On January 17, 2017, authorities reportedly arrested Dr. Fontem A. Neba, a professor at the University of Buea, in connection to the general “ghost town” strike which began on January 16 in Buea, Bamenda and other cities as a peaceful protest protest of government policies and practices that allegedly discriminate against Cameroon’s Anglophone population.
Dr. Neba is the President of the University of Buea Chapter of the National Union of Teachers of Higher Education and the Secretary General of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium. His arrest came on the same day as that of barrister Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla, the President of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium. Mr. Nkongho and Dr. Neba are known for their long-standing campaigns for greater autonomy for the English-speaking regions of Cameroon. After their arrest they were reportedly transferred to Yaounde where they were interrogated and placed in a detention cell at the Secretariat of State for Defence in Charge of the National Gendarmerie. According to a statement issued by the Cameroon Common Law Lawyers Association, their phones have been seized and they are being subjected to inhumane treatment. Dr. Neba’s arrest comes two days after his vehicle was reportedly set ablaze at the University of Buea Health Clinic.
On the same day of Dr. Neba’s arrest, access to the internet was reportedly shut down in Buea and other parts of Cameroon in reaction to the growing tensions in the streets. The Consortium and the Southern Cameroon National Council, a secessionist organization aimed at establishing West Cameroon independence, have been banned.
The arrests of Dr. Neba and Mr. Nkongho come after months of protests and arrests as Anglophone activists have called for reform in the French-speaking country, condemning the inequalities they allege under the rule of President Paul Biya. On November 21, after violent clashes between security forces and a group of protesting lawyers, thousands of teachers joined their sit-down strike, criticizing what they allege as the imposition of French in schools. On November 28, students at the University of Buea were reportedly beaten and subjected to teargas by security forces in retaliation for their own protests (see report).
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary arrest and detention of a professor, apparently in retaliation for his non-violent exercise of the rights to free expression and association, conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Arrests aimed at limiting an academic’s expression and association undermine academic freedom and society generally. State officials have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of free expression, due process and fair trial.