Cameroon: President Biya must free the three students arrested over a Boko Haram joke
Paul Biya was sworn in as President of the Republic of Cameroon yesterday for a staggering seventh term. As I read about preparations for the inauguration, my thoughts went to a young Cameroonian student I met in 2016 who, along with his two friends, are currently serving ten years each in prison. His name, Fomusoh Ivo Feh, and those of his classmates, Afuh Nivelle Nfor and Azah Levis Gob, reverberated in my mind, triggering a wave of memories and mixed feelings.
I met Ivo two years ago in the “prison principale” of Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, a high security facility where several Boko Haram suspects and prisoners of conscience are detained. He was 25 years old at that time, and we had already been campaigning for his release for several months. I visited him together with his brother, Eric as well as the mothers of Nivelle and Levis. The meeting was pleasant and punctuated with laughter at Ivo’s frequent jokes – at some points, I even forgot that we were in a high security prison.
As I came to appreciate with time, Ivo likes sharing jokes. Unfortunately for him, in Cameroon this constitutes sufficient ground for being imprisoned. In December 2014, Ivo was arrested by members of the security forces in the coastal city of Limbé after a teacher took away his friend’s phone and saw that Ivo had forwarded him a joke by SMS that he himself received from another friend.
The joke contained a sarcastic message and made light of rampant unemployment and the difficulties facing young people trying to get a job with a General Certificate of Education (GCE)
The joke contained a sarcastic message and made light of rampant unemployment and the difficulties facing young people trying to get a job with a General Certificate of Education (GCE). It read: “Boko Haram recruits young people from 14 years old and above. Conditions for recruitment: 4 subjects at GCE, including religion”. Based solely on this ‘evidence’ – the text of an SMS joke – the High Court of Yaoundé found the three friends guilty of “non-denunciation of terrorism related information” and sentenced them to 10 years in prison. Sadly, at appeal, this draconian sentence was upheld.
Even after over 310 000 people across the globe, including former Cameroonian football striker Patrick Mboma, wrote to President Paul Biya asking him to free the three young men, they remain in prison.
The story of Ivo and his friends is just one of many. Over the past 36 years under Biya’s watch, the human rights situation in Cameroon has deteriorated dramatically. In the past three years alone, Amnesty International has documented hundreds of cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, extra-judicial killings, systematic torture and ill treatment and enforced disappearances mainly in the Far North and Anglophone regions. Ironically, human rights violations committed on a significant scale by Cameroonian security forces in the Far North region occurred in their response to brutal attacks launched by Boko Haram militants, a response which was supposed to protect the population.
In the Anglophone regions, Cameroonian security forces have committed repeated human right violations, particularly when responding to protests against what Anglophone communities view as growing marginalisation of the Anglophone linguistic, cultural, educational traditions and systems in various sectors, and/or during security operations following attacks on their personnel by alleged armed separatists who call for secession and embraced an armed struggle to achieve their objectives. There has been no accountability for almost all these crimes.
Today, it’s not just the future and dreams of Ivo and his friends that have been stolen. Their day-to-day lives in prison are also impacted by what currently happens in their home towns located in the North West and in Limbé, the town where they grew up and which hosts many of those who fled violence in the two turbulent Anglophone regions.
Ivo, Nivelle and Levis mainly rely on their parents for regular food and medicines supplies. However, since September and October 2017, when violence peaked in the North West and South West regions of the country, family visits, and therefore food and medicines supplies, are scarce.
The crisis intensified in late 2017 after the government repressed protests and failed to establish an effective dialogue with political and social groups. Large-scale protests were organised in cities and towns across the two Anglophone regions and on 1 October 2017, the Anglophone communities symbolically proclaimed the independence of “Ambazonia”. Last year, more than 400 people were killed as a result of the violence by both sides: Cameroonian security forces and armed separatist groups.
Today, it’s not just the future and dreams of Ivo and his friends that have been stolen. Their day-to-day lives in prison are also impacted by what currently happens in their home towns located in the North West.
The situation has become even grimmer since April this year due to an escalation of violence in these parts of Cameroon. More than 25 000 people have fled to neighbouring Nigeria where they live in dire conditions and over 240 000 are internally displaced. Ivo has not received a single family visit in seven months. His brother, still in Limbé, has had to dramatically reduce his movements for security reasons and has not been able to travel to Yaoundé to bring him much-needed supplies.
In his campaign statement delivered in Maroua on 29 September 2018, Biya rightly said: “The coming years will be crucial for Cameroon.” This is particularly true for the Far North and Anglophone regions. Extraordinarily, the president has a seventh chance to finally make things right and fulfill his campaign promise “to rebuild, to facilitate the return of the displaced and to do everything possible to recreate the conditions of a normal life in its different aspects, administrative, educational, economic and social.”
The “conditions of a normal life” for Ivo, Nivelle and Levis quite simply mean their long awaited release from prison.
This Blog was published on 7 November by The Africa Portal.