Nairobi — Armed separatists in Cameroon's Anglophone regions kidnapped over 100 people, burned property, and threatened voters in the period before the February 9, 2020 elections. State security forces did not adequately protect civilians from the threats posed by the separatists but rather committed further abuses against them during the same period.
"Separatist leaders should issue clear instructions to their fighters to end their crimes against civilians," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government of Cameroon should ensure that its security forces put civilians first, by stopping their violations, prioritizing civilian protection, and holding abusers accountable."
Human Rights Watch interviewed 55 victims and witnesses of crimes committed by armed separatists and government forces since the elections were announced in November 2019, as well as opposition party members, candidates, and other residents of the North-West and South-West Anglophone regions. Human Rights Watch also analyzed satellite imagery and video footage to independently corroborate witness testimony.
Clashes between armed separatists and government forces, as well as between rival separatist factions, have resulted in civilian deaths, with people either killed deliberately or caught in the crossfire. At least several dozen people have been killed in scores of incidents since November, based on a review of credible media accounts, records produced by some United Nations agencies, and Human Rights Watch research. However, with no official mechanism monitoring how many civilians have been killed over the crisis, reliable confirmation of the numbers of people killed, the circumstances around killings, and alleged perpetrators remains difficult.
Armed separatists targeted those willing to participate in the legislative and municipal elections, whether as candidates, election officials, activists, or citizens. The targets included members and supporters of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) party, which the separatists accuse of failing to show solidarity with their cause. Separatists burned at least three offices of Elections Cameroon (ELECAM), the national election body, in Misaje, North-West region, on January 7, 2020; in Babessi, North-West region, on January 16; and in Tombel, South-West region, on February 2. Separatists have also burned down a post office where electoral material was stored in Bafut, North-West region, on the eve of the elections, and at least seven homes belonging to government officials and candidates in various localities in the North-West region since November 2019.
Rather than protecting civilians from these attacks, government forces committed their own violations against them. Between January 17 and 20, 2020, security forces carried out a military operation in Bali, North-West region, destroying over 50 homes and killing several civilians, including two men with intellectual disabilities.
After elections were announced, separatists called for a boycott of the vote in the Anglophone regions. Both before and during the election, the separatists threatened those who wanted to take part and warned people to stay home. In a December 22, 2019 statement, Ayaba Cho Lucas, the leader of the Ambazonia Governing Council, a major separatist group, said that anyone who sought to participate in or promote the elections would face consequences.
On January 5, 2020, separatists burned down the home of Wilfred Fusi Naamukong, a member of parliament from the SDF in Mankwi, North-West region. Fusi told Human Rights Watch he was targeted because he was a member of the SDF.
While official statistics on the turnout are yet to be announced, in a statement released at the close of the polls, the minister of territorial administration said that the population in the North-West and South-West regions "turned out massively to exercise their civic duties in all the administrative units." However, media reports indicate that voter participation was low in these regions because of insecurity and fears driven by the threats and attacks of the separatists.
"I wanted to vote, but I did not. I didn't want to get a bullet for exercising my right. Separatists attacked candidates and voters. The military has been unable to protect the people," a resident from Kumbo, North-West region, told Human Rights Watch on February 10.
The ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) exerts control over the political space in the country. However, opposition parties, including the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (CRM) and the SDF, do have representatives in parliament.
Opposition parties, including the CRM and the Cameroon People's Party (CPP), had also called for a boycott of the elections, citing security concerns and the need to reform the electoral system. Ahead of the elections, Emmanuel Simh, a lawyer for the CRM, told Human Rights Watch: "People are not free to vote as they wish across the country. We can't hold important elections in a war zone and when children have not been to school for three years."
Seven hundred additional security forces were deployed ahead of, and during, the elections across the Anglophone regions. Municipal results are expected by February 12, and legislative results are expected by February 29.
In a January 24 joint statement, the secretary general of the Economic Community of Central African States, the special representative of the UN secretary-general, and the head of the UN regional office for Central Africa called for the electoral process to unfold in peaceful and secure conditions, and condemned attempts to restrict the right to vote with threats or violence.
"Not all who wanted to cast their votes in these volatile regions in Cameroon were able to do so in peace and security, and it is incumbent on the government to hold accountable all those responsible for that from all parties," Mudge said. "Leaders of armed separatist groups should rein in their fighters and government forces should protect civilians and not abuse them."
The Crisis in the Anglophone Regions
Over the past three years, Cameroon's Anglophone regions have been embroiled in a cycle of violence that has claimed over 3,000 lives, forced 679,000 people to flee their homes, and left 600,000 children without education.
Human rights abuses by armed separatists and government forces have been rife since the crisis began in late 2016. Security forces have killed civilians, burned dozens of villages, and arbitrarily arrested and tortured hundreds of alleged armed separatists. Armed separatists have also targeted civilians, kidnapped hundreds of people, and tortured and killed perceived opponents, while using intimidation and violence to keep children and their teachers out of school. Currently, there is no official mechanism in place monitoring how many civilians have been killed in the crisis.
On September 10, 2019, amid increasing violence and following sustained international pressure, President Paul Biya called for a national dialogue to address the crisis. The dialogue ended on October 4 with several proposals, including to give the two Anglophone regions a special status. President Biya also dropped all charges against hundreds of people arrested in the unrest in the North-West and South-West as well as political opponents, including the CRM leader Maurice Kamto. At least 15 CRM leading members remain in detention.
Cameroon last held local elections in 2013. Elections were scheduled for 2018 but postponed twice for security reasons. Biya, in power since 1982, won the October 7, 2018 presidential elections, his seventh term. Term limits were abolished in 2008. The 2018 presidential elections were marred by violence, low turnout - especially in the Anglophone regions - and allegations of fraud.
Biya was declared the winner with 71 percent of the vote, with Maurice Kamto, leader of the CRM, receiving 14 percent. A day after the elections, Kamto declared himself the winner and called on Biya to hand over power peacefully. Kamto's supporters held several peaceful protests in late 2019 and in January 2020, calling for a recount, among other demands. Between January 26 and 31, 2019, Kamto and an estimated 200 members and supporters of his party were arrested in various cities across the country. President Biya ordered the release of Kamto and other party members and supporters on October 4, 2019 following the national dialogue.
Social Democratic Front (SDF) Targeted
The SDF, one of Cameroon's largest opposition parties, is led by John Fru Ndi. Founded in early 1990, it has, since its establishment, had a close connection with groups advocating the rights of the Anglophone minority. The party remains rooted in the North-West region, where it has significant support. The government views the party as too close to the Anglophone cause. While the party does not support secession like separatist groups, the government depicts the party as destabilizing. The SDF did not boycott this latest round of elections.
Ahead of the February 9, 2020 elections, armed separatists targeted the party, seeing it as betraying Anglophones by not withdrawing its elected members from parliament in solidarity with separatists. Joseph Mbah Ndam, a member of parliament for the party, said: "SDF did not start its campaign on time in the Anglophone regions, because of the prevailing climate of intimidation and insecurity. Our members are being targeted by armed separatists. They have been kidnapped and threatened."
Armed separatists in the Anglophone regions have kidnapped hundreds of people, including at least 100 SDF members since December 2019, according to the party's vice president, Joshua Osih. All but six were released, mostly after paying ransom. Most were held for several days. Fru Ndi, the party leader, was kidnapped twice in 2019, on April 27 and June 28.
Abuses by Armed Separatists
On February 2, armed separatists kidnapped Joseph Tarh Pen, a CPDM member running for mayor in Santa, North-West region. In the days after he was kidnapped, a video circulated on social media showing Tarh, stripped naked and in the dirt, while accused of being a traitor. Human Rights Watch spoke with one relative and two friends of Tarh who identified him in the video. They said that the video was filmed after Tarh's kidnapping in Piyin village, near Santa. Tarh's relative said that two of Tarh's brothers - who were contacted by the separatists to arrange a ransom payment - were also kidnapped, on February 3. The two brothers were released on February 8, while Tarh is still held by the separatists at time of writing.
Armed separatists from the group Restoration Forces led by a commander known as "General Man Pass Man" kidnapped the SDF mayor of Babessi, North-West region, along with four council members from the party on January 5, 2020 in Babessi. The Restoration Forces released them on January 22, following a ransom payment of 1,000,000 CFA (US$1,678). Human Rights Watch spoke with three of those abducted. One, a 49-year-old man, said: "They told us that they kidnapped us to prevent us from participating in the elections. When they let us go, they said we will be monitored all the days of our lives."
The separatists had also kidnapped and tortured the Babessi mayor in June 2019.
In November 2019, the Restoration Forces kidnapped 20 SDF candidates in the town of Jakiri, North-West region. The officials were held in a small house near a separatist camp in Vekovi village. They were released on December 8, after ransom payments believed to be between 250,000 and 500,000 CFA ($419-$838) were paid for each abductee.
"It was about 7 p.m. when two Amba boys [separatists] broke into my shop," a victim from Jakiri said. "They pointed a gun at my forehead and told me to go with them. They told me I was being kidnapped because my name was on the list of those running for local elections."
Burning of Property
Armed separatists burned down the home of Acha Kennedy, a candidate for the ruling CPDM, in Bamenda, North-West region, on January 12, 2020, and the home of the mayor in Bafut, North-West region, on January 15, witnesses said. A neighbor of Kennedy said:
At around 9:30 p.m. I opened the door and saw five motorbikes going down to the residence of Mr. Acha. I watched closely. They were Amba boys [separatists]. They had their guns and held tires of vehicles in their hands. They set them on fire and threw them on the roof of Acha's home. That was how the house was set ablaze. We live in fear.
Witnesses said that a group of about 15 armed separatists - from a group known as "Nsei boys" operating in Mbesoh neighborhood, in Bamessing - burned down four homes belonging to two officials in Bamessing, North-West region, on November 20, 2019. One of the homes was used as a private health center.
A witness, the brother of one of the officials, said:
I used my brother's home as a health center. I was there with a dozen of people waiting for consultations when the separatists came. They had guns, machetes, and knives. Some appeared to be high on drugs. They demanded we leave. Then, they set the home on fire. The roof was burned, as well as all my medical equipment.
Another of the official's homes was burned on January 23. He said that he had also been threatened for sending his children to school.
A sister of the other official said that the separatists beat her when they burned her sister's home. "They had tanks of 20 liters each full of petrol and kerosene, which they started pouring around," she said. "Then, they set the house on fire. I broke into tears, and so two of them started hitting my back, buttocks, and feet using machetes and sticks."
Violations by Security Forces
Twelve Bali residents told Human Rights Watch that soldiers, including members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), and gendarmes began a three-day security operation in their village on January 17. Armed separatists had operated in the area since 2017. Witnesses said that security forces beat and killed at least four civilians, including two men with intellectual disabilities, Julius Ntali, 55, and Mumbat Charlie, 25, who appeared to have been shot, and his body burned as the house was set on fire.
A witness to Ntali's killing said:
On January 18, there was a gathering in a house in Sang neighborhood for a funeral. I passed by and saw that Julius was there, eating. It was about 3 p.m. when the security forces stormed the area. They shot indiscriminately, and everyone ran away for their lives. Julius didn't understand what was happening around him and was hit. We only found his body two days later when the area became quieter, since the military had left. His body was in a state of decomposition, but I saw a sign of a bullet in the head.
A witness to Charlie's killing said:
On January 19, at least 10 BIR soldiers came to Mom neighborhood in Bali, where I live. They shot in the air around and burned the home where Charlie was living. I was in my house. I watched everything from my home, about 30 meters away. When the shooting finished and the burning was over, I went out and found Charlie's body. He had been shot in the neck and in the head. His body was totally burned.
Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the security forces killed at least two other men in Tih neighborhood between January 17 and 20. However, Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify this information.
Security forces beat at least four women, including a nursing mother with her baby and a 70-year-old woman with a physical disability, in a home in Sang neighborhood, Bali, where they were hiding at about 1:30 p.m. on January 19, during the military operations. One of the victims, a 34-year-old nurse, said:
The soldiers used wooden sticks to beat me and the other women. They asked us where the Amba boys [separatists] were. We said we didn't know, and they kept hitting us. The beating lasted up to 30 minutes. A soldier slapped a nursing mother in the face. She had a 4-month-old baby with her."
Soldiers, including members of the BIR, and gendarmes also beat a 46-year-old man in an abandoned school, the Bali Comprehensive High School, in Sang neighborhood on January 19, seriously injuring his face. He said:
I was in front of the Bali Presbyterian Church when a gendarme called me. He was with 30 other gendarmes and soldiers. He confiscated my phone and asked where the separatists were hiding. I said I didn't know. He acted as if he didn't believe me. So, the military pulled me and took me on foot to an abandoned school, one kilometer away. While we were walking, the military slapped and kicked me. At the school, they accused me of being an accomplice to the separatists, hit and punched me for about 25 minutes. They hit my nose badly and I bled profusely. I cried until they brought me back to the main road and left me there.
Security forces also burned and looted up to 50 homes in Bali. Witnesses said they believed that the military retaliated against civilians suspected of harboring separatists or supporting the SDF. Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite imagery taken before and after the attack and confirmed the destruction of buildings consistent with witness testimony.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed video footage featuring homes and businesses that were destroyed in Bali. This footage was both gathered from social media platforms and sent directly to Human Rights Watch. Verifying and geolocating these videos corroborated sites of damaged buildings that were consistent with the satellite imagery of those locations and with witness testimony.
A woman who fled to the forest when the security forces approached her neighborhood, Sang, described what she saw from her hiding place:
The military came on January 19 at about 1 p.m. They arrived on foot and started shooting everywhere. I ran away with my four children and hid nearby. I saw how the soldiers burned my home and my workshop; they destroyed everything.
The Bali residents interviewed said that the separatists who had been in town fled well before the soldiers arrived and there was no confrontation between the security forces and the separatists.
A 55-year-old resident of Bali whose home was burned down by the soldiers on January 17 said:
Dozens of Cameroonian soldiers came to Bali with armored cars and trucks. They targeted the homes of SDF leaders and civilians' homes where they suspected the Amba boys [separatists] were hiding. The military came to punish and scare the population. As the military approached my neighborhood, Paila, I ran away and hid. My home was razed. I counted 28 soldiers burning it and transporting bags of items looted from it, including a TV and food.
The security forces also searched the Bali district hospital on January 19, causing some patients to flee out of fear. A medical staff at the hospital told Human Rights Watch:
I was on duty when six armed gendarmes entered our facility at about 1 p.m. They asked me where we hid and treated the Amba boys [separatists]. I responded that we only had patients. They wanted me to show them all wards. They entered all the units, including the maternity. I was scared of their weapons, and so were the patients, and some panicked and ran away out of fear.