Cameroonian protesters storm UN General Assembly to demand immediate release of political prisoners, including opposition leader Maurice Kamto

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Dozens of protesters from the central African country of Cameroon stormed the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Thursday to protest against dictatorship by President Paul Biya who has been in power for almost four decades, and to demand the immediate release of all political prisoners, including opposition leader Maurice Kamto.

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Maurice Kamto, a brilliant and respected scholar and professor of law, who represented Cameroon during the Bakassi peninsula crisis with Nigeria and won, was a member of the International Law Commission of the United Nations from 1999 to 2016.

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After he ran for President in 2018 as the leader of Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC), Kamto accused Biya of massive rigging and intimidation and declared himself winner.

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Official results said Biya won the election while Kamto was runner-up with only 14 percent of the votes.

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However, Kamto challenged the official results and declared himself winner of the election.

Following small-scale non-violent protests by his supporters, the government grew increasingly uncomfortable and on 26 January 2019, the 65-year old and 200 of his supporters were arrested and locked up in Kondengui maximum security prison in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. His trial was recently stalled.

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But Kamto had been in the bad book of Mr. Biya since 2011. In 2004, after winning the Bakassi peninsula for Cameroon, Kamto was appointed as Minister-Delegate to the Minister of Justice but resigned from the government in November 2011 to form a new opposition party, the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC).

However, a kick-off meeting of his party merging multiple parties was prohibited by the government on 13 August 2012.

At the United Nations on Thursday, protesters demanded his liberation and that of other political prisoners including Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, the leader of the Anglophone rights activists from North West and South Cameroon.

Their protest came on the same day Cameroon was addressing the UN General Assembly and just days after activists from the Anglophone regions in Cameroon staged their own protest at the UN headquarters in New York.

That other crisis in the Anglophone regions started in 2016 when teachers and lawyers took to the street to demand justice and equality in Cameroon where they are often treated as second-class citizens in a country dominated by French, but their protests were met with excessive force, triggering more protests and calls for secession.

Three years on, hundreds have been killed and tens of thousands have been displaced to neighboring Nigeria while activist leaders have been arrested and jailed.

Mr. Biya recently called for a national dialogue to resolve the Anglophone crisis following pressure from the international community but Anglophone activists have questioned the sincerity of such a sudden move after he repeatedly labeled them as a bunch of terrorists who must be crushed.

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All those crises, including a deadly insurgency by Boko Haram in the country’s far north along the border with Nigeria and Chad, have left Cameroon on the brink, tarnished its image in the international community and rolled back the little progress it might have made since Mr. Biya, now 86 years old, came to power in 1982 at the age of 49.

The government has argued that the rule of law must be respected and that it will continue to go after the bad elements trying to destabilize Cameroon, but Amnesty International and other rights groups have faulted such an argument, saying that in Cameroon, many are being arrested indiscriminately, jailed and killed, and that the rule of law does not apply to all equally.

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Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba covers the White House, the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Simon can be reached on simonateba@todaynewsafrica.com

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