An Open Letter to Amnesty International
RE: “A TURN FOR THE WORSE”
The Ambazonian struggle has for many years relied on the rigorous reporting and action of Amnesty International, widely recognized as the foremost guardian of human rights guardian worldwide. Yet, the Ambazonia Prisoners of Conscience Support Network and its undersigned allies are deeply troubled by the contents of the recently released Amnesty International report “A TURN FOR THE WORSE: VIOLENCE AND HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS IN ANGLOPHONE CAMEROON,” as well as comments made and actions taken by its spokesperson, Illaria Allegrozzi. We are writing this letter to delineate these concerns, and the historical-political context of neocolonial patterns within which they are relevant. In doing this we hope to create a context for sincere dialogue with committed Amnesty staff and supporters on these matters.
This statement describes three concerns — Silence on War Crimes, False Equivalency, and the Maligning of Freedom Fighters — and describes how these problematic narratives are part of a pattern of distortion. For detailed parsing of the biases and inconsistencies in Amnesty’s report, please see the attached annotated report, as well as the article “Amnesty International Reports on the “Lion versus Deer” Fight in the Cameroons” by Ntumfoyn Boh Herbert (Yindo Toh) .
Silence on War Crimes
In the months leading up to the release of this report, the Cameroon military has engaged in targeted killings and village burnings, which are both war crimes by the Rome Statute. The Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) in Cameroon published a report on these offenses, and the United States Ambassador to Cameroon, Mr. Peter Henry Barlerin, called these crimes by their names in a statement on May 18, 2018. Amnesty’s report, released two full weeks after Barlerin’s statement, declines to use this language, and systematically under-reports and distorts the actions in question.
The significance of these omissions is that they shield dictator Paul Biya from accountability for his actions and therefore undermine the deterrence function that these laws are intended to serve. The very essence of the International Criminal Court system is that by naming that behavior clearly and prosecuting it whenever evidence for it exists, we effectively dissuade those with power to take such heinous actions. Correlatively, when we decline to name these crimes as such, we create political cover for those with power to behave in this way and an international context that will lead to an increase in the use of these tactics. Defenders of the dignity of African people have actively used the ICC to obtain justice with reference to the horrors enacted by dictators, such as Charles Taylor of Liberia for example. These victories were won in the context of the long arc of struggle to reverse the culture of impunity that the excessive violence of colonialism and the slave trade seeded within Africa and worldwide. As we continue forward on this arc toward justice, Paul Biya will be tried for his war crimes against the people of Ambazonia — and any presentation that shields him from this reality is functionally neo-colonialist propaganda.
As Ms. Allegrozzi has made overwhelmingly clear in her multiple press appearances since the report’s release, Amnesty’s report tries to provide a “balanced” portrayal of the “conflict” between the French neo-colonial regime in Cameroon and the resistance movement in Ambazonia. This frame by itself indicates the level at which the report is driven from the outset by willful, apoliticizing confusion. We all know that there is no “balance” in such a situation of militarized state violence against a mostly defenseless population. The absurdity and sellout nature of this stance should be entirely clear to anyone with any awareness of politics. When Trump tried to say that there was “violence on both sides” in Charlottesville, VA, a broad-based chorus of press and humanitarian voices unilaterally rejected this narrative wholesale, and correctly so. So we must unilaterally reject this false equivalency between Ambazonia and Cameroon that this report is peddling. There is no equivalency between the longest running dictatorship in the world, propped up by the highly organized military and financial weight of the French neo-colonial apparatus, and the piece of land and its people that this monster annexed militarily without due process and in violation of UN procedure at the eve of its promised independence. Paul Biya was placed as the president of Cameroon by the French colonialists after he marched in the streets of Paris against independence for his native Cameroon. His regime does not even print its own money; the Central African Franc is just what it sounds like, a Paris-controlled mechanism for economic control. By his own words, Biya is an unapologetic puppet of neo-colonialism — he himself declared as such to the local press in La Baule, France, in June 20, 1990: “I think I cannot disagree with the opinion of President Mitterand that I am the best student of France.”
Within this context, Ambazonia is a holdout against Biya and his backers obtaining unfettered access to the natural resources of the West African region. No presentation of Ambazonia that does not hold that historical and political economic context front and center is worth a cent.
Maligning of Freedom Fighters
Perhaps the most dangerous error in the report is the ways that it demonizes the movement for human rights in Ambazonia. The organized resistance to Cameroon’s illegal occupation of Ambazonia is one of the longest enduring and most cohesive grassroots movement in this history of African resistance, and until a year ago has been entirely nonviolent. Repeated waves of resistance have risen from the ranks of students and teachers who have born the brunt of Cameroon’s efforts to dismantle all autonomous infrastructure in Ambazonia, most notably the effective and popular network of parent-teacher associations which has given Ambazonians a real voice in the structuring of the education system for decades. The recent uprising begin in 2016 when Cameroon set about to dismantle the Ambazonian common law system, which has functioned as a last line of defense for the dignity of the Ambazonian people. Legal workers took to the streets in protest, students and teachers responded in solidarity, and a general strike ensued. This action captured the hearts and minds of Ambazonians in the territory and the diaspora, as well as allies internationally, at an unprecedented level — and it was at this point that the French neo-colonial regime in Cameroon brought out militarized helicopters to shoot at unarmed protests, and began hunting down and assassinating organizers in cold blood. At this point and not a moment before was the first time that some members of the Amazonian resistance community began to take up arms in self-defense.
But to characterize this situation, Amnesty repeatedly refers to the armed resistance movement as “extremists” and “armed separatists,” erasing the self-defense motive and eliminating the decades of historical context necessary to understand why such actions have taken place. “Separatists” is not a term that most members of the Ambazonian resistance movement claim, as we assert that the demands for autonomy we are making are in keeping with the UN plebiscite that was held in 1961 and which Biya’s regime violated when it subsequently assassinated the Ambazonian prime minister Ngom Jua, invaded the territory and dismantled our police force. The French neo-colonial regime in Cameroon insists on imposing the term “separatists” onto the situation because it suits its assertion that it is the rightful government of a “united Cameroon.”
Having erased the context and used the oppressor’s name to describe the freedom fighters, the report spends shamefully disproportionate amount of time addressing a relatively small number of violent standoffs that have taken place between resistance fighters and those who chose to cross the picket line during the general strike. The methodology page of the report clarifies that every one of 150 research interviews conducted in preparation for the report was conducted with the purpose of documenting these alleged abuses of the armed factions of the movement. According to their own word, Amnesty spent no research energy or funds substantiating the extensive allegations of sharply escalating violence on the part of the military.
Worse, the report narrates the entire situation as “a turn for the worse” at a time when the movement for the rights and dignity of Ambazonians has never been more robust. As anyone who has any familiarity with the history of struggle, knows violence against scabs and collaborators is a common occurrence when organizing is escalating. The existence of this violence should not be used as a lens through which to view the entire movement. This is the opposite of what is helpful. What is needed in moments like these is to focus more rigorously on the complaints that the organizers are making, because these complaints point to the source of the violence. In this case, the complaint is the illegitimate military occupation of Ambazonia by the French neo-colonial dictatorship in Cameroon, coupled with the systematic evisceration of Ambazonian civil society organs.
A Pattern of Distortion
This pattern of distortion that Amnesty is engaged in is entirely too familiar in African history, and it has real consequences. To take just one example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1980s a robust pro-democracy movement emerged under the leadership of Étienne Tshisekedi which introduced the tactic of general strike to African organizing. The Congolese government used extreme violence to suppress that movement, and as a result it split up into several groups with different ideas about how to respond to this violence. Some groups took up arms, and from that moment forward, the narrative of “African groups fighting amongst themselves” became the dominant narrative. Western NGOs focused their energy on this so-called problem of “senseless violence on both sides”, and they appealed to the international donor community for money to help these “poor victims caught in the middle,” and no one paid attention any more to the pro-democracy movement. There are many other examples of this. To identify this tendency is not to downplay the very real violation of the crimes that were committed against innocents. But these relatively small number of crimes do not justify the weaving of the narrative of equivalency — which in and of itself is the worst violence.
Yet there is a story of an alternative path. When the ANC’s struggle against the Apartheid government in South Africa escalated and some elements of that community chose to take up arms, others — including Nelson Mandela — defended the legitimacy of this action. Faced with this, Amnesty stood aside on the moral questions at hand, allowing those in the fray to wrestle with these questions, and instead focused their energy on sustaining their support for Mandala and for the fundamental legitimacy of the movement against Apartheid. Their decision to do this was surely one of the causal factors that empowered the success of this movement.
We realize the situation in Ambazonia is less known than the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. This is largely due to the language gap which cuts most English speakers out of the discussions about the nature of le Francafrique. Yet despite this knowledge gap, the stakes of this struggle and the scope of its engagement are comparable, and all those who want to see Africa recover and rise fully from the chains of slavery and colonialism must stop and learn the details of this situation. Amnesty and all committed NGOs must stop behavior that allows them to function as a puppet of the longest-running dictatorship in the world, and the strongest bastion of neo-colonialism in Africa, and ask itself “which side are you on?”
Demands & Clarifications
The demands that were issued in the report, aside from being entirely insufficient in and of themselves, were undermined by Amnesty West Africa researcher ILaria Allegrozzi who, shortly after the report’s release, announced to the media that:
1- Amnesty was welcomed by the director of the Civil Cabinet at the Cameroon Presidency and shared the report with him
2- That the government was OK with the report
3- That she (Ms. Allegrozzi) think this is “a very good start in a dialogue they will be having with the Cameroon authority” 
The undersigned organizations do not authorize Ms. Allegrozzi or Amnesty International to negotiate with the Cameroon government on our behalf.
Instead, we need Amnesty to:
- Immediately and fully disclose to the general public all financial and political incentives, motivations and/or pressures that influenced the writing of this report.
- Join the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) and the United States Ambassador in Cameroon in publicly condemning Cameroon for the targeted killings and village burnings that its military has been perpetrating in Ambazonia.
- Allocate all resources necessary to thoroughly investigate all allegations of targeted killings, village burnings and other human rights violations by the Cameroon military, including what third parties (other governments, NGOs or profiteers) might be doing to exacerbate the violence.
- Stop referring to those struggling for Ambazonian rights and independence as "separatists" which is what the Cameroon government calls them, and “extremists” which is what the international community uses to dismiss movements. Instead use the term they use for themselves, which is “restorationists,” and work proactively to incorporate references to the critique of neo-colonialism which this term contains.
Sam Soya Center for Democracy and Human Rights, South Africa
Ambazonia International Policy Commission, Germany
Ambazonia Prisoners of Conscience Support Network, UK and US
2 - Ilaria Allegrozzi Amnesty West Africa Research interviews on report: