Cameroon is a republic dominated by a strong presidency. The president retains power over the legislative and judicial branches of government. The ruling political party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, has remained in power since its creation in 1985. The country held legislative elections on February 9, which were marked by irregularities. The ruling party won 152 of 180 National Assembly seats. Paul Biya has served as president since 1982. He was last reelected in 2018 in an election marked with irregularities.
The national police and the national gendarmerie are responsible for internal security. The former reports to the General Delegation of National Security and the latter to the Secretariat of State for Defense in charge of the Gendarmerie. The army is primarily responsible for external security and shares some domestic security responsibilities; it reports to the minister delegate at the presidency in charge of defense. The Rapid Intervention Battalion reports directly to the president. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain control over security forces. Members of security forces committed numerous abuses.
In July jailed separatist leader Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe announced he talked with the government regarding the prospects for peace in the Anglophone regions. The government, however, denied Ayuk Tabe’s announcement, and other separatists opposed the talks. Cameroon Renaissance Movement president Maurice Kamto urged Cameroonians to stage nationwide peaceful protests on September 22 to demand a resolution to the crisis in the Anglophone regions and for electoral reform before the December 6 regional elections. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, including journalists, and Kamto was placed under unofficial house arrest.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces, armed Anglophone separatists, Boko Haram, and ISIS-West Africa; forced disappearances by security forces; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government, Cameroonian peacekeepers deployed to UN missions, and nonstate armed groups; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests; political prisoners or detainees; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigations and accountability for violence against women; unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and the existence or use of laws criminalizing same-sex sexual conduct between adults.
Although the government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, it did not do so systematically and rarely made the proceedings public. Some offenders continued to act with impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary and unlawful killings through excessive use of force in the execution of their official duties. Most of the killings were associated with the armed conflict in the two Anglophone regions (see also section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict). Additionally, many included unarmed civilians not in conflict-afflicted areas, and others resulted from the use of excessive force on citizens by government agents, including members of defense and security forces.
The Ministry of Defense, through the Secretariat of State in charge of the National Gendarmerie (SED), is responsible for investigating whether security force killings, including police killings, are justifiable. Prosecutions related to these matters are conducted through the Military Tribunal. In some high-profile cases, preliminary investigations are entrusted to a mixed commission of inquiry, including civilian members with relevant professional backgrounds.
On July 23, the Douala-based private television channel Equinoxe TV reported that a taxi driver died in a health center after he was allegedly tortured at the 6th district police station in New Bell, a neighborhood in Douala. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Mandela Center, on July 20, Mitterrand Tchouateum Nja parked his vehicle incorrectly and was subsequently punished for refusing to pay a bribe. Police commissioner Mvoundi Evina and members of the 21st Armored Reconnaissance Battalion of Terminus Saint Michel, including Chief Warrant Officer Lawrence Nkimantap, brutally assaulted Tchouateum. After the assault, police detained Tchouateum at the 6th district police district. He was transferred to Nkoloulou district medical center on July 22 after his condition rapidly deteriorated. Tchouteum remained chained to his hospital bed until a few hours before his death, which came soon after his release from police custody. As of December 8, the Mandela Center had filed a complaint with the Military Tribunal in Douala, and the Military Tribunal had referred the case to the High Court. No criminal charges had been filed against the perpetrators of the attack as of December 15.
According to the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa (CHRDA), on August 13, Cameroonian soldiers raided the village of Mautu in the Southwest Region and killed seven unarmed civilians. The victims, including an elderly man and a pregnant woman known as ‘Mami Blessing,’ were reportedly shot at close range in their homes. Before these killings, the military raided a church on the outskirts of Mautu and shot the church’s pastor. The soldiers executed two boys alongside the pastor and shot another as he tried to escape. The soldiers allegedly invaded the church because the worshipers sympathized with separatist ideology. The CHRDA reported that they were unaware of any ongoing investigation into the incident.
On August 11, multiple media outlets reported the beheading of 32-year-old Comfort Tumassang by suspected Anglophone separatists. The incident took place in Muyuka, Southwest Region. A video circulating on social media that day showed a woman seated on the ground with her hands tied behind her. She begged for mercy before she was beheaded; her body was left in the street. Human Rights Watch also reviewed a second video, filmed before the killing, showing separatists interrogating and threatening Tumassang, whom they accused of collaborating with the military. The three main Anglophone separatist groups–the Ambazonia Governing Council, the “interim government” led by Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, and its splinter faction led by Samuel Ikome Sako–condemned the killing and denied responsibility for the crime.
On November 24, suspected Islamist terrorists attacked the village of Gabas, located within Mayo Tsanaga in the Far North Region, killing three civilians. On November 25, a member of the Gabas vigilance committee, Jean Baptiste Yagai, told the media that terrorists attacked at about 7:00 p.m., hours before the normal time that residents leave the village to hide in the surrounding hills every evening to avoid Boko Haram and ISIS-WA attacks. The assault on Gabas was the latest in a series of attacks by Boko Haram and ISIS-WA in the Far North Region, especially within Mayo Tsanaga and Mayo Sava. In November at least six civilians were killed in attacks in Mayo Sava, while five civilians were killed and at least four others abducted in Mayo Moskota.
While the government repeatedly promised to investigate abuses committed by security forces, it did not do so transparently or systematically. Unlike in the previous year, however, some information was made available concerning the outcome of investigations into abuses committed by security forces as well as the status of some ongoing trials. President Biya ordered an investigation into the February 14 killing by security forces of an estimated 23 civilians in the village of Ngarbuh, Northwest Region. On April 22, the president released a summary of the investigation’s findings, identifying a sergeant, a gendarme, and a soldier as responsible for the killing of 13 civilians during the incident. President Biya reportedly ordered disciplinary action against the battalion commander, who oversaw the operation, and the arrest of the other three suspects. Their trial was expected to begin on December 17 at the Yaounde Military Tribunal. A total of 17 members of a vigilante group and a former separatist fighter were also charged but remained at large.
On September 21, the Yaounde Military Tribunal issued a sentence in the case against seven soldiers accused of the extrajudicial killing of two women and two children, believed to have taken place in 2015 in the village of Zelevet, Far North Region. The lead officer, Captain Etienne Fabassou, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and breach of regulations for his role and received a sentence of 10 years in prison. Sergeant Cyriaque Bityala, Corporal Barnabas Donssou Gorvo, and Soldier First Class Jean Baptiste Tchanga Chiengang were found guilty of murder and breach of regulations and were also sentenced to 10 years in prison. Of the remaining three soldiers, Soldier First Class Ghislain Landry Ntieche Fewou was found guilty of breach of regulations and sentenced to two years in prison. The two remaining soldiers were found not guilty. Both the prosecution and all those convicted filed appeals. In the case of the prosecution, the sentences were less than those the prosecution had requested.
As in the previous year, government security forces were believed to be responsible for enforced disappearances of suspected Anglophone separatists or their supporters. Multiple credible organizations documented the case of Samuel Abue Adjiekha (aka “Wazizi”), a news anchor for Buea-based independent radio station Chillen Muzik and Television Pidgin. Wazizi was detained on August 2, 2019, and pronounced dead on June 5. Wazizi was accused of having connections with armed Anglophone separatists. He was transferred to a military-run facility in Buea on August 7, 2019, and never appeared in court, despite several scheduled hearings. In a June 5 press release, the Defense Ministry asserted Wazizi died of severe sepsis on August 17, 2019 (see also section 1.c.). On June 5, the French ambassador to Cameroon told the press at the end of an audience with President Biya that the president had promised to order an investigation into Wazizi’s death. As of mid-December, there were no developments reported on the investigation.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were reports that security force members tortured or otherwise abused citizens, including separatist fighters and political opponents. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented several cases in which security forces severely mistreated political opponents and others in which armed separatists mistreated civilians and members of defense forces. Public officials, or persons acting at their behest, reportedly carried out acts that resulted in severe physical, mental, and emotional trauma.
On July 2, the Cameroon Journalists Trade Union denounced the hijacking of Wazizi’s body as a move to conceal signs of torture on the journalist during his detention.
On July 7, according to CHRDA, 39-year-old Ben Uze was tortured and maimed by the military in Wum, Northwest Region. He reportedly sold 10 liters of palm wine and pineapples to soldiers, who took the items but refused to pay. An eyewitness reportedly told CHRDA that the victim reported the matter to the army commander, who accused him of associating with separatists. As a result, when Uze refused to pay the soldiers he encountered, they severely beat him, causing severe damage to his eye and groin area. Uze reportedly died of his injuries in a hospital.
In a September 24 preliminary report, Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) lawyers claimed police violently suppressed the party’s peaceful demonstrations throughout the country, beating protesters and arresting journalists. They stated that police elements, who used water cannons, batons, and tear gas, injured demonstrators in cities throughout the country, including Douala, Bafoussam, and Kribi. The lawyers reported cases of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment at Yaounde central police station No. 1, listing Therese Assomo Ondoua, Nde Diffo Jaurel, and Wilfred Siewe as some of those tortured during their arrests. Anecdotal evidence and accounts by some protesters who were released corroborated the lawyers’ preliminary report.
Human Rights Watch reported that on May 30, separatists kidnapped and tortured a humanitarian worker in Bali, Northwest Region, accusing him of collaborating with security forces. They released him the following day, and he spent several days in a Bamenda hospital for treatment of the injuries sustained during his detention. The victim told Human Rights Watch that he was blindfolded and taken to a separatist camp on a motorbike. He was later taken to a second location, tied to a tree with a rope, and beaten and kicked before he was released.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, five allegations were submitted during the year of sexual exploitation and abuse by Cameroonian peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions. There were also 29 other open allegations dating from previous years of sexual exploitation and abuse by Cameroonian peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions, including 16 from 2019, four from 2018, four from 2017, two from 2016, and three from 2015. As of September, the Cameroonian government had not yet provided the accountability measures taken for all 34 open cases. Of the open cases, nine allegedly involved rape of a child, 16 allegedly involved transactional sex with one or more adults, five allegedly involved an exploitative relationship with an adult, one allegedly involved rape of an adult, and one allegedly involved sexual assault of an adult. There were also two cases that involved multiple instances within each case. One of those case allegedly involved four instances of rape of a child and two instances of exploitative relationships with an adult. The other case allegedly involved rape by two peacekeepers of two children and an exploitative relationship with an adult.
Credible organizations including the CHRDA reported that Reverend Thomas Nganyu Tangem died chained to his hospital bed in Yaounde in July. He was a member of the Mbengwi Monastery in the Northwest Region and was arrested at Mile 16 in Buea in 2018 and transferred to Yaounde where he was allegedly tortured while in detention for two years without charge. Equinoxe Television reported that on several occasions, prison authorities dismissed concerns expressed by other prisoners regarding his health. On July 25, prison authorities took him to Yaounde Central Hospital, where he was shackled to his hospital bed. He died a few days later on August 5. Tangem was never officially charged with a crime.
Anecdotal reports suggested there were cases of rape and sexual abuse by persons associated with the government in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest Regions. NGOs also indicated armed separatists were involved in rape and sexual abuse cases in the two regions.
There was at least one report of medical abuse by government forces. Djilieu Pommier alleged that after being arrested during MRC demonstrations on September 22 in Bafang (West Region), army Lieutenant Mvoundi Evina on September 22 injected him with an unknown substance. As a result of the injection, Djilieu lost the use of his legs and was effectively paralyzed pending an official medical diagnosis.
On May 6, the High Court of Mbam and Inoubou in the Center Region sentenced the head of local police to a three-year suspended prison sentence for mistreatment of 16-year-old Ibrahim Bello in 2017 that resulted in his losing both legs and his left hand; a colleague received a four-year prison sentence. The court ordered them jointly to pay 50 million Central African francs (CFA) ($86,800) in damages. Following the ruling, the NGO Mandela Center filed an appeal requesting damages be increased to CFA one billion ($1.74 million) due to the gravity of the injuries. The convicts and the General Delegation of National Security also filed separate appeals, requesting that damages be reduced. In mid-December, the court of appeals of the Center Region in Yaounde opened appeal hearings; there was no ruling as of year’s end.
While some investigations and prosecutions were conducted and a few sanctions meted out, especially in high-profile cases, security force impunity remained a concern. Such impunity involved most defense and security force branches from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) to police. Few of the reports of trials involved those in command. The General Delegation of National Security and the Secretariat of State for Defense in charge of the National Gendarmerie investigated some abuses. The government meted out some sanctions to convicted low-level offenders, and other investigations were ongoing as of year’s end. Factors contributing to impunity included the government’s lack of transparency on the steps taken to address allegations of human rights violations.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness in court of an arrest or detention. The law states that except in the case of an individual discovered in the act of committing a felony or misdemeanor, the officials making the arrest must disclose their identity and inform the person arrested of the reason. Any person illegally detained by police, the state counsel, or the examining magistrate may receive compensation. The government did not always respect these provisions.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but this is not always the case in practice. In some instances, the outcomes of trials appeared influenced by the government, especially in politically sensitive cases. Authorities did not always respect and enforce court orders.
Despite the judiciary’s partial independence from the executive and legislative branches, the president appoints all members of the bench and legal department of the judicial branch, including the president of the Supreme Court, and may dismiss them at will.
Military courts may exercise jurisdiction over civilians in a broad number of offenses including civil unrest.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were reports of newly identified political detainees as of September, most of whom were associated with the September 22 protests called for by the MRC opposition party. While there were no official statistics available, the number of detainees was estimated to be close to 600. Prominent among the detainees were MRC Treasurer Alain Fogue and Maurice Kamto’s spokesperson, Olivier Bibou Nissack. Political prisoners were detained under heightened security, often in SED facilities and at the Kondengui Principal Prison and the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde. Some were allegedly held at Directorate General for External Research facilities. The government did not readily permit access to such individuals.
The 10 Anglophone separatist leaders, including Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, whom the Yaounde Military Tribunal sentenced to life imprisonment on August 20, 2019, remained in detention, as the Court of Appeals in September confirmed the sentence. MRC Vice President Mamadou Mota and a few other MRC members, in addition to the 10 leaders sentenced to life, remained in detention as of December, despite a reduction of their sentences upon appeal. Former minister of state for territorial administration Marafa Hamidou Yaya, who was convicted in 2012 on corruption charges and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment, remained in detention. In 2016 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention described Marafa’s detention as “a violation of international laws.” The government did not respond to repeated requests for members of the diplomatic community to meet with Marafa.