Dr Chris Fomunyoh’s Easter visit to Anglophone Cameroonian refugees along the Cameroon-Nigeria border: A visit of comfort A time for joy, human revival and renewal

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Following Dr Chris Fomunyoh’s Easter visit to Anglophone Cameroonian refugees along the Cameroon-Nigeria border, LeGideon caught up with the philanthropist, democracy monitor and advocate to sample his opinions on the state of the violent conflict ravaging the North West and South West regions. The conversation also touched on the violent death of Chadian strongman Idriss Déby Into and its implications on counterterrorism in the Lake Chad Basin and the broader Sahel region. Mr Fomunyoh also weighed in on the implications of Covid-19 restrictions on democracy and human rights. Excerpts follow:

Q: Thank you, Dr., for accepting to share your experiences with the public. What prompted you to visit the refugees at this time? What took you there?

Many of us within the Anglophone Cameroonian community or from the North West and South West regions or what used to be the British Southern Cameroons have been very concerned about the condition of refugees since the beginning of the armed conflict, and the fact that they do not figure prominently in anyone’s priorities. When COVID 19 hit the world in 2020, I got even more concerned, wondering how the pandemic would aggravate the hardship of these men, women, and children in the camps, already diminished by their very status of having fled their homes, villages, or towns often with nothing to sustain themselves with. I, therefore, reached out to another nongovernmental organization, the Community Refugees Relief Initiative (CRRI) that had a track record in assisting our refugees in Nigeria through food drives and livelihood skills training to ask if we could combine efforts to be more impactful. I was delighted that CRRI accepted to partner with me and the Fomunyoh Foundation (TFF) to make this trip in April which we know is Easter and a time for joy and human revival and renewal. We hoped to donate food to the refugees and, by our visit, draw national and international attention to their plight.

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Q: What refugee camps did you visit? Was there a special reason behind the camps you chose to visit?

Realizing we could not visit all the camps on one trip, we decided to focus this time on the areas that had the highest concentration of refugees. We, therefore, visited areas in South-Eastern Nigeria, close to the border with the conflict areas of Cameroon — 12 stops in total, concentrated in Benue and Cross River states as well as in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. We could not get to Taraba and Akwa Ibom states which, we understand, also host tens of thousands of Anglophone Cameroonnian refugees. Our teams visited the localities of Adam 1 & Adagom 3 (around Ogoja), Agborkim Waterfalls, Ajassor, Nashua, Biajua, Calabar, Ikom, Ikyogen, Oban, Okende, and the Federal Capital City of Abuja. In some cases, refugees are in settlements or camps; and in others, they are squatting around with families and host communities. Overall, their conditions of being are extremely difficult.

Q: Has there been any marked change between now and when the refugees first arrived at the camps at the beginning of the conflict in 2016?

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From what we learned during the visit, the situation of the refugees seems to have worsened over the years, not improved. First, the number of refugees continues to grow and the resources to fend for them do not seem to have increased. For example, we heard about over 4000 new arrivals in February 2021, because of the fighting in the Nwa area of the Donga Mantung division. We also learned that refugees who are officially registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have seen their stipends reduced to $7 or approximately 4,000 FCFA per month. Even then, the stipends have not been paid to some refugees since November 2020. Moreover, many other persons who fled the conflict into Nigeria are not yet registered and so simply squat around on their own in local communities, towns, and cities of Nigeria. The overall situation is quite deplorable.

Q: We understand the UN refugee agency is giving some assistance to the refugees, right?

Do you think their level of engagement is satisfactory? Yes, the UNHCR is present, and with several partner organizations, doing their best to sustain lives in rather challenging times and circumstances. I also saw host community leaders and officials of various Nigerian agencies such as the State Emergency Manage

Q: Talking about the war that drove the refugees away from their homes still raging on, if you were to propose a way forward for the resolution of the conflict, what would be your recommendations to A) the government, B) the Ambazonian leadership?

My position has been consistent since the crisis broke in 2016 and later morphed into an armed conflict in 2017: the grievances ex-pressed by the peoples of former Southern Cameroons, presently North West and South West regions are legitimate and must be addressed. The war has only aggravated the situation by superimposing death and destruction onto a people already alienated by the overt injustices and marginalization of the past six decades. I have also said, consistently, that addressing the root causes of the conflict will require a negotiated political solution as opposed to a military solution as every life lost only further radicalizes everyone. The mistrust over past broken promises and the anger and suspicion that have developed in the past five years underscores the need for third-party mediation to bring all the parties to the negotiation table. It is most unfortunate that some people in leadership positions are digging in, rather than leading the charge to find an end to the armed conflict, followed by sustainable peace and justice.

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Q: There have been rumours that some of the refugees often get bad treatment from Nigerian authorities. Is this a legitimate claim?

I did not see or hear that during this trip. Instead, I heard a lot of appreciation for and gratitude towards the Chiefs and Elders in the host communities around the areas in which the refugees live. I also heard praise for state officials, including the state governors of Cross Rivers and Benue states who continue to publicly raise their voices about the plight of our refugees and the need for the conflict to end. Before the war broke out, the Fomunyoh Foundation had already positioned itself as a formidable stakeholder in national development. Given that its head office is in Bamenda in the North West Region, how has the war and general state of insecurity impacted the Foundation’s activities?

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The Foundation was launched in 1999 and has been involved in humanitarian and educational activities in Cameroon these past 20 years. Before the deteriorating security situation, the Foundation had offices in Bamenda in the North West, Kumba in the South West, and Yaounde in the Center region. It had women empowerment centers in Bamenda and Kumba where we trained young girls on livelihood skills and had undertaken a national book drive donating books in educational institutions across all 10 regions of Cameroon. Unfortunately, the ongoing conflict has brought most of these activities to a halt as we have prioritized material assistance to victims of the conflict.

Q: In your other capacity as a senior associate for Africa and regional director at the Washington DC-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), you must be following political developments in Chad. What do you think of the passing of Chadian president Idriss Deby Itno?

It is a tragedy and our condolences to his family and the people of Chad. Although the continent has seen incumbent presidents die in office in Nigeria, Malawi, and recently in Tanzania, the circumstances surrounding the passing of President Deby Itno were quite dramatic and traumatizing. I hope the people of Chad will recover from the shock and find ways to build up a country that has quite a chronic experience of conflict and violence

Q: Idris Derby of Chad was a major player in the fight against radical Islamic extremism in the Lake Chad Basin area which includes the Far North Region of Cameroon. With his death and the imminent breakdown of law and order in Chad, do you think that is going to affect the more than 4-year-old joint multi-national efforts against Boko Haram?

Chad makes a major contribution of fighting troops in the multinational force set up to combat Boko Haram and other extremist groups in the Lake Chad basin and the broader Sahel subregion. That force also includes troops from Nigeria, Niger Republic, and Cameroon. N’djamena is also the base of French operations in the Sahel under ‘Operation Bahkan’; and so, invariably, an unstable Chad could undermine that framework. However, the heavy deployment of military assets by various countries and development partners across the Sahel gives me hope that the passing of one Commander in Chief will not undermine the entire defense architecture for the subregion.

Q: What would be your advice to the African Union and other stakeholders in the region to ensure that the chaos in Chad is contained?

So far, the African Union has not acted as expeditiously or as boldly as I would have thought, given the magnitude of the challenges that Chad faces and the continental body’s track record when similar crises occurred in countries like Mali and Togo. I hope the AU, sub-regional organizations and even development partners like France and the United States realize that their several and collective credibility is on the line, and they, therefore, must act in ways that give voice to the people of Chad, an overwhelming majority of whom desperately want peace and security, as well as democracy, and respect for their dignity, rights, and freedom. I am very impressed to see the courage with which leaders of political parties, civil society organizations, Labor Unions, the Bar Council, religious bodies, and many Chadians are letting their voices count during what may turn out to be an inflection point for the country .

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Q: The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly affected nearly all domains of life. We all saw how it played out in the American presidential elections last year. It will surely affect politics and democracy for a long time. However, could you give a brief overview of some of the effects of Covid-19 on democracy and governance worldwide?

The COVID 19 pandemic made 2020 a very difficult year for democracy and citizen engagement in politics. In too many countries, autocratic leaders used the pretext of COVID 19 to enact measures that shrunk political space and curbed the rights of citizens. In Ethiopia for example, national elections had to be postponed because of the pandemic, but the lack of consensus on the postponement triggered the crisis that led to armed conflict and tremendous loss of life and destruction of property in the Tigray region; in other countries such as Burundi and Uganda, elections were held under very difficult circumstances for opposition candidates and parties, as their mobilization efforts were curtailed under the pretext of COVID 19, even as the ruling party candidate and parties campaigned freely and held big campaign rallies of their own. I remain hopeful that with the advent of vaccinations, the world will recover from this pandemic and life will resume some degree of normalcy so democrats across the continent and the world as a whole can continue to use democratic processes and institutions to improve the well-being of their fellow citizens and make the world a better place.

Q: Any last word?

We cannot end this conversation without me giving a special ‘shout out’ to African women and youth. I cannot emphasize enough the need for these two constituencies to step up and take on more leadership roles in the politics and governance of our respective countries. Many countries need that freshness and renewal of political leadership, and I hope that we will redouble efforts to create more opportunities for women and youth to lead. Africa and the world would be better for it. Thank you for your time. Thank you too.

N° 2268 / April. 26th /2021