Issa Tchiroma’s vituperative outbursts and banal aspersions cast on Amnesty International was bad politics, even more so, as the language was very unedifying and stripped his message of any significance
It is certainly impossible to live down the vexatious report by Amnesty International (AI) against the Cameroonian military and its prosecution of the war against Boko Haram; a report that is not only one-sided, but could in fact, embolden the terrorists who are waging a vicious and grotesque campaign of human savagery and barbarism that has metastasized from Nigeria, into Cameroon. With the hyper-dramatic title: “Cameroon’s secret torture chambers: human rights violations and war crimes in the fight against Boko Haram,” the report accused Cameroonian security forces of torturing hundreds of people in secret chambers.
AI said research and analyses of evidence, including testimonies with victims, as well as satellite imagery, photographs and videos add up to a pattern of horrific violence against Boko Haram suspects, which amounted to war crimes under international law. While the report’s authenticity is questionable, the rather combative riposte by the government was reckless, inflammatory and once again advertised in dramatic fashion, the absence of maturity and stately comportment at the highest level of the country’s leadership. A shouting match with a global human rights ombudsman like AI is an unmistakable act of imbecility that mocks Cameroon and all her pretences to being a democracy. This certainly cannot be in the national interest. It is pure madness that is inexcusable!
According to the AI report, men and women described being beaten with electrical cables, chains, batons, wooden planks studded with nails, being permanently chained up, hit on the soles of their feet with machetes and, in the case of one Muslim, being forced to eat pork. AI said over 100 cases of detention and torture were documented at more than 20 sites, including military bases and a school. Victims included children and people with disabilities, and witnesses described 24 different torture techniques.
These include the “goat” whereby a person’s hands and feet are tied together behind the back, and the “swing” whereby the victim is tied by their limbs to a wooden structure before being beaten. AI said the overwhelming majority of victims were tortured in two unofficial detention sites; the headquarters of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) in Salak, near Maroua, and a facility in Yaoundé run by the General Directorate of External Research (DGRE), formerly, CENER. This “widespread practice of torture committed by the security forces against ordinary Cameroonians, who are often arrested without any evidence and forced to endure unimaginable pain” amount to war crimes, noted the report.
AI Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Alioune Tine, disclosed that the government was presented with the report several months ago but refused to respond. Tine has called for an investigation, which should also include individual and command responsibility. AI also alleged that satellite photographs showed American military personnel visiting one notorious site, raising the possibility that they were there while torture was being carried out.
No evidence has emerged that US personnel were involved in torture, but photos and videos obtained by the University of London-based research firm, Forensic Architecture, show US soldiers and civilian contractors playing football in night-vision goggles just meters from where prisoners were being held in horrific conditions. AI concluded that those in charge of the detention facility must be investigated. AI has also called on the US government to investigate whether American servicemen were aware of torture taking place on the Salak base, after many former detainees testified to seeing and hearing Americans in uniform during their imprisonment.
While making these allegations, AI turned a blind eye on the atrocities of Boko Haram, which is killing thousands of innocent men, women and children, as well as abducting people. By this report, AI has demonstrated in no small measure what seems to be a determined effort to indict Cameroon’s security forces and tarnish the country’s international image. This is not just unacceptable; it opens up AI to charges of being sympathetic to Boko Haram and waging a destabilization campaign against Cameroon as the regime now alleges.
However, the puerile response of Issa Tchiroma, Communications Minister was imprudent, in a way that impoverished the dignity of his office and called to question his standing as government’s spokesman. In a reaction ornamented with bile, vitriol and insultive grandiloquence, Tchiroma dismissed the report, accusing AI of “bad faith” and acting in “defence of terrorist interests” ostensibly to tarnish the image of Cameroon’s security forces in the eyes of the international partners, notably the USA.
“In fact, what Amnesty International and her partners should know is that they have outpassed an unacceptable line in their attack against Cameroon as they have blatantly uncovered the location of Cameroon’s strategic infrastructures, thereby pinpointing these infrastructures as a key target for Boko Haram and the Islamic State to which the terrorist group is associated. Disclosing such sensitive information, more importantly in a country at war, cannot be tolerated. These are unacceptable breaches against our national security for which Amnesty International would be held accountable. Relevant services are currently reviewing the report of Amnesty International and all the legal implications will be sorted out. Henceforth, this organization must be regarded as hostile to our Army and our Fatherland,” Tchiroma pontificated.
To begin with, no responsible government talks like this, and all things considered, well-meaning Cameroonians are not likely to side with this kind of thinking. Tchiroma’s outbursts betray a government lacking in the vital attributes of civil engagement in public discourse. It was bad politics, even more so, as the language was very unedifying. Condemnable as AI bias against Cameroon is, if at all the AI report warranted a response, the government should have given a measured rebuttal that would indicate seriousness commensurate to the weighty allegations. By which is not meant the kind of macabre Tchiroma rant, which was another blight on the toga of Cameroon’s international credibility. It is indeed pathetic and unconscionable that the frightening state of insecurity; a very serious threat to the nation was trivialized, and reduced to pedestrian verbal altercation and political point-scoring.
In a broader context, the AI report reflects the heightened state of impunity and indecorous professional conduct in military circles. That security forces could be accused of torture hints of violation of even the basic rules of war, which exposes a breakdown in the leadership command chain. For a government that tortures its own citizens, Tchiroma’s denial is not credible. In the wake of Anglophone protests against marginalization, images of Anglophone lawyers, teachers, students and activists being brutalized on the streets; and videos of systemic abuse and torture of Anglophone detainees by security forces, went viral on social media, advertising an imprudent display of lawlessness. This makes the excesses documented in the AI report, all the more credible! If gold can rust; what would iron do?
Be that as it may, a more sensible approach would have been for the government to acknowledge the AI report and set up a commission to investigate the allegations. The report of such an enquiry should be made public and those found to have compromised service integrity made to face the full wrath of the law. That is what is expected of any responsible government confronted with such grievous allegations. But that does not preclude the government from challenging the veracity and credibility of the report.
Instead of peddling destabilization rhetoric, the government should ask why the massacre of innocent civilians, mostly women and children in Boko Haram’s rampage don’t seem to merit AI’s attention. Is AI saying it is unaware of these Boko Haram atrocities? Also, how did AI obtain the figures presented in the report? Why didn’t AI interview government officials or the accused military officers? How did AI get into the war front to obtain the information? How authentic is the information? Who gave the evidence and under what circumstance? Why did AI not involve the military high command in the investigation? That AI zeroed in on the military but not one military personnel was interviewed to balance its report grossly impairs the document. But still, Tchiroma’s recourse to bellicosity was unnecessary.
It is worth-noting that the AI report on the Cameroonian military follows a series of indicting reports against the Nigerian military, which AI has also accused of torture and gross human rights abuses in their response to Boko Haram. AI’s seeming complicity with the murderous sect is spelt out in several reports on the Nigerian military. In a 2015 report, AI described Nigerian Army Generals in such emotive terms as men with “Stars on their shoulders and blood on the hands.” It alleged that since 2011, 700 young men and boys died in military detention and more than 1,200 have been killed unlawfully. In March 2015, AI wrote to the 28th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, alleging that Nigerian security forces had committed serious human rights violations and war crimes. AI’s Secretary General, Salil Shetty, outlined the roles and possible criminal responsibilities of those along the Nigerian military chain of command up to the Chief of Defence Staff.
In Nigeria, President Buhari welcome the AI report and promised to restore the rule of law and rebuild a professional Nigerian military in addition to defeating Boko Haram. In Cameroon, Tchiroma blew hot air. His intemperate language and condescending tone, reeking of self-righteous indignation, tragically shifted attention from the message to the messenger. This is understandable because when you put a man in high office far above the capacity of his intellect and the integrity of his character, you create a power-mongering monster who only knows how to abuse his position to aggrandize himself. A more proactive government would have sat down with AI and examine the intelligence and the evidence, to ascertain responsibility for the abuses and to hold those responsible accountable.
It is pertinent to state that reports such as this tend to present AI as an organization whose ombudsman mission of promoting and protecting human rights has been derailed into incendiary partisanship. In the past AI reports had unimpeachable integrity. Not anymore; instead of bold objectivity in the pursuit of its vision, lopsided views and hasty conclusions have become AI’s hallmark. In its core guiding principles, it is clearly stated that “AI neither supports nor condemns a government policy of using military force in fighting against armed opposition movements.
When an opposition group tortures or kills its captives, takes hostages, or commits deliberate and arbitrary killings, AI condemns these abuses.” Viewed from that point, Yaoundé has every reason to question why AI should condemn Cameroon for using military force to confront a vicious armed rebellion and terrorism. Certainly, AI, at its founding, did not foresee a situation where terrorists would take up arms to overthrow sovereign governments and foist a regime of brutality and inhumanity, hitherto unknown to recent civilization.
The founding principles of Amnesty International; namely, “human rights for all”, “better to light the candle than cause darkness”, “independence of any political ideology, economic interest or religion” and “exposing the facts whenever and wherever abuses happen” would seem to have lost salience in the face of AI’s silence over the killing of thousands of innocent people by Boko Haram. Such double standards are not befitting of an international umpire of justice in the world.
AI now has a credibility problem resulting from its inability to find a balance between the civil liberties of people and national security needs of sovereign independent nations as evidenced in its retreat from its guiding principles. AI should return to its raison d’etre and pursue its goals with objectivity in order to regain its credibility. Given Boko Haram’s well-documented atrocities, the AI report is an insult to Cameroon and an assault on humanity’s decency.
It is also not out of place to question why cases of human rights abuses by western governments against their citizens have curiously, not merited AI’s attention. In America, the violence and injustice inflicted on the basis of race have seen the black Americans come under the hammer of dehumanization or the worst human rights abuse possible.
That AI looks the other way from atrocities committed by the US and its allies in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, with innocent civilians, mostly women and children bearing the brunt of their violence, strengthens the argument of criminal international complicity and ambiguous ethics against it. AI must routinely seek to live by its credo that “only when the last prisoner of conscience has been freed, when the last torture chamber has been closed, when the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reality for the world’s people, will our work be done.” Until this is uniformly, evenly and fairly applied to all corners of the world, justice is not achieved and the work of AI would remain under a cloud of suspicion.
Yet, with his petulance, foul temperament and imprudent conduct, Tchiroma’s remarks did little credit to Cameroon’s battered international image and denigrated the sovereignty and humanity of the nation. In an obvious display of bias, AI chose to exhibit only human rights abuses as the modus operandi of Cameroon’s security forces. AI saw nothing wrong with the atrocious killing of innocent Cameroonians by Boko Haram. Rather AI condemns Cameroon’s defense of her territorial integrity by alleging security forces committed torture and war crimes.
This was a golden opportunity for the government to make the case to the international community that the war against Boko Haram is a peculiar one which AI ought to see as a battle not only to safeguard Cameroon’s territorial integrity but to save humanity from terror. But Tchiroma veered off the path of statesmanship into the quagmire of empty grandstanding and the primacy of the government’s response was obviated by his garrulous banter and flippancy. Even by his own loquacious standards for verbal diarrhea, Tchiroma was patronizing, pompous, callous and plainly supercilious; setting a new low, in what, unfortunately, has become the unedifying trademark of the sycophantic government spokesman. In the judgment of an average sense of public decorum, this should be most embarrassing to the President, on whose desk, the buck stops.
*Ekinneh Agbaw-Ebai is a Public Intellectual and graduate of Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he was Managing Editor of the Harvard Journal of African-American Public Policy. A former Research Analyst for Freedom House, he is a Consultant and lives in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.