick, and the doctor had recommended me to rest. [The officer] replied: “If you don’t go, I am going to kill you, I’ll cut your throat.” Two days later, another solider came to my home, broke the door, and threatened to beat me if I didn’t carry out the night guard duty. It is only thanks to a neighbor, who interceded for me, that I was not beaten up.
A 17-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch that he is living in hiding to avoid night guard duty.
When I learned my name was on the list, I got scared. I did not want to go and spend the night by the river because it is dangerous. Between March and April, the soldiers came three times to look for me at my place. Since then, I hide. I am afraid that if they find me, they will force me to go and if I refuse, they’ll beat me up.
A 24-year-old student said he was forced to carry out a night watch guard following repeated threats by a soldier in mid-March.
I was on my motorbike outside my home at 9:30 p.m. when a soldier came, accompanied by a member of the vigilante committee. He ordered me to carry out the night guard duty by the river. I refused and I told him I am student, not a soldier. He replied: “You’ll go, or we will force you to go.” I asked him if I could speak with his boss, who came and let me go. But since then, I fled Mozogo and now live in Maroua.