Cameroon is a republic dominated by a strong presidency. The president retains the power over the legislative and judicial branches of government. In October 2018 Paul Biya was reelected president in an election marked by irregularities. He has served as president since 1982. His political party–the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM)–has remained in power since its creation in 1985. New legislative and municipal elections are scheduled to take place in February 2020. Regional elections were also expected during the year, but as of late November, the president had not scheduled them.
The national police and the national gendarmerie have primary responsibility over law enforcement and maintenance of order within the country and report, respectively, to the General Delegation of National Security and to the Secretariat of State for Defense in charge of the Gendarmerie. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities and reports to the Ministry of Defense. The Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) reports directly to the president. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.
Maurice Kamto, leader of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (CRM) party and distant runner-up in the October 2018 presidential elections, challenged the election results, claiming he won. On January 26, when Kamto and his followers demonstrated peacefully, authorities arrested him and hundreds of his followers. A crisis in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest Regions that erupted in 2016 has led to more than 2,000 persons killed, more than 44,000 refugees in Nigeria, and more than 500,000 internally displaced persons. A five-day national dialogue to address the crisis took place from September 30 to October 4, producing a number of recommendations, including some new ones. Anglophone separatists in the Northwest and Southwest Regions as well as in the diaspora shunned the meeting. On October 3, President Biya announced the pardoning of 333 lower-level Anglophone detainees, and on October 5, the Military Tribunal ordered the release of Kamto and hundreds of his associates.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, by security forces, armed Anglophone separatists, and Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) fighters; forced disappearances by security forces; torture by security forces and nonstate armed groups; arbitrary detention by security forces and nonstate armed groups; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; the worst forms of restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, and abuse of criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; crimes involving violence against women, in part due to government inaction; violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex relations; and child labor, including forced child labor.
Although the government took some 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, including serial offenders, continued to act with impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government often restricted this right, explicitly or implicitly.
Freedom of Expression: Government officials penalized individuals or organizations that criticized or expressed views at odds with government policy. Individuals who criticized the government publicly or privately frequently faced reprisals. On several occasions, the government invoked laws requiring permits or government notification of public protests to stifle discourse. Many civil society and political organizations reported increased difficulty when obtaining approval to organize public gatherings.
In the early hours of February 23, police surrounded CRM headquarters in the Odza neighborhood of Yaounde and the New-Deido in Douala to prevent prospective activists from registering with the party. In other cities, such as Bafoussam and Mbouda in the West Region, security forces disrupted the registration process and arrested CRM activists. In Bafoussam, police seized CRM’s campaign truck and detained it along with its driver. On April 30, Zacheus Bakoma, the divisional officer for Douala 5, ordered a 90-day provisional closure of the Mtieki community hall after the CRM used the hall as a venue for a meeting on April 28.
Press and Media, including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed diverse views. This landscape, however, included restrictions on editorial independence, in part due to stated security concerns related to the fight against Boko Haram, the Anglophone crisis, and the postelectoral crisis. Journalists reported practicing self-censorship to avoid repercussions for criticizing the government, especially on security matters. According to the 2018 Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, the re-election of President Biya for a seventh term of office was accompanied by multiple instances of intimidation, attacks, and arrests of journalists.
Violence and Harassment: Police, gendarmes, and other government agents arrested, detained, physically attacked, and intimidated journalists for their reporting. Journalists were arrested in connection with their reporting on the Anglophone crisis. According to reports by multiple organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), police arrested Pidgin news anchor Samuel Wazizi, who worked for the Buea-based independent station Chillen Muzik and Television. The arrest occurred on August 2 in Buea, Southwest Region. Police initially held Wazizi at the Buea police station and subsequently handed him over to the military, who detained him on August 7 without access to his lawyer or family. As of late November, he was presumed to still be in detention.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Under a 1990 law, the Ministry of Communication requires editors to submit two signed copies of their newspapers within two hours after publication. Journalists and media outlets reported practicing self-censorship, especially if the National Communication Council (NCC) had suspended them previously. In February the NCC issued a press release calling on journalists to be professional in their publications. The release was in reaction to media coverage following the January 26 protests called for by CRM, the arrests of hundreds of activists, including Maurice Kamto, and the ransacking of the Cameroonian embassy in Paris by anti-President Biya protesters. The NCC chairman indicated that the government had informed all professional media about the facts through official procedures and regretted that some press organizations continued to spread opinion contrary to government’s position, thereby maintaining confusion.
At its 23rd ordinary session, the NCC issued warning notices in 21 media regulation cases. The charges stated that the groups engaged in practices contrary to professional ethics, social cohesion, and national integration.
In a July 20 meeting with 100 private media outlet managers, Minister of Communications Rene Sadi chided Cameroon’s private media for abandoning its duty to “inform, educate, and entertain” by publishing articles that “sowed divisiveness and promoted tribalism.” He accused the private press of “playing politics under the influence of journalistic cover.” As of year’s end, no private television or radio station held a valid broadcasting license. Although the few that could afford the licensing fee made good-faith efforts to obtain accreditation, the ministry had not issued or renewed licenses since 2007. The high financial barriers coupled with bureaucratic hurdles rendered Cameroonian private media’s very existence illegal.
Libel/Slander Laws: Press freedom is constrained by libel laws that authorize the government to initiate a criminal suit when the president or other senior government officials are the alleged victims. These laws place the burden of proof on the defendant, and crimes are punishable by prison terms and heavy fines.
National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government. During a security meeting in Douala on August 9, Minister of Territorial Administration Paul Atanga Nji called on the representatives of NGOs and media professionals to be responsible, contribute their own quota to nation building, and avoid derogatory language that discredits government actions. Atanga Nji said many media houses in Douala organized weekly debates in order to sabotage government actions and promote secessionist tendencies. He urged private media organizations to exercise responsibility when carrying out their activities, warning them to construct, not destroy, the nation. He called on opposition political parties to respect the law and not to force his hand to suspend them. The minister also warned NGOs to respect the contract they signed with his ministry or be suspended.
Nongovernmental Impact: There were reports that separatist groups in the Southwest and Northwest Regions sought to inhibit freedom of expression, including for the press. In an August 13 online post, Moki Edwin Kindzeka, a Yaounde-based journalist, said it was becoming impossible for journalists to practice their profession, because they faced pressure from both separatist fighters and the government. The article was in reaction to Atanga Nji’s August 9 statements.
No credible reports indicated that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The government occasionally disrupted access to the internet.
Although there were no legal restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, some school authorities reportedly sanctioned academic personnel for their teaching on politically sensitive topics, and administrative officials often deterred teachers from criticizing the government.
On March 5, Jean-Pierre Voundi Abondo, the principal of Yaounde’s Government Bilingual High School Mendong, suspended Felix Ningue from his duties as a philosophy teacher. Ningue reportedly proposed an abstract from Maurice Kamto’s 1993 book entitled L’Urgence de la Pensee (The Urgency of Thought), as one of the topics for student discussion in an examination on February 17. In an interview on Canal 2 television channel, Voundi said the school was apolitical and that he asked Ningue to stop teaching pending an investigation.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited and restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government often restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, and processions to notify officials in advance but does not require prior government approval of public assemblies, nor does it authorize the government to suppress public assemblies that it did not approve in advance. Nevertheless, officials routinely asserted the law implicitly authorizes the government to grant or deny permission for public assemblies. The government often refused to grant permits for gatherings and used force to suppress assemblies for which it had not issued permits. Authorities typically cited security concerns as the basis for deciding to block assemblies.
On January 26, in Yaounde, Douala, Bafoussam, and other cities across the country, police arrested several dozen CRM activists who participated in a rally to denounce electoral irregularities in the October 2018 presidential election, the ongoing crisis in the two Anglophone regions, and poor management of infrastructure projects associated with the 2019 African Cup of Nations. The CRM notified authorities in advance of the protests but did not receive authorization. Security forces, in response, used excessive force against demonstrators. According to Amnesty International, more than one hundred protesters were arrested in Douala, Yaounde, Dschang, Bafoussam, and Bafang. Approximately 50 were released the following day, and the remainder were transferred to Yaounde and placed under administrative custody. Seven persons were shot and injured in the city of Douala, including lawyer Michele Ndoki, while other protesters were beaten. Communication Minister Rene Emmanuel Sadi denied the use of live ammunition against protesters, but social media contradicted that account with videos of gunfire in Douala and a member of the riot police firing a rubber bullet at close range into the leg of a peaceful protester.
On April 5, Minister of Territorial Administration Atanga Nji issued a press release prohibiting all meetings or public events by the CRM. Days later, on April 13, the party initiated a series of meetings throughout the country to demand the immediate release of Maurice Kamto, who by that time had been imprisoned for more than two months. The CRM also aimed to denounce “the selective modification of the electoral code” and the mismanagement of the funds dedicated to infrastructure projects associated with the 2019 African Cup of Nations, which was to be hosted by Cameroon before being ultimately awarded to Egypt. The CRM unsuccessfully appealed the ministry’s decision.
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of association, but the law also limits this right. On the recommendation of the prefet, the Ministry of Territorial Administration may suspend the activities of an association for three months on grounds that the association is disrupting public order. The minister may also dissolve an association if it is deemed a threat to state security. National associations may acquire legal status by declaring themselves in writing to the ministry, but the ministry must explicitly register foreign associations, and the president must accredit religious groups upon the recommendation of the Minister of Territorial Administration. The law imposes heavy fines for individuals who form and operate any such association without ministry approval. The law prohibits organizations that advocate a goal contrary to the constitution, laws, and morality, as well as those that aim to challenge the security, territorial integrity, national unity, national integration, or republican form of the state.
Conditions for recognition of political parties, NGOs, or associations were complicated, involved long delays, and were unevenly enforced. This resulted in associations operating in legal uncertainty, their activities tolerated but not formally approved.
During the year the government did not ban any organizations. The Ministry of Territorial Administration, however, regularly used threats of suspension on the heads of political parties and NGOs. At a press conference after the January 26 CRM protests, Minister Atanga Nji indicated that the ministry had the right to take certain precautionary measures, meaning the CRM’s suspension. A number of observers stated that political motivations were evident in the government’s selective application of the law.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, at times the government restricted these rights. Growing concerns over the entry of armed groups into Cameroon from the Central African Republic (CAR) and the conflict with Boko Haram in the Far North Region appeared to have prompted the government to adopt a more restrictive approach to refugee movement. The government made it more difficult for refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons to move freely in the country.
In some instances, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The government sometimes failed to respect its obligations under relevant international laws. There were instances where it forcibly returned asylum seekers to their countries and did not readily provide humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations access to asylum seekers before refouling them.
In-country Movement: Using minor infractions as a pretext, police and gendarmes at roadblocks and checkpoints in cities and on most highways often extorted bribes and harassed travelers. Police frequently stopped travelers to check identification documents, vehicle registrations, and tax receipts as security and immigration control measures. Unaccompanied women were frequently harassed when traveling alone. Authorities restricted movements of persons and goods, including motorbikes, especially in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, citing security concerns. Armed Anglophone separatists also restricted the movements of persons and goods in the two Anglophone regions, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to harass and intimidate the local population. Humanitarian organizations cited difficulty in accessing certain areas and in some instances were harassed and denied passage by government authorities.
On June 14, Governor Adolphe Lele Lafrique of the Northwest Region lifted the curfew placed in the region since November 2018. The curfew, which lasted eight months, restricted movement of persons and property in the Northwest Region between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Evolving civil unrest and violence in Northwest and Southwest Regions continued to spur population displacement. According to OCHA, an estimated 710,000 individuals were displaced in Littoral, Northwest, Southwest, and West Regions. In addition, UNHCR estimated that more than 44,000 Cameroonian refugees were in southeastern Nigeria. An August 26 announcement by an armed separatist group on social media imposed a restriction of movement on all persons and closure of businesses starting September 2 for three weeks. This led to a further exodus of persons from the Northwest and Southwest Regions. Even prior to the announcement, relief agencies estimated that more than 2,800 persons fled the two regions to seek refuge in the Littoral and West, and an additional 879 individuals crossed the border into Nigeria between August 1 and 20.
As of September 30, the displaced population in the Far North Region was 488,418, including 271,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), 106,418 refugees, and 111,000 returnees, in part driven from their homes by attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR.
The government did not put in place mechanisms to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs in the Far North Region. Provision of basic social services to IDPs and assistance to returnees have been carried out by relief actors with minimal support from the government. In the Northwest and Southwest Regions, the government did not manage any efforts to ensure unhindered access for humanitarian actors to deliver aid to persons in need. Its actions were focused on blocking the delivery of aid to show that there is no humanitarian crisis in these regions. Although it made some effort to provide urgently needed in-kind assistance to crisis affected IDPs in the Northwest and Southwest based on its Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan, this assistance was distributed to populations without an assessment of their needs and only to persons in accessible areas, especially in regional capital cities.
f. Protection of Refugees
According to UNHCR and government estimates, the country hosted 403,208 refugees and 9,435 asylum seekers as of September 30. The refugee population included 291,803 CAR nationals, 108,335 Nigerians, and 1,599 Chadians. The remaining refugee population hailed from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Burundi, and the Republic of Congo.
In principle, Cameroon operates an open-door policy and has ratified the major legal instruments for refugee protection, including the 1951 Refugee Convention. These commitments were not translated into a progressive legal framework allowing refugees their rights as stated in various legal instruments.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cited other concerns, including security and suspicion of criminal activity, to justify arbitrary arrests and detention of refugees and asylum seekers. The government at times cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: The government stated there was no official policy of forcibly repatriating refugees. On January 16, however, Cameroon forcefully returned 267 Nigerian refugees fleeing Boko Haram to northeast Nigeria. In a February 27 statement, Medicins Sans Frontieres stated Cameroonian and Nigerian authorities ordered 40,000 refugees in Cameroon to return to northeast Nigeria and expressed concern over their possible fate due to continuing insecurity in Rann and a lack of humanitarian assistance. Tens of thousands of persons had fled the town of Rann in northeast Nigeria to Cameroon after a January attack by Islamist insurgents. In 2018 UNHCR and NGOs also reported cases of forced returns of asylum seekers, mostly of Nigerians. According to HRW, in 2017 more than 4,400 asylum-seeking Nigerians were forcibly returned to Nigeria. UNHCR reported that 1,300 were forcibly returned in 2018 and an estimated 600 in 2019. In February an estimated 40,000 Nigerian refugees who had fled to Cameroon in the wake of armed attacks were soon after returned to Nigeria, after Nigerian government officials advised that conditions were safe for their return. Humanitarian organizations, however, stated the conditions were unsafe for return and that the area was largely inaccessible to relief agencies.
Access to Asylum: The laws provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system of providing protection to refugees, but the implementation of this system is less likely. UNHCR continued to provide documentation and assistance to the refugee population. Nevertheless, local authorities did not always recognize these documents as official, which prevented refugees from travelling and engaging in business activities. UNHCR and the government continued to conduct biometric verification and registration of refugees in the Far North Region, including of those not living in a refugee camp.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees had limited access to health care, education, and employment opportunities. Their rural host communities faced similar challenges, but the situation was somewhat worse for refugees. Access to these services varied according to the location of the refugees, with those in camps receiving support through humanitarian assistance, while refugees living in host communities faced difficulty receiving services.
Durable Solutions: UNHCR and the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria started the voluntary repatriation of Nigerian refugees in Cameroon as agreed upon under the 2017 tripartite agreement. The first phase of the voluntary repatriation exercise was conducted on August 22, and involved 133 Nigerian refugees, who departed Maroua for Yola in Nigeria’s Adamawa State, using a Nigerian Air Force plane.
In June 2018 UNHCR carried out return intention surveys using a sample of 4,000 CAR refugees that indicated that approximately one quarter of those surveyed would be interested in going back home, while three quarters would prefer local integration as a durable solution. As of year’s end, UNHCR had assisted more than 2,000 CAR refugees who elected to voluntary return to their areas of origin.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary, unofficial protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, extending this protection to hundreds of individuals during the year, including third-country nationals who had fled violence in CAR. Due to their unofficial status and inability to access services or support, many of these individuals were subject to harassment and other abuses.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Recent Elections: In March 2018 the country held its second senate elections. The ruling CPDM won 63 of the 70 elected seats, while the opposition Social Democratic Front won seven elected seats. The president, in accordance with the constitution, appointed an additional 30 senators, including 24 from CPDM, two from National Union for Democracy and Progress, and one each from four other nominal opposition parties, including Union of the People of Cameroon, National Alliance for Democracy and Progress, Movement for the Defense of the Republic, and Cameroon National Salvation Front. The election was largely peaceful.
In October 2018 the country conducted a presidential election, against the backdrop of protracted sociopolitical unrest in the two Anglophone Northwest and Southwest Regions and insecurity in the Far North Region due to attacks by Boko Haram and ISIS-WA. Eight candidates took part in the elections; a ninth dropped out just before election day to support a rival opposition candidate. The election was marred by irregularities, including intimidation of voters and representatives of candidates at polling sites, late posting of polling sites and voter lists, ballot stuffing, voters with multiple registration, and a lack of transparency in the vote tallying process. In its preliminary statement, the African Union election observation mission noted that the security environment resulted in the curtailment of civil and political liberties in certain regions and negatively impacted the level of participation of citizens in the electoral process.
New legislative and municipal elections were expected during the year, but in July the government extended the term of office of members of the National Assembly by two months, effective October 29. On July 15, the president signed a decree extending the term of office of municipal councilors until February 29, 2020. By law regional elections must be held by the end of February 2020.
Political Parties and Political Participation: As of September 2018, the country had 305 registered political parties. The CPDM remained dominant throughout every level of state institution. This was due to restrictions on opposition political parties, including gerrymandering, unbalanced media coverage, use of government resources for CPDM campaigning, interference with the right of opposition parties to organize during electoral campaigns, and influence of traditional rulers, who were largely coopted by the majority party. Additionally, membership in the ruling political party conferred significant advantages, including in the allocation of key jobs in state-owned entities and the civil service.
Human rights organizations and opposition political actors considered the drawing of voter districts and distribution of parliamentary or municipal councilors’ seats unfair, stating that smaller districts considered CPDM strongholds were allocated a disproportionate number of seats compared with more populous districts where the opposition was expected to poll strongly. Managers of state-owned companies and other high-level government officials used corporate resources to campaign for candidates sponsored by the ruling party in both senate and presidential elections to the detriment of the other candidates. Traditional rulers, who receive salaries from the government, openly declared their support for President Biya prior to the presidential election, and some reportedly compelled residents of their constituencies to prove that they did not vote for an opposition candidate by presenting unused ballots.
In March Cabral Libii submitted the documentation for the legalization of his political party, Les Citoyens. Minister of Territorial Administration Paul Atanga Nji refused to legalize the party, and Cabral instead joined the Cameroonian Party for National Reconciliation.
After President Biya announced legislative and municipal elections would be held on February 9, 2020, Kamto’s Cameroon Renaissance Movement party reported persistent interference from local government officials as party leaders sought the necessary documents to file candidate lists. Reports included local officials refusing to come to work during the registration period, judges requiring traditional rulers to confirm residency, and local officials refusing to certify birth certificates for CRM candidates. On November 25, as a result of this interference, CRM announced its decision to boycott the elections.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process; however, due to cultural factors, women remained underrepresented at all levels of government. Women occupied 26 of 374 council mayor positions, 81 of 280 parliamentary seats, and 11 of 66 cabinet positions. Similar disparities existed in other senior level offices, including territorial command and security and defense positions. With the voting age set at 20, youths older than 18 and younger than 20 are not allowed to vote. The minority Baka, a nomadic Pygmy people, were not represented in the senate, national assembly, or higher offices of government.
During the year Minister of Territorial Administration Atanga Nji maintained his refusal to recognize Edith Kah Walla, who was elected in 2011 as leader of the Cameroon People’s Party (CPP), as the legitimate leader of the party. Atanga Nji continued to maintain his stance that Samuel Tita Fon, who created the party in 1991 but became a supporter of the ruling party, remained the CPP leader.