By Ajong Mbapndah L
It will be hard to get a solution to the ongoing crisis in Cameroon without dialogue and repairing the historical injustices that Anglophones have suffered for decades, says famed Journalist Elie Smith. In an exclusive interview with PAV to discuss the political situation in Cameroon, Elie Smith says the use of force by the government and flagrant human right violations are pushing the people to embrace the radicalist wing of the Anglophone crisis advocating for independence.
The President is obliged to sue for dialogue as the situation continues to deteriorate at an alarming pace, said Elie Smith. He called out the double standards of the international community which has largely remained indifferent as the North West and South West regions are under siege. Elie Smith urged Journalists to step up reporting on the plight of over 500 Anglophones detained in various prison facilities across the country in the interview which also discusses the presidential ambitions of Joshua Osih and Akere Muna
Elie Smith thanks for accepting to share perspectives on Cameroon with us as things are on the ground, let’s start with the North West and the South West Regions, what is your reading of the situation there?
Elie Smith: The situation in the North West and South west regions of Cameroon is dire. There is great suffering and gross abuse of human rights first by the Cameroonian security forces and also from the various armed groups who are variably known as restorationists and secessionists depending on where one stands ideologically. My view is that, this is the second greatest existential threat to Cameroon in her present dispensation since 1966. This one is much more lethal in that, the protest is not longer verbal or through peaceful marches, it has been weaponised. It will eventually fizzle out but not extinct. The actors will go back and retool their strategy and will come back better organize if the central government doesn’t find lasting solutions to the underlying causes of the current crisis.
Has internet connection been restored in the North West and South West?
Elie Smith: No! Because intermittent supply can’t be pass for full restoration of internet. However, people already know how to circumvent the ban.
Since Communications Minister Tchiroma announced the presence of Sisiku Ayuk Tabe and others in Yaoundé, there have not made any appearance in court, what has the astute Journalist that Elie Smith heard about them, anyone you know who has had any form of communication with them?
Elie Smith: Some of them are here in Yaoundé, in Chief Sisiku Ayuk Tabe. All I know from my sources is that, they are hale and hearty.
From my understanding, the government is carrying out preliminary interrogation and the next stage is that, their lawyers will certainly have access to them soon, but how soon? That I can’t answer. What is important is for his support to keep mobilizing.
It appears in some urban areas, schools have been going on and in the rural areas nothing is going on, any explanations for this dynamic?
Elie Smith: The reason is simple since we have a government that works on Public Relations stunts; they put all in urban areas to show to the western governments who are sadly supporting them that all is well. However in the rural areas the government finds no interest and also because, contrary to what the government may want the world to understand or think, they are losing control in rural areas in West Cameroon and it doesn’t bode well for the future.
British Minister of State Harriett Baldwin was in Cameroon and met with a number of opinion leaders ,some of them well known to you, what were these discussions on and any prospects that anything positive may follow suit?
Elie Smith : The essence as I was told by Agbor Balla was to get the true reality on the ground in terms of human rights violations, and also to source from them ways and means to seek a lasting solution to the current crisis. Well, it is always good when one comes to listen to you. But, I don’t put any hopes in such because, western countries, especially Great Britain and even the United States have not thrown in their weight in compelling our government to seek a negotiated settlement to the current crisis as they have done in other countries. My conclusion is that, they don’t care about us and it is left on us to understand that, we don’t have any other place to go, hence we need to try to sort out things for ourselves. In this crisis, while we are all angry, we must speak the truth. We are all Cameroonians and one part of Cameroon, the people of west Cameroon has been hoodwinked and the historic wrong must be corrected. Britain and the United States or any other country can’t tell us something different.
As the situation continues to grow worse, what role do you see moderate leaders like Agbor Balla and Ayah Paul playing, especially with no one listening to their proposals from the government side?
Elie Smith: Moderates are the ones who end up winning and history is replete with what I have just said. Agbor Balla and Ayah Paul know the dynamics of things. Even if the government is not listening to them, they will end up buying to their positions and propositions. Agbor Balla and Ayah Paul are in my humble opinion the best things in this Anglophone revolution because they are not merchants of illusions. It might be a difficult pill to swallow, but all we can get, is a return to a two states federation which is the foundation of modern Cameroon, that has been abused with impunity by the majority Francophone led government in Yaoundé. The package product of independence marketed by some is a wishful thinking. Why? The geostrategic dynamics of the region is not in our favour today just as it wasn’t in 1961. No major country in the world is supporting the restorationists’ movement. West Cameroon is not in the position of Western Sahara, which is supported by Algeria and other African states. Nigeria, which would have been a natural ally, has absconded. But, make no mistake, what west Cameroonian is clamoring for is just. The only luck which can smile on west Cameroonians and make the dreams of those who want independence to actualize is for a civil war to break out in Cameroon and in that case, West Cameroon will behave like Somaliland and refuse to fight and allow Francophone Cameroon to fight their war. The rallying cry of going to Buea is feasible in that, in a return to two states federation, west Cameroon’s national assembly in Buea will be reactivated, they will have control over their education, judicial system, health and internal affairs while defense and monetary issues goes or remains to the central government or federal government in Yaoundé.
You recently interviewed Mancho Bibixy, in what shape was he when you met him, and generally speaking, how is legal representation for those detained? There was a complain since other high profile detainees like Balla and Fontem were release, there has been a sharp decline in Lawyers defending some of those who are still jail, your take.
Elie Smith: I met them at the Yaoundé military tribunal. As you may know, the day of their trial, they are brought in from 9 am and they spend the whole day there before the trial starts and it is immediately adjourned. Along with others that I also spoke with such as Terrance Penn Khan, I saw a man with a moral of steel. But detention is not an easy affaire and no matter how they brave it all, their unjust detention is having an effect on them and their families. Yes, there was this complain that since the high profile detainees were released, there was a kind of lull from lawyers. I don’t think so, because Agbor Balla and others are there regularly on trial and none trial days. What has ceased or reduced is the media attention that used to exist.
It is therefore an opportunity that you are offering me to call on all press men and women not forget that, there are about 149 Anglophones detained at the Kondengui Maximum security prisons, and about 300 at the Bafia prison in the south west, and similar figures at the Buea prison.
With things rapidly spiraling out of control, the government strategy seems to be the argument of force, with the limits this is showing, how far do you think they can go?
Elie Smith: The government is making a big mistake in thinking that, the use of force is going to solve the problem. It is instead going to drive many people into the waiting arms of those they are referring to as extremists. Already, the increase militarization of the zone has also recorded and increase in abuses perpetuated by Cameroonian security forces, some of them trained by the United States Navy Seals, and Joint Special Operations Forces from Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It is a shame for a world power such as the United States that preaches respect for human rights and democracy to look the other way while forces that she is training and arming are committing human rights abuses in Anglophone Cameroon to go unpunished. I know that, they will hide behind the fact that, the responsibility is that of the Cameroonian government but they are contributing by default in what is going on in west Cameroon in term of abuses. The government of Cameroon must know that, only dialogue will solve the current crisis and more, no country no matter how powerful have been able to win a war against a people who are not supporting them. Currently, Yaoundé has lost the heart and minds of the people of west Cameroon because of the monumental abuses that its forces are committing on the ground, and they go unpunished.
You have the opportunity of interacting with everyday Francophones, what is their thinking on all that is going on, do you think they now have a better understanding of the frustrations of the people of the South West and North West regions?
Elie Smith: Francophones know what is going on and they are sympathetic to the cause of the Anglophones. They know that, what is going on or the cause is first and foremost a problem of gross bad governance. However, the only fears of most Francophones are threats of partition of the country. But they are supporting the resistance put up by Anglophones.
What do you make of the way the media has covered the crisis so far, especially the French speaking press?
Elie Smith: The problem of Cameroon, especially the French language media is that of ownership and control. Most proprietors of media houses in Cameroon are either members of the ruling Cameroon’s People Democratic Movement, CPDM or are sponsored by the regime. The second problem is that of operational license . If am not wrong only two of the existing privately owned electronic broadcasters: Spectrum Television and Canal 2 International have fully paid their license fees to the government while the rest have partly paid or have not paid altogether. As for the print media, the problem is more acute. Most journalists working for major privately owned print media companies go for months or even years without pay. How then do you expect them to report accurately when they have the sledge hammer of an oppressive state hanging over their heads? Having said that, they are nonetheless some Francophone press and journalists who have been honest and report accurately on what is happening in West Cameroon. It will be unfair to lump them in one bag and tag them as enemies of the Anglophones.
In this kind of atmosphere, how does the government hope to hold elections?
Elie Smith: Well, I don’t know how the government plans to hold elections. But I also think some sinister government strategists like the current situation. And as the saying goes: one man’s meat is another’s poison. People are feeding fat on this crisis and sadly not only on the part of the government.
Joshua Osih has been elected as flag bearer of the SDF and John Fru Ndi is not standing for the 2018 presidential election, what are your views on these developments?
Elie Smith: My views are simple, we might like the SDF and its chairman or not, they have once again demonstrated that, they are the pacesetter in terms of democracy in Cameroon. I had always wanted John Fru Ndi not to stand because, it would have been one candidature too many. He has now given the baton to a new generation which is an excellent development. However he is going to remain as the chairman of the party which means that, gradually he is handing over to a new generation which is at the image of the country. As for Joshua Ossih is perhaps the best candidate of the opposition since 1992. He is young. Remember he is 49 and he has politically experience and he appeals to the majority French-speaking Cameroonian and also to young upward mobile and realistic Anglophones. Now I think Joshua has to do is to unite the party behind him. But he must not forget that, one person can scuttle everything or restore the lost credibility of the SDF in her base in Anglophone Cameroon. This person is Joseph Wirba, MP. If I were Osih I will stretch an olive branch to the SDF MP for Jakiri Special constituency, for he holds the key to the future of the SDF in Anglophone Cameroon. He expresses or is an embodiment of the feeling of the majority in west Cameroon. It is now left to be seen whether Joshua Osih will act as the biblical Joshua, that is take his party to the promise land. That depends on endogenous and exogenous forces that he doesn’t control.
Besides Joshua Ossih, the other Anglophone presidential candidate so far is Akere Muna. What is your take on him?
Elie Smith: Contrary to what some people might think, Akere Muna has his chances, and handicaps. As for the first, he could benefit from a global trend noticed in countries such as the United States, Philippines, Hungary and Turkey. In these countries, they have leaders or have opted for changes simply because people are fed up with traditional or professional politicians. So Muna may be basking in that euphoria. He was before Joshua made his entry into the scene as flag bearer of the SDF, the darling of the chattering class in Francophone Cameroon who are worried that, the poor governance of Paul Biya coupled with the catastrophic management of the current crisis in Anglophone Cameroon could lead to the partition of the country along colonially inherited lines. But now, that Francophone base will be divided between him and the candidate of the largest intra and extra parliamentary opposition. Muna has African, and global connections. On the negative sides, Muna is viewed as too close to Paul Biya and also very elitist. He also has a heritage from his father that he needs to clarify. He doesn’t need to disown his father, but must make Anglophone Cameroonians look at him differently from his father who is considered as the one who betrayed Anglophones. My take is that, both candidates have their chances but Joshua has an edge because he has a base whereas Muna as of now, no one knows his base and his programme is still sketchy.
A few weeks back, word was going round that French troops were seen in Cameroon, have you been able to verify this and what would their mission be?
Elie Smith: Pure lies. French troops were not in Cameroon. If they were, they were perhaps on transit for a neighboring country.
How can one understand the general indifference that the international community seems to show on the situation in Cameroon?
Elie Smith: Sadly, we don’t count. And more, the international community has a full hand. In Africa alone, you have the DRC, with more 20 thousand UN forces and there is no end in sight to the atrocities taking place there and some of them caused by the Kabila’s refusal to respect the constitution of his country. There are the cases of Mali, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Central Africa Republic Somalia and Congo Brazzaville. You have low intensity crisis in Nigeria or Western Sahara. Beyond Africa, you have the crisis in Yemen, albeit caused by Saudi Arabia, Syria and Burma. So, I can understand why, ours is of little interest to the world, especially that, Yaoundé has the support of Washington DC, Paris and Brussels.
From your perspective Elie, how does this end? Where do you see solutions coming from, and from whom ,since the Head of State people seem to be looking up to has remained tone deaf?
Elie Smith: In my humble opinion, the Anglophone crisis is cyclical. It comes up every 20 years or more and which shows that there is a fundamental problem of discontent transmitted from generation to generation in west Cameroon and it also shows the stupidity, ignorance and arrogance of Yaoundé. It also shows that, for all the propaganda, the country remains divided along colonially inherited lines and it is not going to end soon, especially with the incidences of September 22nd and October 1st 2017 and the current war. It has driven a wedge among the people of West and East Cameroon to a level never reached before. The crisis will die down at some point, but as I said before, the organizers will transfer the baton to a much more sophisticated group and the sad reality is that, having said all what I had at the beginning, the country is going to fall apart if Yaoundé doesn’t have the courage to go back to the basics or foundation of the country. But, I know, the head of state will at the end come to the negotiating table, but I am afraid on a weaker footing than what his strategists may be advising him. The more the crisis prolongs, the moderates are losing grounds to the restorationists. So, strange as would appear, the head of state might end up negotiating with Ayuk Tabe one day or after October presidential election.
And we end with a question on your own career, where your views became uncomfortable for the TV station Canal 2; can you shed light again on how you were forced out and what your next moves are?
Elie Smith: I decided to resign from Canal 2 International because; the situation became untenable for me. I don’t like lies. The last straw took place on the 29th of August 2017, the owner of Canal international, the parent company of Canal 2 English, invited us in Akwa, in the presence of the management staff and told us that, he had been kidnapped from Douala to Yaoundé because of myself and Moses Ejanwie aka Senator Cletus. And wanted us to go and apologize to the minister of Justice Laurent Esso and Prime Minister Philemon Yang, in particular Laurent Esso. Their problem he told us was that, I was very out spoken on the Anglophone crisis. Their problem was that, they never wanted me to talk about the casualties and they also wanted us to lie and label Anglophones wrong names. There are many other things, but in a nutshell that was what made me to leave. But I am proud of what I have done for I know that, in journalism, when it bleeds it must lead. Covering Anglophone Cameroon honestly is something I have always craved because I know that most of the stories like the school burnings were in most cases not carried out by those the government wanted the world to believe. Exposing the abuses carried out by Cameroonian security forces and their propensity to steal was my greatest satisfaction.
Thanks so much for answering our questions
Elie Smith: I am humbled by the opportunity that you have given me to give my perspectives on the current situation in Cameroon.