Cameroon Military Court Sentences Anglophone Separatist Leaders To Life Imprisonment

In Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, a military court has sentenced ten Anglophone separatist leaders to life imprisonment after an overnight court session, which started on Monday, August 19 and ended in the early hours of Tuesday, August 20. The ten, including the self-declared President of Ambazonia Republic, which encompasses Anglophone territories in Cameroon, Julius Ayuk Tabe, were also fined 250 billion Francs CFA (approximately $500 million). One of the Defense Lawyers, Barrister Ayukotang Ndep Nkongho, described the ruling as “the most scandalous judicial proceeding in world history.” According to Barrister Felix Agbor Balla, a leading human rights lawyer in Cameroon who was also jailed for eight months in connection with the conflict in Anglophone Cameroon, “the sentencing of Ayuk Tabe and Co. to life imprisonment is an affront to due process and the rule of law. The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right. The sham process is a reflection of the sham management of the country.”

By press time, the government has not reacted to the sentencing. Most newspapers were also silent as the news broke out when papers had already been printed. However, the news has become the main topic of the day, especially in Anglophone Cameroon, where Ayuk Tabe and his cohorts are highly reverenced and respected.

Complicating peace efforts

Ayuk Julius Tabe and his lieutenants have venerated figures on the ground and widely acclaimed among the Anglophone diaspora community. They are seen as the image of the minority Anglophone population’s struggle for more rights in French-dominated Cameroon. Their sentencing is a catalyst to radicalize moderate voices in the conflict and send wild extremists. Their command and grass-root support was evidenced in the general shutdown imposed by separatist fighters on the ground whenever these men were to appear before the courts. According to the fighters, it was another way of honouring their leaders.

The ruling has further complicated any chances for negotiations and peaceful resolution of the three years old conflict. A few months ago, the Swiss government announced that it is engaging both Cameroon’s government and separatists for a negotiated settlement. The different separatist leaders in the diaspora also confirmed this and requested another mediator onboard as they challenged the impartiality of the Swiss government owing to its close amity with the Biya regime of Cameroon. Moreover, they also argued that the government is not sincere in its approach for dialogue as it has kept on with the military cruise. In May 2019, Prime Minister Dion Ngute also toured some affected territories and declared his government’s readiness to dialogue. Despite all of these lofty announcements, the situation on the ground seems no better as violence remains a daily occurrence. Last week, local newspapers report that about five soldiers and 10 civilians were killed in Bamenda. Moreover, the government has opted for more force by intensifying its military campaign. On August 6, President Paul Biya created a new command structure of the dreaded military elite corps, the Israeli and American trained Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) in Kumba, making it the second such command post in the South West region alone out of six in the entire country. On their part, the BIR has been largely accused of most of the gross human rights abuses on the ground, which is why at the beginning of the year, the U.S. government withdrew its military aid to Cameroon. Germany also followed suit.

Therefore, the sentencing of the separatist leaders sends a signal to the international community and mostly the separatists that the government of Cameroon is insincere with its promises of dialogue. Hours before the ruling, the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution calling on both government and separatist fighters to call for a ceasefire, release all those arrested concerning the conflict and engage in negotiations. However, the ruling has dampened all hopes of getting to dialogue as those who sit on the dialogue table have now been condemned to stay behind bars forever. The ruling comes just two weeks to the start of the 2019/2020 academic year in Cameroon. With separatist fighters calling for a school boycott until peace returns, the future of close to a million children in Anglophone Cameroon seemed forfeited again.

Julius Ayuk Tabe and nine others were arrested on January 5, 2018, at the Nera Hotels, Abuja, Nigeria. They were later transferred undercover to Yaoundé, Cameroon. Human rights activists have both condemned the move as the ten were either holding Nigerian citizenship or had sought asylum, which ensured that they weren’t supposed to be transferred to another country. Their lawyers have also argued that it is illegal to try civilians in military courts according to international instruments that Cameroon has signed and ratified. In April 2019, the Abuja High Court ruled that the leaders’ extradition to Cameroon was illegal as it violated international and national laws. The Judge said the due procedure was not followed, and any such extradition was supposed to be done following a court ruling. The court also requested the Nigerian government to bring back the arrested persons. However, since then, both the Nigeria and Cameroon governments have not responded to the court ruling.

Historical and Contemporary intricacies

In February 1961, the UN organized a plebiscite wherein former British Southern Cameroons voted in favour of joining an independent Republic of (French) Cameroun in a federated union. In 1972, then-President Ahmadou Ahidjo suppressed the federation, which ensured that federated states, especially the English-speaking minority (Anglophones), make up 20% of the Cameroonian population, lose their autonomy, management style and culture. Since then, they have complained about second class status and marginalization in the hands of successive Francophone governments. The height of it was in 2016 when lawyers and teachers of English expression embarked on strike action, protesting what they call the gradual suppression of their Anglo-Saxon legal and educational systems. When the movement was violently suppressed by state security forces on September 22 and October 1, 2017, when activists symbolically proclaimed the independence of Anglophone regions under the appellation Ambazonia, civilians took up arms against state institutions. Since then, more than 2000 persons have been killed and over half a million displaced. The Norwegian Refugee Council describes it as the most neglected conflict in the world. The conflict has largely disrupted economic and educational activities with close to a million pupils and students out of school for three years now.

For three years, the government has lost vital economic supplies as the Anglophone regions were the breadbasket of the Cameroonian economy. Moreover, the government has borrowed more even to prosecute the war, which is very costly. However, with dialogue, the war would have been averted, and still, with dialogue, the war can be contained at this level.