By Chiazam Onyenso
Political strife continues to brew as a result of the ongoing separatist revolt in Cameroon. The unrest between the Anglophone and Francophone communities, inflamed by the 35-year sitting President Paul Biya, stretches beyond the country’s borders. Along the western border with neighboring Nigeria, the pro-independence movement of English-speaking Cameroonians agitating.
Cameroon’s lengthy history of Francophone and Anglophone dissonance was re-awakened with the 2016 protests for Anglophone autonomy in response to the pervasive francophone dominated institutions within the country. As a remnant of British colonization, the mainly Anglophone south and north-west Cameroon region has endured reoccurring conflict between armed police and militant separatists. The ongoing violence caused more than 15,000 refugees to flee Cameroon into neighboring. Recently, of the many who fled Cameroon, 51 asylum seekers were subjected to deportation by the Federal Government of Nigeria, reneging on the promise naturalization, an important responsibility as an asylum state.
Determinations of whether these refugees engaged in “rebellious” activity in Cameroon potentially premise arguments for their deportation or in another perspective, their “extradition.” A leader of the separatist movement, Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, was identified amongst refugees residing in Bashu- Okbampe Village in the Cross River state, along with a number of his followers. Tabe is known for his movement against the economic and social disparities in Cameroon and symbolically advocated for an Anglophone state separate from Cameroon proper, widely understood to be suffocated by a French majority.
The pursuit of Anglophone autonomy or a sovereign state, independent from Cameroon, (separatists call “Ambazonia”) has a long history. President Biya, in particular, has notably used brazen displays of force to silence even the mildest traces of dissent. Despite the fact Anglophone community makes up no more than a fifth of the entire population, the President has found a useful scapegoat in those in favor of secession and who actively voice a separatist position, these people being easily vilified.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 47 of the extradited filed claims as asylum seekers. Deportation in spite of these claims directly undercut a fundamental principle of “non-refoulement” encapsulated in the 1951 Convention concerning the status of refugees. The convention defines the term “refugee” and clarifies his or her rights and duties along with the obligations of the cooperating state responsible for protecting these individuals. In this way, universal coverage is applied to all refugees without the ability to return to their country of origin for fear of persecution due to race, religion, social group membership or political stance. Moreover, consistent with the principle of non-refoulment, a refugee cannot be returned to that place in which they fear their life or freedom is threatened.
Cameroon has identified the refugees in question as “terrorists” who are to be tried for their crimes. This legal maneuver applies pressure for Nigeria to uphold a degree of “tribunality” or a sense that those who have committed aggressions elsewhere be held accountable, even in their state of asylum. Cameron’s position argues against any sort of international immunity, despite the disagreeing evaluations of the legitimacy of the protests by both domestic and international onlookers. Are these persons fugitives evading the law? Or are they refugees, in flight, in fear of the persecution that has reportedly taken place in Cameroon against advocates of secession?
Nigeria’s pledge to support Cameroon amidst its separatist crisis, undermines the international norm of “non-refoulement”. This becomes clear in light of the known actions President Biya has employed against opposition groups in the past. Nigeria, if it stays its course, can be seen as contributing to the likely mistreatment awaiting the deportees, unfair trial absent of due process along with the harsh prosecutions of Cameroon’s military courts. The decision to extradite these refugees says more of the far too frequent support for volatile dictatorships amongst neighboring countries than the unrelenting protection of those that claim to flee from persecution.
Chiazam Onyenso is an appointed Associate Editor for the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations. She recently completed an M.A. in Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, where specialized in in International Organizations, Global Negotiation and Conflict Management and also acquired a certificate in Post-Conflict State Reconstruction and Sustainability.