Fanning the flames: Hate speech and elections in Cameroon
The last few years have seen a worrying rise in hate speech in Cameroon, against a backdrop of growing racial discrimination, racial hatred and violence. Following the recent announcement of regional elections in December 2020, there is an urgent need for action to prevent the linking of politics with identity-based hate against linguistic, tribal and geo-ethnic groups that exist in Cameroon. Preventative action must be taken to stop the situation escalating.
Hate speech usually increases around elections, as divisions in the electorate are fomented for political gain. This was seen in the lead up and aftermath of the 2018 elections in Cameroon, where there was a flare-up of hate speech, both online and in public debate. It has been noted, too, that the 2018 elections specifically saw ethnicity being agitated in the Cameroonian political discourse and emerging as a deepening fault line. Cameroon is one of Africa’s most diverse countries. Underlying the country’s broad Anglophone – Francophone divide, there are over 250 ethnic groups, producing a complex patchwork of affiliations and group identities. The term 'geo-ethnicity' has been used in the Cameroonian context; an ethnic Anglophone, for example, is a person whose ethnic roots are in the former British Southern Cameroons, as opposed to a linguistic Anglophone, meaning an ethnic Francophone Cameroonian who through education or socialization speaks English. Against this backdrop, hate speech against particular linguistic and ethnic groups (commonly interlinking) has often been deliberately employed for political ends. One of the primary targets of hate speech in Cameroon has been the Bamileke ethnic group, who have traditionally been political allies of the (Anglophone) opposition against President Biya. The fact that Maurice Kamto -- Cameroon’s main opposition leader -- is a Bamileke means that what may be initially perceived as political hate speech towards him and his party in fact has a strong ethnic dimension, with serious implications for the Bamileke community as a whole. In the lead up to the 2018 elections, hate speech perpetrated by supporters of Biya targeted Kamto and his supporters using racist language that explicitly referred to his ethnicity as a Bamileke. Derogatory use of the term ‘Bamileke’ during the elections drew on racist stereotypes that have long been peddled in government-controlled media, reinforcing a long-term pattern of discrimination against this particular ethnic group.
Anglophone Cameroonians, who predominantly reside in the north-west and south-west regions, have suffered a long history of political, economic and socio-cultural marginalisation, stemming from the legacy of European colonial rule. While initially ruled as a single German protectorate, in 1922 the League of Nations divided the territory known as Kamerun into two separate mandates – French-ruled Cameroun and British Northern Cameroons and Southern Cameroons. As the French-ruled territory subsequently became more economically developed than its British counterpart, disparities arose that were not addressed when the two reunited into a single independent state in 1961.
Since then, Cameroonians from the Francophone regions have dominated political power and routinely used violence to suppress Anglophone opposition, contributing to growing animosity. In 1990, six young Anglophones were shot dead by government forces at the inaugural meeting of the first Anglophone opposition party, the Social Democratic Front, while growing calls for Anglophone self-determination were met with violent crackdowns throughout the 1990s. More recently, peaceful protests in 2016 by teachers, lawyers, students and activists in the Anglophone regions demanding recognition of their rights were met with arbitrary arrests, crackdowns on civil society and a 93-day internet blackout. Militant secessionist groups subsequently declared an autonomous Anglophone state – Ambazonia – in the region, leading to a full-blown escalation of tensions that has seen Anglophone activists routinely being labelled as ‘terrorists’ in mainstream political discourse.
Public figures close to the regime have used the secessionist conflict as a pretext to target the Anglophone opposition at large. In September 2017, the prominent TV journalist Ernest Obama publicly encouraged the government to take violent measures against Anglophone protestors, declaring that ‘if you are considered a terrorist, you should be killed’. On the same day, Bernard Okalia Bilai, the Francophone governor of Cameroon’s southwest region, referred to Anglophone protesters as ‘dogs’ and incited violence against them in a public radio statement, using language with alarming genocidal undertones. Neither Obama nor Bilai faced charges for their incitements, emboldening others to amplify this violent rhetoric. In January 2018, Jean-Jacques Ze, another prominent pro-regime journalist, referred to the arrest of an Anglophone magistrate as part of the ‘de-ratisation’ of the Anglophone regions – a phrase likened to dehumanising statements made about the Tutsi in the lead-up to the Rwandan genocide.
With the advent of social media, the dissemination of hate speech has never been easier. Ze’s comments were circulated widely on social media and WhatsApp, with ‘de-ratisation’ quickly entering the general lexicon as a term for Anglophone protesters, pro-independence actors, and sometimes even Anglophones in general. What’s more, the normalisation of hate speech online has had a significant influence on offline reactions and violence towards this group. The violent targeting of Anglophone Cameroonians living in Yaounde in late 2017, for example, was linked directly to Ernest Obama’s incitement to violence, which went viral on social media. Similarly, protests sparked by Bilai’s public statement resulted in the killing of several Anglophone demonstrators by state security forces.
The normalisation of dehumanising language has also played a part in the wider violence engulfing the Anglophone regions since 2017. Described as ‘human rights catastrophe’ by human rights groups, civilians have been targeted as part of a deliberate and ethnically motivated campaign by the military. Evidence has emerged of numerous atrocities committed by government security forces. In this shocking video shared by the BBC, for example, a man calmly sets fire to a house, watched by a group of men wearing uniform consistent with that worn by an elite army unit, highlighting the destruction wrought on those caught in the crossfire of this violent conflict. More than 200 villages have been partly or completely destroyed and around half a million people have been displaced, constituting around 10% of the region’s population. While non-state actors bear much responsibility for the violence, the rhetorical onslaught against Anglophone ‘terrorists’ has enabled the government to frame the crisis as a series of reciprocal attacks and minimise the seriousness of attacks on civilians, shielding serious human rights violations committed by its own security forces.
With the upcoming elections announced at a time when this crisis shows timid sign of resolution and the country faces the additional challenges of Islamist extremism and Covid-19, there is a clear need to counter the escalation of hate speech. 2020 has already seen a multitude of fake news and hate speech being shared online, often along ethnic or tribal lines.
Following the recent announcement of elections, Daniel Claude, a pro-Biya public figure, posted threatening insults against Maurice Kamto on Facebook, calling him a ‘Frog from Baham’, and challenging to meet him at a planned peaceful demonstration in the central square. The same evening, a graphic video clip of a man beating dogs with a stick was widely circulated via WhatsApp, with the dogs bearing the names of prominent members of Kamto’s opposition party. Weeks later, as threatened, the peaceful opposition-led protest was violently put down, with numerous reported beatings and more than 500 people arrested. Kamto was placed under de facto house arrest the night before the demonstration, offering a fresh reminder that hate speech should be taken seriously.
While the Cameroonian government recently enacted a law criminalising ‘contempt of tribe of ethnicity’, it has only paid lip service to the fight against hate speech, allowing patterns of racial hatred to escalate without consequence for the perpetrators. In 2019, the government's own Deputy Justice Minister, Jean de Dieu Momo, in a prime time interview called the Jewish people “arrogant” and implied that they brought the Holocaust on themselves, before warning arrested opposition leader Maurice Kamto that he was leading the Bamileke people to a fate similar to that of Jews murdered in World War II. Mr Momo said: “In Germany, there was a community that was wealthy and wielded all economic power, it was the Jews. They were so arrogant that Germans felt frustrated. Then, one day, a certain Hitler came to power and put them in the gas chambers. Educated people like Mr Kamto need to know where they are leading their people."
Incitement to genocide is often cloaked in metaphor – this statement, however, overtly threatens a genocide of the Bamileke community. To this day, Momo has not been sanctioned by the government and has remained in his government post, showing a clear lack of resolve to tackle hate speech, propaganda and incitement on the part of the Cameroonian government
In 2019, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect warned that the situation in Cameroon was reaching a critical threshold, declaring an ‘imminent risk’ of mass atrocity crimes if effective action was not taken. It has since reported that such fears have already materialised in the Anglophone regions, while the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has recently deplored human rights abuses committed against civilians in these areas. Hate speech is a critical marker of discriminatory or genocidal intent. It also acts as an enabler, a trigger for abuse of power and violence committed by private citizens. Urgent diplomatic pressure is needed in the run up to these these elections. World leaders need to speak out - the window for preventing further mass atrocities is closing.
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