There are fresh concerns that the medical Nongovernmental Organization, Doctors Without Borders, better known by its French acronym, MSF could be forced out of Cameroon’s troubled South West region after the government accused it of collaborating with pro-independence fighters.
In a December 27 release, the Spokesman of the Cameroon Ministry of Defense, Colonel Cyrille Serge Atongfack Nguemo accused MSF of directly engaging in “a clandestine operation to exfiltrate and cover terrorists, despite repeated warnings from Cameroonian authorities.”
It all started on Christmas day. The Military says it went into a gun battle with pro-independence fighters in the locality of Tinto in the South West region that left two of them wounded.
The two men-Mbu Princeley Tabe alias ‘General Moving Star’ and Eugene Bessong alias ‘General PA LAMPAT’ fled into the Ntenmbang Forest.
The military release says that on December 26, the wounded pro-independence fighters made a phone call to a local representative of Doctors without Borders “to negotiate their exfiltration from Manyu Division through Ashum village to an accessible health center.”
It was while moving Mbu Princeley Tabe (his companion in battle had earlier succumbed to bullet wounds and was buried in the forest) that the MSF ambulance was stopped at a checkpoint in Nguti by elements of the 6th Mobile Intervention Battalion.
Government claims that MSF did not notify administrative authorities about the said operation as required by existing protocols, and which, according to the military, points to a sort of collusion between MSF and pro-independence fighters in the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons.
“It is thus established that Doctors without Borders maintain close relations with terrorists operating in the South West Region and are seemingly engaging just enough strategies to facilitate their blood-thirsty actions on the ground.”
Doctors without Borders has denied the accusations, saying it acts within the ambit of the law.
“In our work in Cameroon, and elsewhere in the world, MSF treats people based on medical need, regardless of their background or affiliations,” the charity said in a statement.
“This impartial and neutral medical humanitarian work is notably protected by the Geneva Conventions, which specify that persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any distinction founded on race, color, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.”
It said accusations of complicity with any actor in conflict put both patients and the NGO’s staff “in grave and immediate danger.”
Human Rights lawyer, Felix Agbor Balla has warned that the government’s response could put MSF in harm’s way and called on both sides to dialogue.
“If Doctors without Borders starts informing government in detail of each and every patient, then the independence, the confidentiality is no longer there. The communiqué that the government has issued is trying to put Doctors without Borders in harm’s way, and I would recommend that Doctors without Borders and the government should sit down and have a discussion,” Balla said.
The rising tensions have sparked fears that the medical NGO could be forced to end its operations in the South West Region. Some months back, similar accusations forced the NGO to stop all operations in the North West region.
The two regions have been at war for over five years now-a war that has left several health infrastructures destroyed and rendered most of them unfunctional.
According to Paul Tasong, the government minister in charge of coordinating the reconstruction of the two regions, the number of medical doctors in hospitals and health centers dropped from 170 in 2016 just before the crisis, to just 71 in 2019.
“This is catastrophic,” he said.
With healthcare delivery in such bad shape, MSF became one of the very few health institutions that still had the nerve to deliver healthcare to desperate people. Beneficiary populations now fear the likelihood of the charity leaving both regions would worsen an already precarious situation.