Our Voices

Cameroon: Amid deadly conflicts, activists Ngo Mbe and Nkongho inspire hope for closing civic space

As the rest of the world welcomed a new month on June 1, residents of the village of Missong in Cameroon’s north-west region were thrown into mourning. Nine civilians, including an 18-month-old girl, were shot dead by soldiers in what the authorities themselves described as a “grossly disproportionate” and “hasty” response to “a group of deviant villagers.” The Missong victims are among the latest casualties in an ongoing civil war between the government and separatists from the English-speaking minority north-west and south-west regions.

Since November 2017, when the government declared war on the Anglophone separatists, more than 4,000 civilians have been killed by both government forces and armed separatist fighters, and over 700,000 have been displaced. With escalating violent attacks and killings by Boko Haram insurgents in the far north of the country, rising inter-ethnic violence, conflict in the neighboring Central African Republic amid a complex humanitarian crisis, the civic space in Cameroon is shrinking.

Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, a Cameroonian activist from the Francophone region and leader of the Central African Human Rights Defenders Network (REDHAC) paints a bleak picture. “Civic space is closed,” she said in an interview with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Ngo Mbe, whose children were forced into exile in France by the violence, said over the past seven years, it has become very difficult for activists and human rights defenders to organize protests.

Meanwhile, for lawyer and activist Felix Nkongho who hails from the Anglophone region, tensions around the country’s political future have intensified crackdowns on the civic space. Last November, President Paul Biya, 89, celebrated 39 years in office, with renewed calls for the octogenarian to run for an eight term in 2025. “So, there are rivalries,” Nkongho, who is director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), said. “As a result of that, the various factions are trying to ensure that the civic space shrinks or as Biya gets older, as he gets weaker, things get difficult for those who are clamoring for more democracy and more rights.”

But the dynamics are more complicated. Crackdowns on free expression, militarized response against unarmed civilians operating civic spaces, and linguistic differences between the Francophone majority and the Anglophone minority have hampered the existence of a cohesive civic space in Cameroon, according to Daniel Tse, RFK Human Rights Immigrant Justice Fellow and founder of Cameroon Advocacy Network (CAN), a coalition of immigrant rights groups and Cameroonian immigrants. (About 80 percent of the country speaks French while the rest speaks English.) Compared to their Francophone counterparts who are somewhat comfortable with the civic space under the current government, Tse said marginalized Anglophone voices are unable to operate any form of civil rights. “Even when we try so hard to create a civic space so that we can exercise our rights, what happens is that we see a response from the government that is based on violence and suppression,” he said. This violent repression of civic rights, he said, led to the current Anglophone crisis which has escalated into a full-blown civil war.

Ngo Mbe and Nkongho recently received the 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in recognition of their fight for human rights and democracy in Cameroon. At the award ceremony held on June 7, keynote speaker Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware saluted their collaborative spirit amid the polarization of politics and conflict. Cameroonian immigrants advocate and human rights defender Tse welcomed the two activists’ successful partnership across ethno-linguistic divides, calling it a “very good example” for other Cameroonians to follow. “One thing I’ve learned in advocacy, is that, any coalition has its troubles, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in total, all those acts will be written in the history of this generation,” he said.