By Songezo Ndlendle
Cameroon’s state security forces did not adequately protect civilians from the threats posed by separatists in the time leading up to the country’s elections, and instead committed further abuses against the population, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.
Armed separatists in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions kidnapped over 100 people, burned property, and threatened voters in the period before Sunday’s election, said the organisation on Wednesday.
“Separatist leaders should issue clear instructions to their fighters to end their crimes against civilians,” said Lewis Mudge, HRW’s central Africa director.
He said the government of Cameroon should ensure that its security forces put civilians first by stopping their “violations”, prioritising civilian protection, and holding abusers accountable.
Thousands of Cameroonians fled from the country’s English speaking regions in the lead-up to elections, saying that they did not believe government was able to protect them from the separatists.
HRW said it had interviewed 55 victims and witnesses of crimes committed by armed separatists and government forces since the elections were announced in November last year, as well as opposition party members, candidates, and other residents of the northwest and southwest Anglophone regions.
The organisation said it had also analysed satellite imagery and video footage to independently corroborate witness testimony.
Clashes between armed separatists and government forces, as well as between rival separatist factions, had resulted in civilian deaths, with people either killed deliberately or caught in the crossfire, it said.
Several dozen people had been killed in scores of incidents since November, based on a review of credible media accounts, records produced by some United Nations agencies, and HRW research.
But, said the organisation, with no official mechanism monitoring how many civilians had been killed, reliable confirmation of the number of those killed, the circumstances around killings, and the alleged perpetrators, remained difficult.
Reports indicate about 3 000 people had been killed, while the United Nations reported that at least 50 000 escaped the country since the unrest started in 2016.
The separatists targeted those willing to participate in the elections, whether as candidates, election officials, activists, or citizens.
Targets included members and supporters of the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF) party, which the separatists accused of failing to show solidarity with their cause.
Separatists burned at least three offices of Elections Cameroon (ELECAM), the national election body, in Misaje, northwest region, on January 7, in Babessi, northwest region, on January 16, and in Tombel, southwest region, on February 2.
The rebels also torched a post office where electoral material was stored in Bafut, northwest region, on the eve of the elections.
At least seven homes belonging to government officials and candidates in various localities in the northwest region were also torched since November last year, according to HRW.
“Rather than protecting civilians from these attacks, government forces committed their own violations against them. Between January 17 and 20, security forces carried out a military operation in Bali, northwest region, destroying over 50 homes and killing several civilians, including two men with intellectual disabilities,” Mudge said. African News Agency (ANA)