How the Biya Regime Missed an Opportunity Offered by The Kamto-Planned Protests to Score Political Points
This reflection is inspired by the fact that an otherwise isolated call for street protests beginning September 22, 2020, by an opposition political party government itself claimed it could not garner more than 14% vote counts at the 2018 Presidential elections, completely murdered sleep in the eyes of Yaounde and regional authorities to an extent that some of them were heard over state radio claiming they cancelled their own planned activities in the run-up to September 22, just to make sure no soul was seen on the streets during the opposition planned demonstrations.
It is the more informed by the fact that even when one of the leading defenders of the CPDM government in Douala, Ellie Zang, came up with a caveat, so to speak, an ingenious idea on how to water down the planned opposition protest marches by mobilizing CPDM ruling party militants to literally occupy public spaces through legitimately organized counter-protests that could go a long way to proof the popularity of the ruling regime and, in the process, give it a signature of approval as against those who wanted to protest in discredit, the panicky administrators that are unschooled on issues of freedom of peaceful assembly, went ahead to frustrate the move.
It is also inspired by the fact that nowhere in the world can a country be claiming to be democratic and is seen to be rolling out the repressive military machinery that has been seen in the past few days in Cameroon in the build-up to the announced protest march as if organizers were an invading force.
Truth be told: the reaction by the government of Cameroon and its allied political parties as well as some civil society to the planned peaceful protests marches by Law Professor, Kamto and his MRC party, smacks of the manner in which civic and political space has dangerously shrunk in Cameroon in the last few years. The ruling elites and their allied political forces as well as some anti-rights civil society movements have successfully used the degrading security situation in the country, no thanks to the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northern regions, the unrest in the North West and South West as well as the volatile situation in the East of the country, to criminalize dissent and varying political opinion to the exclusion of government thinking. It is for this reason that any suggestion of a civil or political protest, however peaceful, would be considered an insurrection and the 2014 anti-terrorism law would be dangled on organizers and participants. To the credit of authoritarian regimes across the world has come to add Covid-19 restriction measures as pretext to proscribe freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Unfortunately, Cameron's democratic gains of over 30 years are being rolled back under the watchful eyes of its helpless citizens. And as stated earlier, the pretext is the degrading security situation. Authoritarians see the current health crisis as a formidable new political battleground in their fight to stigmatize democracy as feeble and reverse its dramatic gains of the past few years.
If, and as I have stated earlier, the reasons for prohibiting public demonstrations is the deterioration of the security situation in the country, then such deterioration cannot be used to justify further restrictions on those rights, including assembly rights. It is for this reason that the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, ACHPR, in its Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa states categorically that: “The rights to association and assembly by way of protest are fundamental rights that should underpin all democratic societies in which individuals can freely express their views on all issues concerning their society”.
As concerns the sticky debates today in Cameroon over how Kamto' s protests can be said to be peaceful, yet organizers declare its ultimate end is to see President Biya leave power, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights define 'peaceful' demonstrations to include: “... conduct that annoys or gives offence, as well as conduct that temporarily hinders, impedes or obstruct the activities of the third party”.
It goes further to state that “participating in and organizing assemblies is a right and not a privilege, and thus its exercise does not require the authorization of the state”.
Even when domestic law warrants that protests organizers notify the state authorities, the purpose of the notification is not to seek authorization but rather to allow the state to facilitate the exercise of this right by taking necessary measures to protect public safety and the rights of other citizens. More importantly, lack of notification, the ACHPR states, shall not be understood to make an assembly or protest illegal.
It is therefore incumbent on the state of Cameroon to ensure that all those who adhere to Prof. Kamto's call for peaceful protest beginning September 22, be protected both from harassment, intimidation, and attacks by police and third parties.
Embarrassingly, and in the build-up to the protests, we have heard authorities of Cameron's Littoral Region drumming their chests about how they also banned counter-protests marches planned for the same period by militants the ruling CPDM party who claim their party leader's legitimacy could not be doubted as he won the last Presidential election with over 71% of the total vote count. To this effect, I remind them on ACHPR Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly duly ratified by the state of Cameroon: “Persons have the rights to assemble as counter-demonstrators, and thus simultaneous protests and counter-demonstrations shall not be banned. Rather, public safety authorities shall ensure that all demonstrations may proceed peacefully”. And within sight and sound of one another.
What this means is that if the CPDM government were as smart as they usually claim to be, they would have cashed in on Ellie Zang's beautiful idea of counter-demonstrations and make sure that wherever Kamto's MRC mobilizes 1000 protesters, they produce a counter-protest of 10 000. And where Kamto and his allied parties are capable of producing 10 000, the CPDM mobilizes 100 000 protesters in support of President Biya's policies. Prof. Kamto had offered a unique opportunity for the Biya regime to measure its popularity and score political points, but like every conscious thief, they are always afraid any noise might be the police coming after them.
To recapitulate this reflection, and for the benefit of those who have been arguing on rooftops how authorizations are required for any protest to take place, ACHPR is categorical that: “Where states enact laws on freedom of assembly, those laws shall aim primarily at the facilitation of the enjoyment of the right”.
According to the European Court of Human Rights, in Franklin v. Russia (application No. 74568/12), judgment of 5 January 2016, Para. 97: “It is important for public authorities...to show a certain degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings, even unlawful ones, if the freedom of assembly... is not to be deprived off all substance”.
There is no gainsaying the fact that only the ruling CPDM today enjoys the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. All other actors' activities are a priori considered a threat to national security and disturbance of public order. To which the UN Human Rights, General Comment 37, in its Section 4 on Restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly states that: “It is often preferable to allow an assembly to take place and decide afterwards whether measures should be taken regarding transgressions during the event, rather than to impose prior restraints in an attempt to eliminate all risks”.
To be fair with government one must admit the timing of the demonstrations during the Covid-19 pandemic period is tricky. And the UN Human Rights General Comment 37 is articulate on it, as it states in its Section 51: “The 'protection of public health' ground may exceptionally permit restrictions to be imposed, for example where there is an outbreak of an infectious disease and gatherings are dangerous. This may in extreme cases also be applicable where the sanitary situation during the assembly presents a substantial health risk to the general public or to the participants themselves”.
One wonders whether the organizers of the protests have developed any health and social distancing protocols against Covid-19 propagation during the demonstrations. But banning and demonizing as well as criminalizing protests marches because organizers have crafted in serious political content is undemocratic as the UN General Comment holds that any restrictions to peaceful assemblies must be content neutral. Which means a state cannot legitimately ban a protest basing its argument on the content or message protesters want to articulate.
It reads: “Restrictions on peaceful assembly must thus not be used, explicitly or implicitly, to stifle expression of political opposition to a government, including calls for change of government, the constitution, the political system, or political independence of part of the country”.
In conclusion, I dare recall that peaceful assembly is a legitimate use of public space and any failure to recognize the right to participate in peaceful assemblies is a marker of repression.
Colbert Fulai Gwain, Director of The Colbert Factor