Biya’s Upcoming Visit to the UN – What Not to do When we go to New York

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With pent-up anger, Cameroonians who went to the meeting apparently went there aching for a fight. The opportunity for the fight came up when a Southern Cameroonian was unexpectedly assaulted by Laurent Esso’s bodyguard. In an act of self-defense, the Southern Cameroonian fought back and knocked off the bodyguard into unconsciousness. Anarchy ensued, and the meeting was aborted.

There was a replay of the fracas in Britain, in Canada, and in South Africa. The only venue where the Southern Cameroons leadership displayed an admirable sense of civility was Washington DC. Thanks for handling yourself with dignity, Elvis.

With September 2017 here, and reports of an upcoming visit by the Biya regime to the UN, emotions are once again rife. There is palpable potential for a replay of the fracas that erupted at Cameroon diplomatic outposts in Belgium, Britain, Canada and South Africa to repeat themselves. This is what I am writing to militate against.

Any group that assaults or carries out violence on the grounds of an embassy anywhere in the world is openly inviting to be labelled thugs, hooligans, vandals, barbarians or terrorists. But Southern Cameroonians are none of the above. Up until the act of vandalism at the Cameroon Embassy in South Africa, the flag burning in Canada, and the assault on Laurent Esso’s bodyguard in Belgium, the international community knew that we were a nationalist movement, and not hooligans. Nationalist movements have rights that are recognized and protected in international law. Hooligans do not. If God forbid, we allow what happened in Belgium, in South Africa, in Canada and in Britain to repeat themselves this September in New York, we may as well go ahead and kiss permanent goodbye to our quest for an independent Southern Cameroons.

Back to the case study in Belgium: Here is a case where the assault was initiated by Laurent Esso’s bodyguard. It is obvious that the Southern Cameroonian who was assaulted by that bodyguard was not seriously injured. Injured or not injured, but imagine for one moment that, instead of giving a knockout blow to the bodyguard, he’d feigned a feint. Belgian emergency medical services would have been called to transport him to the hospital. The police would have come in to arrest not just the bodyguard, but Laurent Esso as well. The media and Belgian judicial services would have opened up a case against Esso and the Biya regime. They would have been indicted criminally for exporting violence from Cameroon to Belgium. And when discharged from the hospital, our Southern Cameroonian victim of the assault will bring civil charges against Biya and his regime. There would have been the potential here for tens of millions of dollars in compensatory payment. In our much bigger case with La Republique, the EU and the rest of the international community would have come out strongly on our side. We have lost opportunity here.

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But we should be mindful not to repeat the mistakes that were made in South Africa, Belgium and Canada when the Biya regime visits America this September. Yes, we will be in New York to demonstrate, but the demonstrations are going to be civil and peaceful. No stone throwing; no rotten egg through, and most importantly, no throwing of punches.

In the 1990s, the guiding mantra for the Southern Cameroons struggle was “the force of argument, not the argument of force.” We had four golden opportunities in August to live up to this mantra. What did we do? We dashed them away. Instead of embracing the force of argument that we’d been professing for more than two decades, we embraced the argument of force.

Since the onset of this crisis, the eyes of the world have keeping a close watch. When the Biya regime initially tried to paint Southern Cameroonians as extremist/terrorists, the international community quietly brushed the label aside. Indeed, the international community was quick to see Southern Cameroonians as armless, harmless underdogs. That perception gave us the moral high ground. Throughout much of history, the single most important determinant of victory in conflict is gaining the moral high ground. History has repeatedly taught us that in conflict, the party with the moral high ground seldom loses that conflict. Think Vietnam vs. the United States; think Algeria vs. France; think Mandela’s South Africa vs. Apartheid South Africa.

Wars are won not by angry minds, but by thoughtful minds. Up until the recent fracas at Cameroon embassies in South Africa, Belgium, London, and Canada, we were winning. We were winning because we thoughtfully had taken our case to the court of international public opinion, and international public opinion was overwhelmingly on our side. We were winning because we had the moral high ground. Embassy compounds are considered sacred. This has been the tradition since the dawn of the modern nation-state. Even in times of war, enemy countries cannot enter the embassy of an enemy country to exact violence. As perverse as this may sound, despite the current tension between the US and North Korea, it is a more serious offense if an American to forces himself into the Embassy of North Korea at the UN and burn or bring down their flag, than it is if he burns or desecrates an American flag.

Even among friendly countries, firefighters in a host country cannot enter to fight fire on an embassy compound unless express permission is obtained from the embassy. This alone says how jealously guarded the sanctity of embassies are in modern international law. One can only but imagine the horrors that our actions in Belgium, Britain, Canada and South Africa might have stirred in the minds of international policymakers.

Up until these raucous sprees, we were on the winning lane. Russel Lee, reporter at Inner City Press was our number one cheerleader at the UN. Like an attack dog, he brought up our case everyday at UN Daily Briefings. But since the embarrassing actions in Belgium, Canada and South Africa, he doesn’t the UN as frequently as he used to. No individual, no institution, and no foreign government will want to be associated with a violent movement. Once we embrace violence, particularly violence in environments that are considered diplomatically sacred, we lose our underdog status. And when we lose our underdog status, we lose our sympathizers.

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If we really want to continue to stay on the winning lane, we really need to work hard to avoid negative getting labelled thugs, hooligans or extremists. The most debilitating thing that can happen to us at this stage of our struggle is for nations and international institutions that were initially leaning towards supporting us to suddenly turn around and start referring to us as extremists or anarchists.

The specter of the 1979 forced occupation of the US Embassy in Iran still looms high in the minds of international policymakers. This was a case where young Iranians who disagreed with US foreign policy on Iran, forced themselves into the US Embassy in their country and held American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Across the world, the act was universally condemned. Even countries that were friends and sympathizers of Iran condemned the act. Whatever moral high ground Iran had going into that conflict with the United States, it was dashed by that singular act.

I am afraid that the international community that has up to now sided with us in this existentialist crisis with La Republique is going to interpret what we did in Belgium, Canada, London and South Africa in August from the prism of the Iranian hostage crisis. If they do, then there goes our most potent weapon in this struggle – our moral high ground.

When Biya initially accused us of terrorism, he had no material evidence to back it. He now has it. We have given it to him. If Belgium, Britain, Canada and South Africa were traps that the Biya regime set for us, we have unwittingly fallen into them headlong. It is obvious that he and his legal team have collected and preserved evidence from the anarchic embassy incidents to the schools and buses that have been burnt down back home. Evidence of the little girl whose arm was hacked off at a GCE Exam Center must also be in the Biya regime’s safe-keeping. At the proper time and the proper place, they will produce these evidences. In an era when most countries in the world are highly sensitive on matters of security, particularly when the terrorism label is invoked, I wonder how many countries in the world are going to want to continue to stand with us, once Biya succeeds in convincing them (with the evidence that we ourselves have provided) that we are nothing but a terrorist organization.

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Global policymakers – the very policymakers that are going to rule on our fate – are still haunted by the turn of events in South Sudan. This is a country whose transition to independence was carefully and meticulously managed. It had everything it needed to succeed. It had the sympathy and the backing of the international community, it had oil, and it had the financial backing and goodwill of international stakeholders. The one country in Africa that everyone thought was going to succeed beyond imagination has failed beyond imagination. Let us pray and hope that as the jury of global policymakers (the UN, the AU, the US, Britain, and France) decides to someday sit down and deliberate on our case, South Sudan, the Iranian hostage crisis and the recent incidents at Cameroon embassies will not be used as bases of reference.

Going forward, we should all be reminded that ours is a winning cause. Whether it is in a court of law or in the court of international public opinion, looking at the facts – contemporary as well as archival – any fair minded person will grant us victory. Ours is a winning case. When you have a winning case, it simply does not make sense to resort to violence or disorderly conduct.

From the mass kidnappings and rapes on the campus of the University of Buea to the brutal assault on our law abiding lawyers to the bloody massacre of unarmed civilians in Bamenda, the Biya regime has demonstrated its barbarism in no uncertain terms. We are peace-loving, we are civilized and we are law abiding. We must not allow ourselves to be lured to respond in kind. As Michele Obama was say, “When they go low, we should go high.”

Let’s go to New York; but let’s go as nonviolent freedom seekers. The international community will take sides with us.

Professor John Fobanjong

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