Pope Urged to Engage Cameroon’s Biya on Democracy and Human Rights
By Ajong Mbapndah L
Although his visit to Cameroon in March is intended as a prelude to the historic meeting of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar at the Holy See in October 09, Pope Benedict XVI is been urged to talk human rights and democracy with the government of President Paul Biya. The Progressive Initiative for Cameroon (PICAM) a civil society organization with representation in both the USA and Cameroon is leading the call with a strongly worded letter to the pope and an online petition which is attracting a rapidly growing number of signatures.
PICAM sees in the Popes visit a moment of excitement not only for the approximately 3.5 million christians but the entire country which is honored by the presence of such an internationally significant figure. Although PICAM believes that there were mixed reactions when the visit was announced because of the atrocious record of the Cameroon government on issues of democracy and human rights, the presence of the Pope could turn out to be a blessing in disguise as it offers an opportunity for him to engage President Biya in power since 1982 on the need for reforms that will alleviate the sorry plight and misery of Cameroonians.
Cameroonians, PICAM notes face challenges of poverty, corruption, and a general threat to inherent human rights and freedoms that the Pope has stated are close to his heart. Cameroonians PICAM believes recognize that engaging these problems and eliminating the suffering there cause are central tenets of faith and the Pope the petition states, should seize the momentous occasion to publicly proclaim his concern for the appalling welfare of the people.
Describing the Pope’s stance against the terrible toll that conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and the D.R. Congo have had on their people and the need for political leaders to end conflicts and underlying injustice as noble, PICAM however reminds the Holy Father that such suffering is not only confined to places of conflict alone. Though the travails of Cameroonians do not yet match the immense tragedy seen in the aforementioned conflict zones, Cameroon the PICAM petition reads, is plagued by grave human suffering most of which is a direct result of government policies and actions. Citizens, PICAM laments in the petition, are routinely subjected to arbitrary arrest, torture and imprisonment for prolonged periods of detention in squalid decrepit conditions often resulting in death and disease.
Those who peacefully protest these problems in the community the Pope is told, run the risk of beatings ,detention, or death at the hands of the often brutal government security apparatus. Citing the examples of journalists, political leaders, human rights activists, students and even priests who have been murdered in the past, for daring to highlight the inequities present in Cameroon, PICAM pleads with the Pope to explicitly and unequivocally direct his concerns for ensuring the human dignity of Cameroonians to the political authorities.
Contrary to his believe that Christianity is a religion of freedom and peace which stand at the service of the true God of humanity, notice of Pope Benedict XVI is drawn to the fact that the people of Cameroon have all too often had their inherent rights violated by the government, its leaders, agents and security forces. This, the petition notes is done through violence, harassment, intimidation, stifling press freedom and free speech, censorship and using force as a threat to silence those who try to speak out against injustice in the country. Though a christian himself, President Biya, the petition alerts the Pope, has used the ruse of routinely manipulated elections to hang onto power and used a parliamentary majority obtained under questionable circumstances to push through constitutional changes that guarantee him prolonged indefinite rule. President Biya and his ruling party, PICAM charges in the petition hold chief responsibility for the economic stagnation, rampant corruption, stunted democratization process and the long trail of human rights abuses that have been the lot of Cameroonians for decades now. PICAM led by Eric Ngonji has emerged within a relatively short time as one of the leading civil society advocacy groups. Its latest initiative the Cameroon Human Rights and Democracy Monitor was launched recently with plans for a midterm report in June and the annual report scheduled to be published by the end of the year.
Coming on the heels of the petition to the Pope is a new report from Amnesty International which states that the government of Cameroon has routinely used killings and torture to repress political dissent.”Political opposition is not tolerated in Cameroon ” says Tawanda Hondora, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Africa. “Any dissent is suppressed, through either violence or abuse of the legal system to silence critics”. The report cites the example of February 08 when security forces killed as many as 100 civilians during demonstrations against escalating cost of living. Also of concern to the famed Human Rights body are the harassment of journalists and the near appalling prison conditions. Cameroon and Angola are the two countries that feature on the first visit of Pope Benedict XVI since his papacy started in 2005. His predecessor Pope John Paul II visited Cameroon twice in 1985 and in 1996. Africa is one of the fastest catholic Christian growing regions in the world.