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'No dictatorship considers protests legal'

Eddy Micah
September 22, 2020

Cameroonian authorities are cracking down on opposition members amid a planned protest against President Paul Biya. Opposition politician Maurice Kamto speaks exclusively to DW about his desire for a peaceful change.

Cameroon opposition politician Maurice Kamto
Image: DW/E. Topona

Maurice Kamto, one of Cameroon's outspoken opposition politicians, and leader of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement has been urging supporters to come out for peaceful protests. The fierce government critic is demanding that long-serving President Paul Biya step down and allow for electoral reforms. In an exclusive interview with DW, Kamto talks about the protest and his vision for the troubled central African nation.

DW: What do you want to achieve with this protest?

Maurice Kamto: There are two main points. The first one is to immediately stop the bloodshed in the Northwest and Southwest through a ceasefire. You can achieve a ceasefire by two different means. Either the armed forces of the state, the Cameroonian army, will have contact with the armed group on the field and conclude a ceasefire. Or they can unilaterally declare a ceasefire to see if the armed groups are going to observe the ceasefire or not.

Anglophone Cameroonians protesting
The Cameroon Anglophone crisis which began as peaceful protests is now in its fourth yearImage: Getty Images/AFP

I think it is the best way to do it quickly. If they don't want to appear as weak, because they are trying to negotiate with the armed groups, they can just say for the coming two weeks, we'll bring back our military in the barracks, and we'll see how the armed groups will behave. This for us and me, the best way to achieve a quick ceasefire and stop the bloodshed and that nonsense war in the Northwest and Southwest of Cameroon.

Read more: Nobel Prize laureates call for Cameroon ceasefire

The second point is the consensual reform of the electoral system because we have been implementing the current electoral code since 2012 and we have achieved the same results, meaning the contest of the results of the elections. That's why we didn't go for the February 2020 elections because the same course will produce exactly the same results. Unless you change the electoral code, we will have the same results every time you organize elections in Cameroon.

You talk about stopping the bloodshed. Authorities say the protest is illegal and that security forces will "take every necessary step to strongly maintain law and order." Are you not putting your supporters at risk here?

Have you ever seen a dictatorship consider a demonstration as legal? What law have we violated? The constitution of Cameroon is quite clear on the matter. Freedom of assembly, speeches, and demonstrations according to the law. It means that you implement it according to the law, not that the law or administrative authority can ban freedom established by the constitution. At the end of the enumeration, the very same constitution says that the state guarantees the enjoyment of these laws to every and each Cameroonian citizen. So there is no violation of any law.

Embedded in Cameroon's conflict

When you talk of putting people at risk, is it the mission of an army or government to shoot at people who want to demonstrate peacefully? We think that the only way for us to express our disagreement, our bitterness, our frustration to this government is to demonstrate peacefully. Since we cannot do it through a free and fair election: We are not going in the street to play. We are not going there because we are happy to go there. It's just because it is the only means we have now. It is a peaceful demonstration. I would like to underscore that.

Read more: Cameroon elections: Polls overshadowed by boycott, separatist violence

Many people believe that you are trying to destabilize the country. What do you say to that?

My answer is the same: How can I destabilize the country with no arms or ammunition. Are we armed? No. How can we destabilize the country? It is for them — according to the laws of this country and according to the laws of every freedom-loving country, to accompany, to assist, and to make sure that the demonstration will go on smoothly and peacefully. There is nothing wrong with that. You have protests all over the world every day, every single day, and you do not have a peaceful charge of insurrection and hostility to the country, the nation, or rebellion or whatsoever. It is part of our legal system, and it is part of the commitment of the government of Cameroon at the international level. You have that in the 1966 Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.

People are wondering, why now? They don't believe this is the right time to protest against the government, especially when there's an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. How are you going to deal with people protecting themselves doing this?

Why now? Is there any proper time for a demonstration?

 Maybe not during a pandemic.

But will Cameroon be the only country where people are demonstrating in the midst of COVID-19? That's a joke. The very same government authorized demonstration in front of the US Embassy. It was three weeks ago. Was the pandemic over? Do we even know when the pandemic will be over?

But in your case, what then are you doing? Because, I mean, COVID-19 is real, what are you doing to protect your people from spreading COVID-19?

We drafted a code for the demonstrators, that everyone should come out with a mask. To make sure that they respect the social distancing, to protect themselves and others. It is one of the key points in our draft code for people who will demonstrate.

What are your expectations as far as Cameroon's future is concerned?

I've been asking for a peaceful change for Cameron, and I stand by that. I want peaceful change. If we could stop the war in Northwest to allow people from that side of Cameroon to take part in any elections in our country. Reform the electoral code consensually, so that at the end of the day, the person who is elected by the Cameroonians in the polling stations is the one who is proclaimed the winner, we will have a peaceful change in Cameroon.

Cameroon's President Paul Biya at a voting booth
Cameroon's President Paul Biya has been in power since 1982Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/S. Alamba

That's our plea. We have been fighting for that, and we have no other agenda than a peaceful change in Cameroon. And I beg this government and whoever at the international level to understand that we are not here to destroy our own country. That's why I asked for a peaceful demonstration. I don't want any violence because we don't want to destroy our country before rebuilding it. Peaceful demonstration if that can lead to a peaceful change, then I would be more than happy.

Read more: Cameroon's escalating Anglophone crisis shows little sign of abating

What makes you believe you're the right person to lead Cameroon?

It is for Cameroonian to decide. I can pretend, and Cameroonians say, "no," they can choose another person. I don't disagree with that. Even before the 2018 elections, I clearly stated that if the incumbent president were freely elected by Cameroonians to continue as president of this country, I would respect the choice. So please, don't ask me why I think I can lead Cameroon. I think I've offered my availability to my compatriots. It's up to them to say; you are not the one. We don't think you can make it. But if they say I can make it, let everyone respect that choice.