"Freedom of assembly and the right to demonstrate and to protest are widely accepted as basic civil rights and as such are embodied within all international charters of human rights" - Democratic Dialogue
Students shot by security forces in Kumba (c) Mutations
September 2007: Three people, two of them teenagers are shot dead in the town of Abong-bang during a demonstration by secondary school students protesting against frequent electricity cuts on campus which were affecting their studies. According to eyewitness reports, the Divisional Officer of the area, Sylvestre Essama, fired the first shot into the crowd of students which incidentally killed his own nephew, Marcel Bertrand Mvogo Awono.
October 2007: Police in Bamenda shoot dead two motorcycle taxi-drivers at a protest against police abuses. According to the BBC, “Drivers had invaded the centre of the town of Bamenda to protest at the alleged severe beating of a colleague detained at a police checkpoint. When police tried to clear away the demonstrators' barricades, stones were thrown and police replied with gunfire.”
November 2007: Police in the town of Kumba shoot dead two students during another protest triggered by persistent power blackouts at school. According to Reuters, “The police officers opened fire as they were pelted with stones and Molotov cocktails during the demonstration on Saturday, hitting two students in the head and killing them instantly. Another five were injured, one of them seriously”.
An eyewitness quoted by The Post newspaper explains how the shooting began:
“…the Commissioner [Ela Menye Fils] came to the scene while the students and police were locked in a teargas-and-stone battle… the Commissioner, who was a victim of the students' stones, got enraged and ordered his subordinates to shoot, but they hesitated… the Commissioner pulled his gun and fired at the students.
A common thread in these and similar events elsewhere in Cameroon is the propensity of security forces to use lethal force as a first, instead of a last resort. This disproportionate, violent and often fatal method of maintaining “law and order” is the byproduct of an outdated interpretation of “public order” going back to the Ahidjo era when Cameroon was governed by a series of “emergency laws” - officially instituted to combat terrorism but most often used to silence political dissent.
As Abel Eyinga describes the situation in Ahidjo’s Cameroon (“Government by State of Emergency" in Richard Joseph – Gaullist Africa, pp. 100-101),
“The notion of public order does not have in Cameroon the same meaning as elsewhere, even in France. In French public law, public order refers to the minimum conditions considered necessary for the maintenance of a normal social life, i.e., security of persons and property, sanitation, peace and tranquility, etc. In Cameroon however, “public order” has been transformed and now comprises two fundamental principles: the maintenance of the political status quo and implicit in the first, the retention in power of El Hadj Ahmadou Ahidjo, the privileged intermediary of colonialists. All acts, all proposals, and even all abstentions, capable of being interpreted by the regime as bringing into question one or another of these fundamental principles, are treated as consisting of grave threats to public order and consequently, as instances of subversion subject to prosecution”
Under this system, peaceful demonstrations by unarmed citizens are considered to be criminal or subversive acts which must be “crushed” at all cost, irrespective of the legitimacy of the complaint.
Although Cameroon theoretically operates under a more liberal socio-political climate, the Ahidjoist notion of public order is still very much around, even if it is not explicitly articulated as in the days of the one party system. Maintaining law and order in Cameroon today is not about maintaining communal peace and security. In fact, most “law and order” operations actually result in communal chaos and violence. It is about ensuring “respect for constituted authority”.
Peaceful demonstrations or protest marches by unarmed civilians in Cameroon are therefore not considered as mere exercises of basic human rights, but as acts of defiance or rebellion against “constituted authority”. In this context, even a peaceful march by unarmed 14-year old kids is automatically seen as an attempt to embarrass local authorities and test their resolve. And since the state must be “strong” at all times and must never appear “weak” to its citizens, it must therefore restore its “authority” as forcefully as possible. With this authoritarian mindset, whenever there is a demonstration, the first reaction of local authorities is to:
“send in the police and the constabulary armed to the teeth, and sometimes the army. Not to manage the demonstration in question or to prevent destruction, but instead to ‘break’ the demonstrators, arrest them for “disturbing public order”, or to beat them up irrespective of their social status.” (Le Messager)
Proponents of an “etat fort” - and there are surprisingly many of them among the masses - will argue that these demonstrations were illegal because they were not authorized by the administration. True, but is violence the only way to deal with this particular “illegality”? Isn’t it the duty of the local political and military authorities to create an environment where demonstrations – even illegal ones! – can be managed and controlled peacefully? And are the “legalists” among us even aware that the use of bullets to quell demonstrations is specifically proscribed by law in Cameroon except in clearly defined “exceptional circumstances” which none of the recent events amount to?
Law 90-54 of 19 December 1990 on maintenance of law and order
In 1990, Parliament passed Law 90-54 of 19 December 1990 on maintenance of law and order as part of the “liberty laws” that ushered in the current multiparty era. This particular law was, at least on paper, supposed to mark the legal and political shift from a security apparatus whose primary goal was to protect the regime against its real and imagined enemies, to one whose primary responsibility was to give citizens ample protection in a pluralist political system where dissent was a daily reality thanks to political parties and civil society organizations whose policies were not necessarily aligned to that of the regime in power.
It is worth noting that this law specifically forbids security forces from using arms in routine law and order operations such as public demonstrations. In fact, the law expressly forbids security forces from using rubber bullets on demonstrators and from even firing warning shots in the air. It however authorizes the use of tear gas, truncheons and other non-lethal weapons for crowd control purposes. The 1990 law allows the exceptional use of lethal weapons only if (a) firearms are used against the forces of law and order, or (2) where the situation has degenerated to such a point that forces of law and order can defend themselves only by using deadly force.
Without even looking at the details of the 1990 law, common sense tells us that the throwing of stones by demonstrators does not amount to “exceptional circumstances” requiring the use of live bullets. In fact, to police force that is well-trained in crowd management, controlling stone-throwing demonstrators is a routine law and order operation.
Even more than training, what needs to change is the current authoritarian mindset among which sees every act of public dissent as a “threat to national stability". Le Messager sums it best when it argues that:
The Freedom to communicate is closer than you think - MobileCaller.com.
…those responsible for law and order must accept that a demonstration is neither a crime nor an act of rebellion. In a state governed by the rule of law, and Cameroon claims to be one, it is the citizen’s legitimate right to demonstrate… Local administrators and their bosses must learn how to manage demonstrations without giving in to blind, violent and bloody repression because maintaining law and order or social peace is not synonymous to repression.